What does the old man symbolize?
Ernest Hemingway worked as a foreign correspondent in Europe for years before he became a successful freelance writer of stories, novels and nonfiction. Like many foreign correspondents who had to cram a lot of information into brief dispatches under emergency conditions, Hemingway looks for sights and incidents that would represent the bigger picture of what was going on. "The Old Man at the Bridge" is a very short story. It reads like a cabled dispatch from a war correspondent who was up close to the fighting, gathering his own impressions. Hemingway captures the feeling of being close to the war particularly well in one paragraph:
The old man can be seen as a symbol of defeated liberal democracy in Spain, perhaps even the defeat of the hopes for liberal democracy all over the world. He is wearing black dusty clothes and has a gray dusty face, suggesting what he has been through.. He is too tired to go any further. If he stays where he is sitting he would probably get summarily executed by the Fascist forces, who are taking draconian reprisals against Spanish civilians. But he doesn't have the strength to stand up and continue fleeing, and he doesn't seem to care. He has nowhere to go, no future.
He has lost everything that was of importance to him. That was how the Spanish Loyalists felt after being defeated by the reactionary forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, aided and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini.
Hemingway was sympathetic to the Loyalist cause. After Franco's victory Hemingway refused to return to Spain, a country he loved. He chronicled the Spanish Civil War in what is widely considered his best novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). The import of the title is that all of us had suffered a defeat along with the Spanish Loyalists. The title was derived from a poem by John Donne, a leading English Metaphysical poet: