How does the seemingly small incident described in the story reveal a significant truth about life?
“The Old Man at the Bridge” is set during the Spanish Civil War—the old man is a civilian in loyalist territory; the narrator is a loyalist sympathizer, and it is only a matter of time before the fascists advance on the town from across the bridge. The old man is weak and weary; at the beginning of the story all the peasants in the area are migrating to safety, away from the war, but the old man cannot make it. He is sitting in the dust by the side of the road, despairing, clinging to the memory of his home and his charges. He was taking care of animals—specifically, two goats, a cat, and four pigeons, in his hometown of San Carlos, before the town was evacuated due to artillery fire. The old man had no family beyond these animals, and he could not bear to leave them, so much so that he was the very last person to leave San Carlos. When asked about his loyalties, the old man replies, “’I have no politics . . . I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.’”
The man refuses to get on a truck, because the trucks are headed toward Barcelona and he knows no one in that direction. He has no more will to move on. This is revealing of a fact that we often do not like to confront: if a person has no will to live, too often he will not live. The animals were all the man had, and now that he has abandoned them, he has nothing. Life is defined by our relationships, by what we value, and once those things are gone, once we have nothing to live for, it takes a very strong constitution and rigid determination to push on. For the old man, this is pointless—he has lived a long life, and should he choose to continue on, his remaining years will prove to be lonely and harsh. And so he chooses rather to stay and face his fate. It is not cowardly, it is not weak—it is reason. It is a weighing of labor versus reward.
In short, the old man has come to terms with his death, and with the fact that he cannot now control what happens to his animals. He comes constantly back to this point, fretting over the fate of his animals—over his surrogate family, as it were. Even as he resigns himself to death, his mind is on the only things that gave his life meaning. “I was only taking care of animals,” the man repeats several times. He was living a simple life, and a contented one, and yet the war disrupted this contentment and will lead ultimately to the man’s demise. War is an interruption; war separates people from all they know and love, and often these individuals cannot bounce back from the trauma. War destroys in more sectors than the battlefield. After all that he has given up, after all that he has lost, the old man is lucky, according to the narrator, only in that the weather has prevented the fascists from sending out their planes that day—“That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves,” a comforting thought for the old man in his last days.