Literature: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ Ernest Hemingway

(Spoilers)

‘Some of the younger men spoke of her as ‘el mar’, which is masculine, but the old man always thought of her as ‘la mar’, and as something that gave or withheld great favors’

In June 2012, I finished what was to be the last novel I read until two weeks ago. The novel in question was the fantastic A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, so it was only fitting that I broke this fiction drought with another work by the same author. I found myself captivated by Hemingway’s writing style in A Farewell to Arms. I loved the simplicity which somehow managed to convey so much. To me, the great strength of Hemingway is that, by not attempting to fill every page with metaphor, flourish and allusion, anything emotive or metaphorical stands out so much more.

The Old Man and the Sea is a short book, only roughly 130 pages in my A6 copy. This was something of a blessing as my main gripe with pre-1900 ‘classics’ is their propensity to say what could be said in 200 pages in 600, and not a word is wasted in this novel. It focuses, as the title would suggest, on an old fisherman ‘Santiago’ who has failed to catch a fish for 85 days. The book really only has three characters, one of which is (at first glance at least) minor and one is a fish, so, as you can imagine, Santiago and his character feature the most strongly.

The most prominent themes in the book are themes integral to any Hemingway work, these being masculinity, the relationship between man, death and nature and personal struggle – if you really try, you can connect all three of these. Santiago is old and unlucky, and has become a subject of mockery in the town and an object of pity by the older fishermen. When he sets out on the 85th day he not only sets off to catch the biggest fish anyone has yet seen, but to prove his own masculinity and personal worth.

Hemingway believed that death and destruction are certainties in this world, and the only way for a man to conquer them is through pride and endurance. This is arguably the driving message of The Old Man and the Sea. Quite aside from the epic struggle of Santiago to capture the fish and bring it to shore, the book is filled with references to this. Midway through the book, Santiago recalls having an arm-wrestle with ‘a great negro in Casablanca’ which lasted one day and one night with the local fishermen coming in and placing bets. They wrestled till blood came out from under their nails and didn’t sleep until Santiago emerged the victor, even though at times his contestant nearly beat him.

Obviously, this is ridiculous. It’s classic Hemingway in its hyperbole and hyper-masculinity, but the theme of pride and determination is there. Likewise it is in how Santiago forces himself to eat the raw tuna even though he despises it and it makes him nauseous; ‘you must eat the tuna to make you strong, old man’ he often repeats to himself. Most obviously, however, it is most evident in one of my favourite quotes from the book, when Santiago says to himself ‘But man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but never defeated.’ Quite literally, as it is stated again and again, the old man is locked in his struggle with his fish and will either catch it or die doing so.

What must not be overlooked, however, is that the marlin is also locked into this struggle in exactly the same way as Santiago, and his determination reflects this. Indeed, the old man realises this is the case, stating we have to ‘live on the sea and kill our true brothers.’ Throughout the book, man is compared as being equal to, or sometimes inferior, to nature, and the old man’s knowledge of and respect for nature is deeply moving. He can tell where he is by the stars and how the wind blows, he knows exactly what species of fish he will find by the type of water he is in and what signs show fish are near. Halfway through the book, he tells an incredibly sad story about the time he and the boy caught a female marlin who panicked and thrashed around, losing all her energy, and how her male partner followed her all the way to the surface and then dived out the water to ‘take one last look at his female’ when she is hauled onto the boat before plunging down to the depths. In the old man’s words ‘That was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen them do. It made the boy sad as well.’ This is not a man who treats animals with contempt, and has built up a deep respect for them over the years.

Which brings me on to my favourite use of imagery in the book. Throughout the novel, the old man dreams of Africa and, in particular, the ‘lions on the beach’. He even states that it’s got to the point where he doesn’t dream of his old wife anymore, or the native boats coming in on the surf, but dreams of the lions playing on the beach. Frequently he wonders ‘why does he always dream about the lions?’ The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, it reminds him of his youthful time in Africa when he had his strength, and shows the circular nature of life. But, more importantly, it builds in to his character and the major theme of respect for nature in the novel. Lions are by any account magnificent, strong beasts that a single man could not take on, yet here they are showing their gentle and playful side. Likewise, early in the novel Santiago recalls seeing some porpoises playing and says ‘they are like us, they love, they play. They are our brothers.’ Hemingway is showing that while an ideal man must have pride and strength, he must also be caring, sensitive and have the capacity to love and to play. The image of the lions returns throughout the novel right to its final words ‘The boy found the old man asleep. He was dreaming of the lions.’ It is beautiful imagery made all the stronger by the novel’s blunt style.

Finally, the significance of the boy should not be underestimated despite his minor role. The boy loves the old man, who has taught him everything he knows about fishing. He cares for him despite the disapproval of his father, who banned him from going fishing with the old man due to his bad luck. However, at the end of the book the boy disobeys his father and says he will go fishing with the old man again, so impressed is he by his dedication and struggle. Here then, we see that the boy will continue everything about fishing from the old man until Santiago’s death, and in this way Santiago’s methods of fishing and respect for the world will be passed on after his death. Therefore, in a way, through his pride and determination in the face of death, he has conquered it, and proved the maxim ‘a man can be destroyed but never defeated’.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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