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Bridge Symbolism in “The Bridge on the Drina” by Ivo Andrić


The novel The Bridge on the Drina (1945) tells the story of the Ottoman Empire‘s rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Written by Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), the novel explores this historical period through the eyes of its inhabitants. The bridge is at the story's heart, a symbol that holds numerous meanings and functions throughout the novel. The bridge connects people, communities, and historical events, making it the perfect embodiment of Andrić's exploration of the human experience. Through the symbol of the bridge, Andrić portrays the historical, cultural, and social complexities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bridge symbolises the interconnectedness of individuals and communities, their endurance and tensions. Therefore, this article will focus on the symbolism of the bridge from the novel The Bridge on the Drina and its significance in conveying the author’s thematic concerns.


Balkan writer Ivo Andrić’s literary career can be categorised into three creative phases. The initial phase was characterised by a significant corpus of prose and lyrical poems that required a philosophical analysis for his strong use of symbolism. The second phase was marked by the emergence of the short story, as the author transitioned to prose expression. The final phase of Andrić's literary career achieved a global impact when, in 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature:

for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country (Nobel Prize Outreach AB, n.d.).

Figure 1: Portrait of Ivo Andrić (Kragujević, 1961)

As the Serbian and Montenegrian literature professor and author Marinković notes in his Rano djelo Ive Andrića (1984), Andrić’s style and writing techniques were evident from the outset of his career. Still, his most mature phase gave birth to a body of work that has garnered significant attention in literary criticism; notably Na Drini ćuprija (The Bridge on the Drina) is a testament to his distinctive and sophisticated literary style and is still today a seminal work in the study of Balkan literature.


The literary merit of Na Drini ćuprija derives from its masterful blending of myth and history. This realistic novel achieves a supernatural dimension that transcends time and place by interweaving elements of legend, myth, and symbolism into a sequence of significant historical events. The four-century-long saga of the Bosnian people oppressed by the Ottoman government is recounted with pathos and tragedy, serving as a testament to the Bosnian way of life and faithfully preserving the country's traditional image. The history of Bosnia is embodied in the history of the town of Višegrad, just as the history of Višegrad is embodied in the history of the bridge on the Drina, rendering this work a personal tribute to the author’s homeland. Regarding the typological classification of the novel, the Bosnian author Lujanović (2010) contends that The Bridge on the Drina is a historical “novel-chronicle” that synthesises numerous literary techniques of European novels from the 19th and 20th centuries, based on an oral storytelling style. Moreover, the novel is structured as a series of discrete, independently formed narrative units with their own characters, events, and themes. However, these units are interconnected through the central symbol of the bridge, which serves as a metaphor for the historical, cultural, and social complexities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a symbol, the bridge also represents the interconnectedness of individuals and communities, the endurance of the human spirit, and the tension between beauty and terror.


Figure 2: Hardcover of the Serbian edition of the novel The Bridge on the Drina (1978)

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the etymology of the term “symbol” derives from the Greek word symballein, which signifies mark or sign. In the context of literature, this word refers to the use of association to connect an image with an idea that emanates from that image. A symbol functions as a means of revealing the fundamental essence of reality.


In the opening of the novel, the narrator presents readers with a panoramic depiction of the casaba and its surrounding landscape. The course of the Drina River flows through narrow gorges, hemmed in by steep, rocky cliffs. The river widens in certain sections, forming valleys that give rise to fertile settlements. Višegrad is situated on one such expanse. At the point where the Drina makes a sharp turn, and the mountains on either side draw so close that they appear to form a dark wall, a skilfully constructed stone bridge, comprised of eleven broad arches, spans a distance of fifteen kilometres (Andrić, 2013).


Figure 3: The Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge in Višegrad (1890)

This originality of the novel resides in the fact that the central character is not a person but an architectural structure made of stone. The bridge is the only entity that persists throughout the novel, and, as a result, it becomes the primary legend in the villagers’ minds. The bridge's significance to the locals is all-encompassing and transcends cultural and religious differences. It is regarded as a remarkable edifice of a supernatural nature, fated to remain forever youthful and beautiful. The locals collaborate in creating legends about the bridge, often sharing similar tales, with variations that reflect their individual beliefs and sentiments, influenced by their Christian or Muslim faiths. Despite disagreements or consensus among the locals, the bridge remains the common theme of their stories, representing an object of devotion, worship, and obsession, erected for their sake. Towards the end of the first part, the narrator underscores the bridge's pivotal role in the novel as the primary axis that governs its composition and function (Bašćarević, 2008).

However, one thing is clear; that between the life of the townsmen and that bridge, there existed a centuries-old bond. Their fates were so intertwined that they could not be imagined separately and could not be told separately. Therefore, the story of the foundation and destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and of its people, from generation to generation, even as through all the tales about the town stretches the line of the stone bridge with its eleven arches and the kapia (doorway, passage between the rocks) in the middle, like a crown (Andrić, 1963, p.21).

Figure 4: Footbridge at Argenteuil (Sisley, 1872)

In her Legende i simboli u Andrićevim romanima (2008), the Serbian literature professor Bašćarević explains that the bridge is a prominent symbol around which the stories unfold. It holds a central place in the town, and numerous legends and important events are associated with it. The bridge serves as a focal point that ties together the various micro-fables and independent fables and gives rise to a universal fable. The characters in the story have an unbreakable bond with the bridge, with each one being associated with it in some way. Many important events took place at the gate of the bridge; from moments important for the town to military and political events at the state level. The bridge marked numerous destinies with its location.


There is an unbreakable bond between each hero of the story and the bridge: Mehmedpaša is the donor of the bridge; Abidaga manages its construction; Radisav from Uništa objects to and tries to prevent further construction of the bridge and, as a result, ends up impaled; Fata throws herself from the bridge into the Drina; Milan Glasinčanin gambles away his property on the bridge; to Fedun a fatal love happens; Ćorkan risks his life by dancing on the bridge's frozen fence; Lotika's hotel is located next to the bridge itself, and when it is blown up she experiences a nervous breakdown; Alihodža, the guardian of the bridge by inheritance, dies at the moment of its bombing, and along with him, the youth of Mladá Bosna on the bridge discusses the future of the southern Slavs (Andrić, 2013).


On the bridge, love meetings are arranged, disagreements and disputes are created and resolved. The bridge serves as a representation of both the permanence and transience of time, as well as an emblem of the unity of people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. It is also a symbol of superstition and bears witness to numerous mystical occurrences, while also being a site of considerable suffering. The demolition of the bridge holds symbolic significance as it represents the dismantling of the Turkish rule (Baščarević, 2008).

Figure 5: The partially-destroyed bridge, 1915 (Kilophot, 1917)

According to the Croatian literary historian Nemec (2016), Andrić's narrative style and archetypal imagination often imbue his stories with an additional dimension beyond the literal situation and external realities, conveying hidden truths and complex meanings that can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Andrić considers the bridge to be an "iconic sign" that represents its object through similarity and imbues it with specific semantics and deeper meaning. The bridge serves as a stable and unchanging point, connecting the collective experience of a community with the individual lives of its members. It functions as a "place of memory" where various narrative traditions of the community are interwoven and preserved (Nemec, 2016).


The plot serves the bridge as a multifaceted symbol of both impermanence and endurance. As a testament to the enduring nature of life, the bridge remains steadfast and unchanged even in the face of destruction and historical adversities, such as the shelling it endured during the First World War. The author humanises the bridge, imbuing it with symbolic meaning and making it an integral part of the narrative. As the unifying thread throughout the novel, the bridge serves as a reminder that endings are not final, but rather the beginning of a new life, an eternity over time. The narrator's connection to the place and sympathy for the suffering of its inhabitants underscore the bridge's cultural and historical significance as an object of admiration and reverence for generations of locals. The bridge's ability to evoke the mystery of life and the continuity of human experience is symbolised in its position above the ever-flowing river, standing as a timeless symbol of life's perpetual motion (Lujanović, 2010).


Figure 6: Landscape with a Stone Bridge (Rembrandt, 1638)

According to the analysis of the Croatian literature professor and historian Grčević (2002), the bridge motif exhibits a structural-semantic register that operates on multiple levels. At the level of concrete meaning, the bridge represents a utilitarian object that fulfils a universal function and serves as a vital necessity for all. Moving from the concrete to the symbolic level, the bridge embodies human ingenuity and the ability to surmount obstacles. At the level of aesthetic symbolism, the bridge's graceful arches curving towards each other, represent beauty, and the absence of which would be a loss. At the deepest level of mystical symbolism, the bridge becomes a metaphor for man's yearning for the divine or the absolute and the mutual desire of the divine for man. Thus, the bridge serves as a unifying symbol that spans the realms of the physical, symbolic, aesthetic, and mystical (Grčević, 2002).


Throughout four centuries, the bridge remains an immutable architectural structure, outliving numerous generations. It occupies a central position not only as a compositional axis but also as the main character of the work. The town's history is inseparable from the bridge, which witnessed and endured countless significant events, such as the arrival of the Austro-Hungarian army and the subsequent construction of a hotel and barracks in the immediate vicinity. The establishment of modern institutions and the train's arrival further transformed life in town. Despite these changes, the bridge remains steadfast in its function and endures as a symbol of the town's identity (Grčević, 2002).


Figure 7: The Mehmed Paša Sokolović bridge (2011)

The centrality of the bridge provides the narrator with a platform to reflect on significant historical events that span over an extended period. Thus, the bridge assumes various symbolic meanings since all events occur on, or are connected to, it. It embodies ideas of stability, strength, and permanence, as well as timeless artistic beauty, serving as a sharp contrast to the transience of human existence. In this way, the bridge functions as a wise and enduring testament to human endeavour, culminating in the novel's conclusion (Nemec, 2016):

But the bridge still stood, the same as it had always been, with the eternal youth of a perfect conception, one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow, old and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world (Andrić, 1963, p.214).

Figure 8: Under the bridge at Hampton Court (Sisley, 1874)

In summary, the novel The Bridge on the Drina which employs a strong process of symbolisation, presents a multi-layered reality that reveals the history of a city and its inhabitants whose unfortunate fates and stories are linked to the bridge. Despite the presence of numerous characters, the novel's main character is not a person but a structure that resists the ravages of time and transience. In addition to its established symbolism, the bridge is attributed with multiple other meanings by Andrić in a manner that deeply intertwines the characters and their life destinies with the bridge, elevating them to a universal level. Functioning as both a symbol and a character, the bridge often assumes human characteristics, such as when it withstands the forces of nature and time and serves as a main character that connects all life destinies in the novel.



Bibliographical References

Andrić, I. (1963). The bridge on the Drina. Macmillan. Retrieved March 12, 2023 from: https://archive.org/details/bridgeondrina0000andr/page/214/mode/2up


Andrić, I. (2013). Na Drini ćuprija. Školska knjiga.


Baščarević, S. (2008). Legende i simboli u Andrićevim romanima. Filip Višnjić.


Grčević, F. (2002). Simbolizam, ekologija, eshatologija. Matica Hrvatska.


Hrvatski jezični portal. (n.d.). Kapija. Retrieved on March 17, 2023, from: https://hjp.znanje.hr/index.php?show=search


Lujanović, N. (2010). Na Drini ćuprija – kronika sukoba i vremena koje ne protječe u Komparativna povijest hrvatske književnosti. Mediteran.


Marinković, D. (1984). Rano djelo Ive Andrića. Znanstvena biblioteka Hrvatskog filološkog društva.


Nemec, K. (2016). Gospodar priče: Poetika Ive Andrića. Školska knjiga.


Nobel Prize Outreach AB. (n.d.). The Nobel Prize in Literature 1961. The Nobel Prize. Retrieved March 16, 2023, from: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1961/summary/


Oxford University Press. (n.d.). Symbol. In Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Retrieved on 15 March 2023, from: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/symbol?q=symbol

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Deborah Zaccai

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