What does the reader learn about the characters of the narrator and the old man in "Old Man at the Bridge"?Consider dialogue, actions, and imagery.
In this story, we learn that the main character, an old man, has been displaced from his rural village by the Spanish Civil War. He has been forced to leave his animals—goats, a cat, and pigeons—behind. He sits by a bridge he is supposed to cross, but cannot or will not go across it. He worries about his animals, showing that his humanity expands beyond saving himself. "But what will they [the animals] do under the artillery," the old man asks.
The other man, a soldier and narrator of the story, talks to the old man. He takes enough interest in him to cross back over the bridge to speak to the old man after he, the soldier, has completed his task of finding out to which point the enemy has advanced. He tries to reassure the old man about his animals and to urge him to move forward, but the man will not move. The dialogue is spare and simple, and the old man repeats himself, especially in his concern for his animals.
The dominant image in the story is of the dust. The old man wears clothes that are dusty, presumably from the dry soil in this land. The terrain reminds the narrator of Africa and, we are told it is ankle deep in dust. The dust symbolizes the dry despair of the situation. It is also an image of death. Ironically, the day is Easter Sunday, but there is no sign of a resurrection, only a sense of "ashes to ashes and dust to dust," for the old man seems resigned to return to the earth from whence he came. Both the old man and the narrator share a sense of blank despair over a situation they are helpless to change.
"The Old Man at the Bridge" is one of author Ernest Hemingway's shortest stories, so the background of the characters is quite limited. We know that the old man has never ventured far from his little village from where he has just walked to escape the impending enemy advance. The old man's strength is gone, and he can walk no further. Yet, he worries more about the safety of the animals he has left behind than for his own. The narrator (Hemingway) cannot convince him to move on toward Barcelona, so he decides that "there was nothing to do about him." The narrator has his own life to worry about, and he realizes that the animals that the old man cares for have a better chance of survival now than the old man. In the end, the narrator leaves the old man waiting for his impending death at the bridge. The old man's loving nature is evident, as is the narrator's own ambivalence about what he deems is just another future casualty of war.