Ron Rash’s “Last Bridge Burned” only has two characters, strangers to each other who have a brief encounter. The main character is Carlyle, whose perspective the story follows. The other character is a mysterious woman who comes knocking at Carlyle’s store door one night. Carlyle ends up helping her, although he is suspicious at first.
It is notable that both Carlyle and the woman are similar in that they have experienced significant hardships in their lives. However, their stories end very differently, as Carlyle resigns himself to an uneventful life, while the woman rises to fame and fortune.
Carlyle is the main character in the short story “Last Bridge Burned” by Ron Rash. Carlyle’s outer characterization shows him as a middle-aged man of “almost sixty” (l.67) who runs an isolated gas station. He probably has a low income as he lives in a “one bed” (l. 64) house. He seems to have had a troubled past, as he “had lost three jobs and two wives” (l. 8). Additionally, the text hints that he has struggled with alcoholism in the past (ll. 68-70).
One of the key aspects of Carlyle’s life is that he has settled for a solitary, isolated lifestyle. This is indicated by his workplace on the interstate, his lonely home with “nail holes in the walls where pictures once hung” (ll. 152 -153), as well as by his life philosophy illustrated at the end: “After all, his life was settled. No ups, no downs. Be grateful for that, he told himself.” (ll. 161-162).
This shows he has resigned himself to an average, quiet lifestyle. His choice could be a result of his troubled past. He struggled with alcoholism and with losing both his wives and jobs, so he used to be at the bottom of society (l. 8). Furthermore, he sees himself as having a “muddy heart” (l. 76), a term which he mistakenly attributes to one of his wives. This could suggest that he has failed in his romantic relationships.
Carlyle’s interactions with the woman are also relevant to his characterization. Carlyle is at first suspicious of her because of the way she looks (ll. 9-10) and even takes his gun to protect himself in case of an assault. Carlyle is then conflicted about the woman, thinking for a moment that he might start a relationship with her, but imagining that this would lead only to bad things. The woman might feel “disgust” (l. 68) or might drag him back into the life situation he had escaped from: “Or worse, not leave and drag him back into the life he’d finally escaped.” (l. 69) His fear of being used and of falling back into bad habits suggests that he feels vulnerable. It also shows that he has learned to see the worst in people.
However, Carlyle helps the woman out, suggesting that he is capable of being kind to a stranger. He thinks the woman is in a “damn sorry” (l. 41) state, suggesting he is empathetic towards her situation. He then lets her rest in his shop and even drives her to the bus station and buys her a ticket. Carlyle’s instinct is also to help her with advice: “He’d almost told her that if you live long enough, you become what you’ve done…” (l. 148), but doesn’t consider himself fit to do so. The reason why Carlyle helps the woman could be because he might recognize elements of his own past in her. He discovers two years later that his actions have had an impact on the woman, as he is mentioned in her song (ll. 22-25).
We never learn the name of the woman in Ron Rash’s short story “Last Bridge Burned”. The woman is probably “thirty at most” (l. 36). She comes from Nashville, but she has lost the place she lived in (l. 112). She is an alcoholic at the time of the main events (l. 87), but within two years, she has managed to overcome this addiction and become a successful singer (l. 157).
When he first sees her, Carlyle notices her rough appearance: “The woman was barefoot and a scrape above her left eye seeped blood, her right forearm scraped and bleeding also. Though it was October, she wore only frayed jeans and an oversized black t-shirt. The clothes looked slept in” (ll. 4-5). On the other hand, he also admits “there was a prettiness about her” (l. 66). The woman’s appearance is probably a result of a poor lifestyle, which might include substance abuse. However, two years later she looks “more filled out, healthier” (l. 156). The physical contrast helps highlight the idea that she overcame her condition and got her life together.
The woman is presented from Carlyle’s perspective. Initially, he thinks she is “trouble” (l. 8) and is probably “Drunk or drugged” (l. 34). The conversation between them reveals that she seems confused (l. 32-41), and we later find out that she did have an addiction problem (l. 156).
The fact that she was thrown out of the car by the people she was with indicates that she hangs out with the wrong crowd, people who do not care about her. The woman also seems to be somewhat reckless and irresponsible as she was evicted from her place and is willing to walk or hitchhike back to her town (ll. 115-115).
Still, she is also an optimist, as she believes there is always a chance to get up in life: “ ‘Somebody’s always going up if you’re going down. So I’ll find a place to crash.’ ” (ll. 112-113). Her determination to get to Nashville, and the fact that she manages to improve her life shows that she does not give up easily.
The woman is “grateful” (l. 145) for Carlyle’s help. At the end, it is revealed that she turned her life around and became a successful singer (ll. 156-159). The woman is, therefore, a developing character, who is changed by the events in the story. The woman credits her improvement to Carlyle’s help, as it is shown in the lyrics of her song: “The kindness of a stranger/ Showed me the way to go on” (ll. 24-25). This shows that Carlyle’s act of kindness made an impression on her and motivated her to turn her life around.