Old Man at the Bridge, Ernest Hemingway

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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.

Extract I

“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.

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Extract II

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.

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