The narrator in “The Old Man at the Bridge” by Ernest Hemingway is going to a bridge across Ebro River to check how far the enemy army has advanced. Near the bridge there is an old man who is sitting in the dust and seems too tired to move. He chats with the man and finds out that he is coming from a town called San Carlos, 12 kilometres away. The old man was the last to leave the town, and his duty was to take care of some animals.
“There was a pontoon bridge across the river…..he was too tired to go any further”
Question (i): What is a pontoon bridge? Why are many people crossing the bridge?
Answer (i): A Pontoon bridge is made up of large air-tight containers which are connected together and laid across a river or canal. The containers have a track laid on top for pedestrian and vehicles travel.
The story is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Many people are crossing the bridge over the Ebro River to get to a safe distance from artillery attack of advancing Fascist army.
Question (ii): Where is the old man sitting? Unlike others, why doesn’t he move?
Answer (ii): The old man is sitting by the side of a road near a pontoon bridge. Unlike others he does not move because he has already walked twelve kilometres and is too tired to walk any further.
Question (iii): Who is the speaker in the above extract? Why is he there?
Answer (iii): The unnamed narrator of the story is the speaker. He is a soldier on a mission to cross the bridge and find out how far the enemy has advanced.
Question (iv): What is the first question that the narrator asks the old man? What does he answer? Why does the old man smile?
Answer (iv): The narrator asked the old man where he came from. The old man answered that he came from a place named San Carlos. The man smiled as it was a pleasure to him to mention his native land.
Question (v): Why is the old man the last one to leave his town? Describe his physical appearance.
Answer (v): He was the last one to leave his town because he was taking care of his animals.
The old man is wearing black dusty clothes and steel rimmed spectacles. His face is grey and dusty.
He did not look like a shepherd…. “What animals were they?”
Question (i): Who is referred to as He in the extract above? In what condition is he?
Answer (i): The old man is referred as He in the given extract.
He is in shabby condition as his clothes are dusty and his face has turned grey. He is sitting by the side of the road exhausted and is reluctant to climb up the steep bank and cross the bridge.
Question (ii): What all animals did he own? What kind of relationship did he share with them?
Answer (ii): He owned three types of animals; two goats, one cat and four pairs of pigeons. He loved his animals and spent his time looking after them. The impending war forced him to abandon the animals but he kept on worrying about them and expressed his concerns with the soldier several times.
Question (iii): What did he do with the animals? What forced him to do so?
Answer (iii): He left the animals behind in his native town of San Carlos. The town had come under heavy artillery firing from enemy and the Captain of the army told him to leave the town.
Question (iv): Why doesn’t the old man cross the bridge and escape to a safer place?
Answer (iv): The old man knew nobody in the direction the trucks were heading. The only family he had was his pet animals whom he was forced to abandon. He loved his native town and pet animals and was reluctant to leave them behind. He had seemingly surrendered himself to his fate and claimed he was too tired to go any further.
Question (v): What do the incidents in the story show about the consequences of the war?
Answer (v): The incidents in the story take place during the Spanish Civil War. The story conveys the plight of innocent victims especially old people who are alone. The old man becomes a symbol of the countless civilian who have to leave their homes as victims of war with which they have nothing to do. He is helpless and sits on road near the bridge faced with the inevitability of death.
“I am without politics…..forks for Tortosa.”
Question (i): What does the old man mean when he states, “I am without politics”? Why does he mention his age?
Answer (i): The old man means to say that he does not hold any political view and is not siding with any group in the civil war. He mentions his old age to explain his neutral standpoint on the ongoing civil war.
Question (ii): Describe the old man’s appearance. What was he doing in San Carlos?
Answer (ii): The old man wore steel rimmed spectacles; his clothes were black and dusty and his face had turned grey from dust. In San Carlos, he was taking care of his animals.
Question (iii): The narrator says “This is not a good place to stop.” Which place is he referring to? Why is it not advisable to halt there?
Answer (iii): The place being referred to is a pontoon bridge across Ebro River. The place is 12 kilometres from San Carlos in Spain.
It was not advisable to halt there as the Ebro delta had turned into a war zone and advancing enemy troops were set to overrun the region.
Question(iv): What advice does the narrator give to the old man? How does the old man react to it?
Answer (iv): The narrator advised the old man to cross the bridge as it was not safe place to stop there, and catch one of the trucks standing near the point on the road where it forked for Tortosa.
The old man seemed unconcerned about his safety and said that he would wait a while and then he would go.
Question (v): Explain why the old man finally resigns to his fate.
Answer (v): The old man was forced to abandon his pet animals and his hometown he loved so much. He was weary of walking twelve kilometres and could not walk any further. He had no family and did not know anybody in the direction where the trucks were heading. He was seventy-six years old and could not participate in the civil war in any role. He felt devastated as the civil war snatched away everything he had. He was too tired, had nowhere to go, was left behind with nobody to help him climb the steep slope of the bank and cross the bridge. He resigned himself to his fate and waited for his impending death.
“He looked at me very blankly and tiredly….think about others?”
Question (i): Why does the old man look blank and tired? How can you say that the old man needed someone to talk to?
Answer (i): The old man was forced to flee his native town and abandon his pet animals, his only family. He knew nobody in the direction trucks were heading. Feeling of responsibility for his animals in addition to his lack of motivation to cross the bridge made him blank. Besides, he was seventy-six years old and had walked twelve kilometers to reach the pontoon bridge so he was tired.
The man got engaged himself in prolonged conversation with the narrator about his animals and native place. That shows that he needed someone to talk to.
Question (ii): What is the cause of old man’s worry and guilt?
Answer (ii): The old man believed that it was his responsibility to watch over the cat, the goats and the pigeons. He was filled with worry and guilt for abandoning the animals and doing nothing to ensure their safety and well-being.
Question (iii): Explain how the story brings out the conflict between man and his inner self.
Answer (iii): The old man was filled with guilt of leaving his animals behind and himself fleeing away. He started worrying as to what his animals would do if they came under artillery fire. The conflict between the man and his inner self is reflected in character of the old man wearing blank expression on his face and not feeling motivated to cross the bridge to save his life.
Question (iv): The old man seems to have given up on his life. Do you agree? Why?
Answer (iv): Yes, the old man seemed to have given up on his life.
He sat by the side of the road near a pontoon bridge; aware of the fact that enemy troops were advancing quickly towards the bridge. He could not understand why the war affected him since he was politically neutral and his only job was to take care of animals. He was worried how his animals would survive without him being around to look after them. He never showed any concern about his life and did not make any attempts to cross the bridge and catch a truck to Barcelona despite being repeatedly advised by the narrator.
Question (v): How does the narrator try to relieve the old man of his worries? Does he prove successful? Support your answer with instances from the story.
Answer (v): The narrator is willing to have a conversation on concerns the old man was having for his animals. He tries to assure the old man that his animals would be fine. Narrator relieves the old man of his worry about pigeons by reasoning that since he left the cage unlocked, the pigeons would fly away. Initially, the old man was worried about the fate of the goats but, later on during the course of conversation he came to terms with the fact that goats would not survive and said “it’s better not to think about the others”. At the end of the conversation he thanked the narrator and got to his feet. It seems that the narrator was successful, to a large extent, in relieving the old man of his worries about the animals.
“I was taking care of animals……would ever have.”
Question (i): Why does the narrator note that the old man spoke ‘dully’.
Answer (i): It was difficult for the old man to come to the terms with being forced to flee his native place and abandon the animals for no fault of his. He was very old and moreover, did not hold any political views. The civil war had taken its toll on him as he seemed to have lost his mental balance. The narrator was last person to leave the site when he noticed the old man speaking dully to himself.
Question (ii): What makes the narrator feel that “there was nothing to do about him”?
Answer (ii): The old man was too weary to climb up the steep bank on his own. Since everyone including the carts and the trucks had crossed the bridge, no help was readily available for the old man. Crucial time was running out, the enemy troops were advancing steadily towards the bridge. It would have not been pragmatic on the part of the narrator to call for help from far end of the bridge. He had completed the task of watching the bridgehead and had to return leaving the old man to his fate. This makes the narrator feel that “there was nothing to do about him”.
Question (iii): State how both the narrator and the old man are depicted as helpless by the end.
Answer (iii): The old man was left behind alone at the bridge. He knew nobody and, after he fled his native town, had nowhere else to go. He was too tired to cross the bridge on his own and had nobody at the bridge to help him. The narrator was obeying orders given to him. He was bounded by his duty and was anxious to return back to the far end of the bridge after completing his task. Only help he could offer was to listen to the concerns of the old man about his animals and convince him to cross the bridge.
At the end the old man sat down in the dust seemingly surrendering himself to his fate while the narrator moves on in frustration saying nothing could be done for him and that his death seemed certain.
Question (iv): What is “all the good luck that old man would ever have”?
Answer (iv): The old man’s life is prolonged by the fact that the day was overcast and Fascists could not launch their planes to bomb the area. The fact that cats know how to look after themselves would have given the old man some relief. That is “all the good luck that old man would ever have”. But aside from that, the narrator said nothing could be done for him and his death seemed certain.
Question (v): The story is set on an Easter Sunday, which symbolically shows renewal and peace. How is it ironical with reference to the events in the story?
Answer (v): The incidents in the story took place on Easter Sunday. It is the day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day after he was crucified. The irony of the situation is that the old man’s life is in danger on the very same day which is symbolically viewed as the day of renewal and peace. The old man lost his home town and animals which were dear to him. He has some relief in knowing that the cat will be able to fend for itself, and that since he has unlocked the cage, the doves can fly away, but the fate of the goats is uncertain and the man is worried by this. On the day of resurrection, ironically, the old man is left behind in the dust with his death looming.