“Old Man at the Bridge,” a wartime story set on Easter Sunday, is full of both implicit and explicit references to Christianity. However, none of the story’s characters seem to have faith in God or practice Christian morality, and all of the story’s Christian references wind up corrupted: the doves that symbolize peace and hope have an uncertain fate, the old man evokes the Good Shepherd but he fails to care for his flock, and the narrator at first seems like he could be the Good Samaritan, but he does not put in the effort to save the old man’s life. By showing the breakdown of religious meaning, both symbolically and in people’s everyday lives, Hemingway highlights that war drives people to immorality and inhumanity.
The old man in the story corresponds to a Biblical figure associated with love, mercy, and sacrifice: the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd (a representation of Christ) loves and protects all of God’s creatures, even to the extent of sacrificing his own life for them. In compassionately caring for his animals, and even risking his life by postponing his evacuation from a war zone, the old man clearly resembles the Good Shepherd. However, when an army captain tells the old man that he must flee artillery fire, the old man evacuates, abandoning his animals instead of dying to protect them. This, coupled with the old man’s presumed death at the end of the story, darkly hints that the compassion and sacrifice of the Good Shepherd have diminished—or even outright disappeared—in wartime.
Furthermore, the relationship between the old man and the narrator evokes the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. When the Good Samaritan finds an injured stranger who has been left to die at the side of the road, he stops to treat the man, saving his life. Similarly, in Hemingway’s story, when the old man cannot walk any further to escape the advancing army, he sits on the side of the road and the narrator stops to urge him to flee to safety. However, these stories diverge in an important respect: the Good Samaritan goes to great pains to successfully save the injured man’s life, while the narrator’s attempts to move the man to safety are perfunctory and ultimately fail. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is meant to illustrate the Biblical teaching that one should “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but everyone in “Old Man at the Bridge” fails to live up to this ethical imperative. This suggests that wartime has caused people to abandon their morals, leaving a selfish and chaotic world.
Just as Hemingway darkly twists his references to the Good Shepherd and the Good Samaritan, he subverts Christian symbolism with his tragic invocation of doves. In the Bible, doves carried the olive branch to Noah as proof of God’s miraculous redemption of humankind, making doves symbolic of hope and peace in Christian tradition. However, the meaning of doves in this story is not so clear. While the old man calls his birds “pigeons,” the narrator wistfully refers to them by their more poetic name, “doves.” This perhaps demonstrates the narrator’s longing for peace and the promise of a world renewed amidst the horrifying reality of war. However, it’s significant that the fate of these doves—symbols of hope and peace—is uncertain. The old man has left their cage open so that they might fly to safety, but both the narrator’s and the old man’s expressions of confidence in their safety ring hollow. By implying that the doves may die in artillery fire, Hemingway darkly hints that war not only destroys peace, but also hope for redemption.
The story’s most explicit reference to Christianity is the narrator’s casual mention at the story’s conclusion that these events take place on Easter Sunday, and this is perhaps Hemingway’s most profound twisting of Christian imagery. Easter is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead following his crucifixion at the hands of his enemies, and the holiday embodies the miraculous possibility of salvation for mankind. However, Hemingway writes that “It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro.” Despite their Christian faith, the Fascists (the Spanish Civil War’s most firmly Catholic group) have not paused their violent campaign. This associates them with the bloodlust of Christ’s enemies and perhaps suggests that their faith is hollow. Furthermore, the narrator himself clearly has some connection to Christianity, as he does note the date. This casual mention of Easter, just after failing to save a life that should have been salvageable, suggests that the narrator is not overly troubled by the moral principles that this holiday evokes.
Despite Hemingway’s explicit and implicit references to Christianity throughout the story, religion is notably absent from the lives of the story’s characters. Neither the old man nor the narrator ever suggest praying for the survival of the animals, and they both seem to have a fatalistic attitude about the future. After all, neither man seems to believe that God will intervene on anybody’s behalf: the old man suggests that he shouldn’t think about the bleak fates of his creatures, and the narrator notes at the end that the old man has run out of luck. Therefore, Hemingway depicts religion as impotent and hollow in the face of war. The characters seem to have no faith, and even Hemingway’s mentions of Christianity gesture towards abdication of morality and hopelessness about the future.
Religion and Morality ThemeTracker
Religion and Morality Quotes in Old Man at the Bridge
“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.