Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea - Hemmingway

I have dim memories of reading 'The Old Man and the Sea' some twenty years ago, back in high school.  My basic memory was that a) an old man goes out fishing alone, b) catches a large fish, c) takes a very long time to bring it in and d) loses it to sharks while trying to sail home.  All of this is true, but as a synopsis, it doesn't do the story justice.
The man, Santiago, is befriended by a younger fisherman, named Manolin.  The old man has gone some long time, 84 days, without catching a fish.  He is now considered unlucky by the community.  He won't give up though, nor accept help from Manolin.  Instead, he goes out alone for an 85th day.
While out there, he catches a huge marlin.  It is so big that it tows his boat for hours and hours.  The old man passes through at least one full night where he must hold the rope as the fish pulls and pulls.  As all of this happens, Santiago has nothing but growing respect for the marlin.
Finally, the fish comes up where the old man can try to kill it.  He must maneuver carefully, so that the marlin does not throw the line.  He uses his skill and experience and is able to finish it off.  The marlin is so large, that he can't bring it into the boat.  Instead, he must tie it to the side and sail for home.
Then the sharks come.  He fights valiantly, but loses.  The sharks all take bites and soon the water is filled with blood.  More and more sharks arrive until finally there is nothing left but the skeleton. 
The old man sails into harbor after having been missing for some days.  The evidence of his long struggle is still there, tied to his boat but he has nothing else to show for it.

Santiago faces a series of brutal challenges and does his best to rise to each one.  He has lived a long life and has some reknown for his strength.  After a long stretch of bad luck, he tries to redeem himself.  He catches the biggest prize of his life and makes an incredible effort to bring it in.  He wins, but he is so far from land, that the world takes that prize before he can reap the reward.
While all of this is happening, he compares himself to his hero, DiMaggio.  DiMaggio has suffered bone spurs in his ankles and the fisherman wonders if the pain from them compares to his own pain while holding the line.  He wants to live up to his idol, and does.  And still he loses.
The thing is, if you took him out the next day and he hooked an equally big fish, he would still try to haul it in.  Even knowing that he risked the same struggle and the same ending, he would do it.  To catch the giant fish is what he knows as his rightful occupation. 
And so he does it.


  1. So I never read this book until just last year and I am a firm believer it speaks to men of a certain age, so to speak, and is a complete waste of time for high school students who just keep shouting to the book "let the stupid fish go!"

    Among the many compelling aspects of the story is how the old man continually finds strength in thinking about his hero DiMaggio and how DiMaggio wouldn't quit. While I am sure DiMaggio was a very nice guy, I would guess he would have given up long before Santiago ever did. I assume Hemingway meant it to be ironic that this destitute, impoverished man who battles nature every day derives strength and encouragement from a wealthy, pampered American who derives a ridiculous income from playing a game. Perhaps he intended for us to recognize that the world invariably assigns value (monetary or otherwise) to that which has almost no intrinsic value.

    And of course, there is a huge amount of allegory and message throughout Santiago's entire ordeal. This really is one of my favorite books ever.

    1. Steve, I think you're probably right that it speaks to 'men of a certain age' but I don't think that has always been true. My impression is that while Hemmingway was writing, he appealed more to the young than the old. (I'm sure there are articles out there that will either support or destroy this argument, but I'm not willing to look for them right now.)
      I wonder, though, how much the change has to do with generational shift. Do the teenagers of the last couple of generations react differently than the two before them? 'Machismo' is now a put down word, but that wasn't always the case.
      In a similar vein, I'd be interested to see teenage reaction to 'Catcher in the Rye', which I absolutely loathed.

      Anyway, I'm glad you encouraged me to read this again. Thanks!