My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Based on my high school experience of reading The Sun Also Rises, I have never considered myself a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s work. But now, more years later than I care to admit, I decided to give it another try and picked up The Old Man and the Sea. It was a fast read, as most novellas are, but was rich with food for thought.
While there are plenty of religious motifs and images that I will enjoy thinking about and sifting through, the best part of the story is its overarching theme – the concept that while life is a struggle and destruction inevitable, that the way a man chooses to face it will make all the difference. Santiago could have been an emasculated figure – old and physically weakened, poor and alone. Throughout his time at sea, he feels unprepared, wishing he had more tools, supplies and help. His battle with marlin wounds him, particularly his hands which are ripped and bleeding from pulling on the rope that bound him to the fish and there are more than one occasion where the fish literally pulled him to his knees and at one point ground his face into a nauseating mess of fish guts. Yet, Santiago never becomes pathetic or belittled. His recurring dreams of lions (dreamed once before embarking on his ambitious journey, once during his struggle with the marlin and once again when home) shows a masculine spirit humbled but intact.
Based on The Old Man and the Sea, I now think that maybe I was too quick to write off Hemingway. It is possible that the reader I was in high school was not mature enough to enjoy Hemingway. It is also possible that The Old Man and the Sea is a much better book than The Sun Also Rises is. I don’t know. What I do know is that I enjoyed this book and intend to read another of Hemingway’s books and see how it goes.
(Warning: the following contains spoilers. Read at your own risk)
Santiago, the titular old man, has been facing a long stretch of bad luck. It has caused his fellow fishermen to look down on him and has cost him his devoted apprentice, whose parents force him to leave Santiago and work on a luckier boat. Determined to break the streak and catch a big fish, Santiago embarks the next day, going out farther than any other fisherman. He knows that he is not as strong physically as he once was and will have to make up for it with skill and knowledge. He eventually hooks a giant marlin. The struggle to kill the marlin goes on for three days with a great deal of suffering. Santiago feels a connection with the Marlin, the largest he has ever seen and feels that in this fish, he has found a worthy opponent. When he finally kills the great fish, it is too large to fit in his boat and he must lash it to the side and then head for home. But the blood in the water attracts sharks. Santiago attempts to fight them off. But with each encounter he loses another weapon and more and more of his catch is literally ripped away. He alternates between regret that he put himself (and the marlin) in this position and a pride that even though he has no hope of making it out with his prize intact that he and his brother, the marlin, have done battle together against the sharks and that they have killed or wounded many of them. By the time the old man reaches the shore, the marlin is destroyed. Only the head and the skeleton remains as evidence of his accomplishment. But even as the old man acknowledges the pride that led to his downfall, saying “I went out too far” it is clear that the pride and dignity that he faced each trial with has won him something. His apprentice declares that he will defy his parents and return to Santiago’s boat to help him and to learn from him and the other fishermen view the old man with respect. The skeleton of the great marlin lies on the beach where a tourist ironically mistakes it for the remains of a shark while the old man recovers in his home, dreaming of lions playing on an African shore that he once saw in his youth.