An old man sits alongside a road, his clothes covered in dust. Nearby is a bridge over a river, which a mass of men, women, and children are crossing in trucks, carts, and on foot. Soldiers help push the carts up the banks. The old man sits, too tired to move. The narrator, a soldier, crosses the bridge in the other direction to see how far the enemy has advanced. By the time he gets back, most evacuees have made the crossing, but the old man hasn’t moved.
Hemingway contrasts the crowd of people all moving forward together with the old man sitting still all by himself. He is clearly alienated from the rest of the evacuees. The soldiers are helping to keep the carts going, but they don’t seem to be helping individual people. They maintain a degree of detachment from the desperate evacuees. The deadly war makes its approach known through the soldier’s scouting and the people fleeing.
The narrator approaches the old man, who says proudly that he has come from his native town of San Carlos—he smiles, because it “gave him pleasure to mention” his hometown. He was the last person to leave San Carlos because he was taking care of animals there (goats, pigeons, and a cat), but he eventually had to flee from the artillery aimed at the town. The narrator is distracted by watching the bridge and anticipating the approach of the enemy.
The narrator shows decent intentions by engaging the old man in conversation when everyone else has ignored him. However, his genuine engagement seems limited, as he is distracted from the man’s story by anticipating the fighting to come. His aloofness strikes the reader as more regrettable because of how Hemingway humanizes the old man, who smiles when speaking of his hometown and bravely sought to protect his animals like a humble shepherd.
The narrator asks the old man if he has any family, and the old man says he does not have anybody, only the animals. He says that the cat will be alright because it can look out for itself, but he is worried about the others.
The old man confirms his lack of close social ties, revealing that he has only the animals to share his life with. While both he and the cat must be self-sufficient to survive, readers have more faith in the cat’s fate than in the man’s, as he is not making an effort to save himself. The man avoids speaking directly about death, but the intensity of his anxiety suggests that their deaths are on indeed on his mind.
The narrator asks the old man what his political opinions are. The old man answers that he has “no politics,” and adds that he is seventy-six years old and has walked twelve kilometers. Now, he says, he can go no further. The narrator responds that this is not a good place to stop, and tells him that there are trucks up the road that can take him to Barcelona. The old man says that he does not know anyone in Barcelona, but he thanks the soldier anyway.
The narrator wants to know whether the old man has political affiliations, which would reveal his side in the war. The old man says he has “no politics,” which shows his alienation from the ideologies that so many other people feel so strongly about. The narrator’s objection to the old man’s statement that he can go no further leads readers to believe that death awaits if he stays where he is. Like the old man, the narrator does not directly mention death, but merely says that the old man shouldn’t stop here. The old man remarks that he does not know anyone in Barcelona, illustrating that he is not thinking about immediate survival but rather about his future quality of life, now that he has been forcibly separated from his animals and the hometown he loved.
The old man can’t help but share his concerns for his animals with the narrator. He repeats that the cat will surely be fine, but asks the narrator what he thinks about the fate of the other animals. The narrator, observing that all the other evacuees have gone ahead, answers “Why not.” The old man persists, asking if the narrator thinks the animals will be able to survive the artillery. The narrator asks if he unlocked the dove cage before he left. The old man says he did, and he agrees with the narrator that they’ll fly. The old man says that “It’s better not to think about the others.”
Hemingway further humanizes the old man by depicting his powerful longing for emotional connection as he describes his greatest fear to the narrator. However, the narrator spurns the old man’s attempts to connect with him, conscious of the disappearance of the other evacuees, which erases the hope of finding another person to take over responsibility for the old man. Like the old man’s birds, the evacuees have flown away, leaving the less agile creatures (like the goat) behind. The old man says that it’s better not to think about what will become of the animals, implying that only terrible things will happen. The narrator has confused the old man’s pigeons for doves, arguably revealing an unconscious idealism and a longing for peace. However, while the dove may have brought a miracle in the Bible, Hemingway’s story promises no such salvation for his deeply flawed world. Instead of praying with humility or actively seeking a better outcome, the characters conclude that it’s best to simply avoid thinking about the imminent tragedy, both for the animals and the old man himself.
The narrator urges the old man to try to get up and walk. The old man manages to stand, but he cannot walk, so he sits back down. He says to himself, “I was only taking care of animals.” The narrator thinks that there is “nothing to do about him.”
The old man’s fate is apparently sealed when he finds he cannot walk any further. He disengages from the narrator and voices his sense of great wrong to a deaf world. The narrator decides that, in this weakened and irrational state, the old man is beyond hope. Like the old man said about his animals, the narrator seems to think it’s best not to concern himself about the man’s fate.
The narrator observes that it is Easter Sunday and the Fascists are advancing towards the Ebro River, but they cannot fly their planes with the heavy cloud cover. He concludes that the weather and the fact that the cat can take care of itself are “all the good luck that the old man would ever have.”
The narrator’s opponents are the most Catholic group in the Spanish Civil War, so the fact that they are advancing a violent campaign on Easter Sunday—a day celebrating Jesus’s resurrection from a violent death—is deeply hypocritical. The narrator’s own lack of mercy on this meaningful day is also ironic, as he refuses to acknowledge the same flaws in himself that he calls attention to in others. The enemy’s delayed advance due to poor weather may grant the old man a temporary reprieve from death, and his beloved cat should be able to survive fine. Otherwise, his “luck” has completely run out. The narrator implies that mere chance controls whether people live or die, again refusing to acknowledge that his actions and the actions of others have directly created this fatal situation. Even on Easter, he does not imagine God will intervene on behalf of his shepherd—there is only random “luck.”