Why does Hemingway have a soldier narrate "Old Man at the Bridge"?

Hemingway has a soldier narrate "Old Man at the Bridge" in order to create and build tension. Because the soldier can both observe the bustling scene and stop to speak with the old man, he is able to contrast the fleeing people with the old man stuck in one place. The soldier learns why the old man feels unable to leave but also knows that the old man must leave in order to save himself.

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In his short story "Old Man at the Bridge," a soldier helps evacuate civilians to safety during the Spanish Civil War. While ushering people across a pontoon bridge and away from enemy troops, he spots an old man sitting on the side of the road, reluctant to continue. Hemingway has the soldier serve as the story’s narrator in order to illustrate and emphasize the situation’s tension: the fleeing civilians and impending danger contrast with the old man’s inertia.

The soldier has a bird’s-eye view of the bustling activity. He narrates the incongruous juxtaposition of moving people and objects with the seated old man:

There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving.

Hemingway already starts up to build up suspense by showing people anxiously trying to escape while the man stays in one place. Why is the man not moving? Where is the enemy? Will they all be caught by the enemy at any moment?

As a limited narrator, the soldier can only surmise the answers to these questions. He thinks that the old man is "too tired to go any farther." While performing his responsibility to scout out the enemy, he sees no one and can only guess at the enemy's position.

The soldier stops to chat with the old man and find out why he is not moving. In the meantime, Hemingway conveys increasing pressure with the soldier's observations:

I was watching the bridge and the African-looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact.

Yet despite all this going through his head, the soldier notes that "the old man still sat there." To his credit, the soldier does not panic or suddenly insist that the old man get up and follow others. Instead, he patiently listens to and learns about the old man and why he will not leave with everyone else.

Hemingway uses the soldier to narrate the development of activities as the two characters speak. The soldier keeps one eye on the old man and one eye on the changing scene:

"And you have no family?" I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank...."Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.

The reader realizes that nearly everyone has left, except the soldier and the old man. Through the soldier as narrator, Hemingway builds tension. Eventually, the soldier knows that he cannot stay with the old man any longer. After finally urging the old man to continue but realizing that he is too weak to continue, the soldier notes,

There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro.

The soldier is sad but matter-of-fact about having to leave the old man behind to face the enemy by himself. With bittersweet melancholy, he notes what little good fortune the forlorn the old man has: no enemy planes flying above and cats that can care for themselves.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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