In "The Old Man at the Bridge," what was the old man doing in his native town?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of this story is the Spanish Civil War. It is written on an Easter Sunday at the Ebro River during Hemingway's coverage of the Spanish Civil War in April 1938. Rather than sending in his journalistic report as was customary, Ernest Hemingway chose to submit his report as a short story to another source.

In this story the old man has remained in his town to watch over the animals; he tells the narrator that he has stayed to feed and care for them. Apparently, there is a sharp contrast between this old man and the soldier, whose assignment is to cross the bridge and explore the area ahead to discover how far the enemy has advanced. The old man seeks to preserve life, while the soldier's job is to take lives. In fact, the old man seems more concerned about the animals than he is about himself. The soldier urges the man "If you are rested, I would go...Get up and try to walk now." The old man stands, but he is unstable; then he sits down in the dust. To himself, he mumbles, " I was only taking care of the animals." He seems defeated and unconcerned about his own life.

teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The old man is a native of San Carlos; he tells Hemingway that he has been taking care of some animals (two goats, a cat, and four pairs of pigeons) in his native town. The old man only left San Carlos when a Captain warned him that enemy artillery fire was on its way. He laments the fate of the goats and the pigeons, but is convinced that the cat would be able to take care of itself.

Hemingway suggests that the old man move on as soon as he feels a little rested; he is concerned that the enemy will advance over the Ebro river that very day. He suggests to the old man that he should take the opportunity to get on one of the trucks that is heading toward Barcelona. However, the old man states that he doesn't know anyone in Barcelona and sits down again. Meanwhile, Fascist forces are coming and will almost certainly rain death upon Spanish civilians. Historically, the Battle of the Ebro was the Spanish Civil War's longest and bloodiest battle.