The title character of “Old Man at the Bridge” has no family, no politics, and nowhere to go. The violence of the Spanish Civil War has forced the old man to flee his hometown and his beloved animals, which are seemingly the only sources of joy in his life. He sits by the side of the road while others flee, apparently resigned to dying there when the violence arrives. The story implies that it’s the man’s alienation that has drained him of the will to live—after all, he has no political stake in the conflict, nobody who can take him in, and he cannot return to his animals, which seem to be his only responsibility and connection to others. Furthermore, the narrator (who treats him with some detachment) fails to make a difference. In this way, Hemingway shows that war alienates people from the connections that are meaningful to them, and the man’s presumed death suggests that alienated life is perhaps not worth living at all.
Throughout the story, Hemingway illustrates how alienated the old man is from other people. This is apparent from the very beginning, as the old man is the only person left behind by the crowds of people crossing the river to safety, none of whom concern themselves with this exhausted and feeble man. Furthermore, when the soldier asks the old man about whether he has family, the man responds that he has “only the animals” that he left behind. Finally, when the narrator suggests that the old man catch a truck for Barcelona, the old man points out that he knows “no one in that direction,” which suggests that human connection is important to him but lacking. In order to motivate himself to flee to safety, he has to be going towards someone familiar, but he seems to have nobody except the narrator himself, who is a distracted stranger with his own problems to attend.
In addition to his alienation from other people, the old man has “no politics,” which means that he has no allegiance to others in the war, and no stake in the violence that his displaced him. The rest of the civilian evacuees may not have strong political leanings, either (the story doesn’t indicate that any of them support a particular side), but the manner in which the old man asserts that he has “no politics” suggests that he does not have any larger shared beliefs that would have joined him to others. Religion also unites people, but the old man does not appear to be religious. He never refers to God or prays aloud for the animals, despite his great concern for them. By rejecting politics and religion, the old man alienates himself further from the people around him and from the circumstances of his life. Without people or beliefs to live for, he has little incentive to push himself past his physical exhaustion.
Despite his alienation, the old man is invested in forging connections with others, and it seems briefly as though connecting with the narrator might save his life. When the old man consults the narrator about the fate of his animals, he does so because he “ha[s] to share his worry with some one.” The old man, then, is yearning to have his concerns acknowledged and understood, thereby making him less alone. However, the narrator does not compassionately address the man’s grief. Throughout their interaction, the narrator refrains from getting overly involved with the old man. He responds to the old man inattentively, becoming distracted even when asking personal questions (such as whether the man has family) or when discussing emotional subjects (such as the fate of the man’s beloved animals). Based on the man’s yearning for companionship and his reluctance to go to Barcelona where he doesn’t know anyone, a reader might guess that if someone really made an effort to make the old man feel understood and cared for, he might find the strength to continue on and spare his own life. However, the narrator does not connect with the man on that level, and he ultimately gives up on the man, leaving him by the side of the road.
The narrator’s paltry efforts at motivating the man and his distracted attention to the man’s deepest fears seem like moral failings, an uncompassionate way to treat another person in need. This is perhaps starkest when the narrator decides to leave the man because “There was nothing to do about him,” even though the narrator has tried hardly anything at all. Furthermore, the narrator notes that the old man will have no more “luck,” which seems to absolve the narrator of responsibility by chalking the man’s fate up to luck rather than to the narrator’s own choice to abandon him. While this all makes the narrator seem like his emotional detachment is a moral failing, Hemingway also takes seriously the possibility that the narrator’s alienation is the very characteristic that saves his life.
When worrying about his animals, after all, the old man tells the narrator, “It’s better not to think about [their fates].” Perhaps detaching from the animals might have helped the old man continue, but he is not capable of taking his own advice: he never stops thinking and talking about the creatures. This grief, coupled with his need for connection with others, seem to inhibit him from moving towards safety by making him feel that his life is not meaningful. By contrast, the soldier seems much better at not thinking about the harsh fates that others will experience. His ability to detach from the old man allows him to move to safety and continue on with his difficult job of preparing for combat. This outcome suggests that an excess of compassion for others is a liability in war, and that alienation can help one survive. However, as the man’s choice to stay by the side of the road suggests, it’s possible that an alienated life is empty and not worth living.
Alienation Quotes in Old Man at the Bridge
“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.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right. I am sure. . . But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.”
“You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked.
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.