In both of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories “The Killers” and ‘The Old Man at the Bridge,” a character faces the probability of death. In “The Killers,’ a former prizefighter learns that two assassins have been hired to kill him, while in “The Old Man at the Bridge,” an elderly man stays at the likely site of an impending wartime conflict. Each of them faces the prospect of death in a similar way, seemingly calmly accepting that their death is imminent. However, the reaction of the other characters in the two stories differs. The scout in “The Old Man at the Bridge” converses with the old man with no significant effort to dissuade him from remaining in a dangerous place, but Nick Adams in ‘The Killers” takes a more active role in warning the prizefighter of his situation.
Hemingway establishes the setting of The Old Man at the Bridge simply by describing the situation as a whole and through the names of cities, mentioned by the two characters, indicates to readers exactly where the story takes place. Readers with even a rudimentary knowledge of world history would understand that the story is set in Spain during its 20th century civil war. In this setting, soldiers often alternate between helping fellow humans and killing them. In reviewing this story, Lambadaridou notes: The idea of man’s dual aspect is offered through the obvious image of human brotherhood in rescuing life when other soldiers are ‘helping push against the spokes of the wheels’ the refugees’ mule-drawn carts up the steep bank from the bridge at a time when these same solders are expected to destroy life during their imminent contact with the enemy” (150).
When the solder questions an old man he finds at the bridge, the soldier never flatly tells the old man that the Fascists are approaching. In fact, it takes a few minutes of conversation before the soldier even hints that the old man should seek refuge someplace safer. It is not until he questions the old man about where he is from, the nature of his work, his politics and his family, that the soldier finally suggests, “This is not a good place to stopIf you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa” (58). After some more conversation about the probable fate of the animals the old man had been taking care of, the soldier urges him to leave if he has rested enough. At no point, however, does the soldier offer any significant help to the man.
As for the old man himself, he shows no urgency in his actions. He is obviously fatigued but does not ask the soldier for assistance or inquire if another civilian could help him escape. He chooses instead to worry not about his own very likely death being caught between two opposing forces, but about the animals he left behind. He calmly accepts the fact that he is too tired to walk any farther. While this man’s lack of urgency when facing death may seem unlikely, the story itself is based on an actual encounter Hemingway had with an old man while Hemingway was in Spain observing the Spanish Civil War (Watson 154). Perhaps after having lived a long life and knowing the death and destruction that will soon fall upon not only him but many of his countrymen, the old man does not feel compelled to flee rapidly as others are doing. He accepts the limitations of his old age and stays at the bridge. There is a certain element of irony as the story closes, in that the animals the old man was so worried about are far more likely than he is to survive. As the narrator notes, after observing that the weather conditions prevent the Fascist planes from flying, “That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have” (58). Yet, one could argue that the old man demonstrates a certain amount of grace and strength of character by his reaction to his impending death. He does not complain about his fate; he does not beg for assistance. Instead, he accepts reality.
In “The Killers,” the character who faces death also has a somewhat apathetic reaction to his fate. When Nick Adams tells Ole Andreson about the two killers who planned to assassinate him if he had gone to the diner as usual, Andreson simply responds, “There isn’t anything I can do about it” (220). He goes on to describe that he has been unable to convince himself to get out of bed and leave his room, implying that he lacks the force of will to confront the two hired killers or even to attempt to escape. He refuses Nick’s offer to describe the men or to tell the police. He makes it clear that he does not regard Nick’s information as serious; Andreson states, “No. It ain’t just a bluff” (221). Hemingway describes Andreson’s voice throughout the conversation as having a “flat tone,” suggesting that like the old man at the bridge, Andreson is not reacting emotionally to his upcoming death. He just resigns himself to it. However, he takes the resignation and acceptance stance one step further. The old man did not ask for help; here, Andreson is offered help but turns it down. It can be argued that he recognizes the futility of trying to escape, because he mentions he is tired of all the running around, but he could easily take advantage of the setback the killers encountered and try to escape. Nick has described that the two men tied up him and the cook, and explicitly stated their intention of killing Andreson; those actions would be sufficient for the police to look for the two men and arrest them. Even given this possible way to escape death, Andreson chooses to ignore the lifeline, so to speak. The attitude that Andreson and the old man exhibit has been referred to as “heroic fatalism”; as Booth notes, “Heroic fatalism, or fatalistic heroism, a dignified, graceful acceptance of one’s circumstances in the face of personal disaster up to and including one’s death, is a theme that surfaces in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” and elsewhere in his short fiction and novels” (404). Given the appearance of this attitude in these two stories and in his other works, Hemingway seems to have prized heroic fatalism in men.
Nick Adams, on the other hand, exhibits very different characteristics. While it has been argued that Andreson and the killers themselves operate in a “highly mechanized unemotional world [in which] individuality has been lost [and] people have accepted their positions as agents of other people” (Delaney 113), Nick does not fit into that mold. During the two hours that the killers are at the diner, Nick has a limited role of being tied up and gagged. Once the two killers have left, however, he vents a little as if to establish that he was not frightened. Hemingway describes Nick’s reaction: “’Say,’ he said. ‘What the hell?’ He was trying to swagger it off” (219). Now that his own safety seems assured, Nick is willing to take a more active role, as is at least one other character. George requests Nick to go warn Andreson, and Nick agrees to without any argument. Once at Andreson’s, Nick attempts to come up with various solutions that will help Andreson, but to no avail. Upon returning to the diner, he expresses his uneasiness at thinking about what will happen to Andreson. However, he does not resolve to seek out the police or take any other action that might actually help Andreson; he simply decides that he wants to leave town. His words and actions establish him as someone who is at least willing to offer help but lacks the initiative to take decisive action for someone else.
In both short stories, the character who faces death does so with a fatalistic acceptance of impending death, while other characters offer no meaningful assistance or limited empathy. These stories seem to emphasize that each human ultimately faces death alone, and the way humans face certain death provides meaningful insight into their lives and characters.
Booth, Philip. “Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Heroic Fatalism: From Page to Screen (Thrice).” Literature Film Quarterly 35.1 (2007): 404-411. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.
Delaney, Bill. “Hemingway’s The Killers.” Explicator 62.2 (2004): 113-115. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.
Hemingway, Ernest. ‘The Killers.” The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1987. Print.
–––. ‘The Old Man at the Bridge.” The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1987. Print.
Lambadaridou, E.A. “Ernest Hemingway’s Message to Contemporary Man.” Hemingway Review 9.2 (1990): 146. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.
Watson, William Braasch. “‘Old Man at the Bridge’: The Making of a Short Story.” Hemingway Review 7.2 (1988): 152. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.