Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
by R. S. Thomas
from No Truce with the Furies (1995)
A 1952 novella by Ernest Hemingway that tells the story of Santiago, a poor Cuban fisherman, who has not caught a fish in several months and lives very modestly in a small shack on the beach front. His only real company is a young boy who he teaches fishing techniques to and in return is provided some basic supplies. He goes out to sea alone where he hooks a giant marlin, which he fights day and night, eventually catching it while growing to respect and identify with its struggle. After days of struggle in which he has allowed it to drag him further and further out to sea it finally submits to its wounds and dies. He lashes it to the side of his boat and tries to take it home to sell. Unfortunately, it is eaten by sharks, despite the old man’s valiant effort to fight them off. Defeated, the old man walks home and collapses in bed. It could be viewed as a moral victory, since he’s proved that he can still catch fish but in the closing paragraphs an American tourist confuses the now skeletal frame of the marlin for that of a shark showing how the personal victory is not appreciated by wider society although the boy and other fishermen acknowledge this achievement.
Due to the symbolism, relatively easy prose and short length, The Old Man and the Sea is a mainstay of high school English courses, and is perhaps one of the most widely-read books in the United States. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and pretty much sealed the deal on Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was adapted into a 1958 film with Spencer Tracy and into a 1990 miniseries with Anthony Quinn.
This is the first time I read a work of Hemingway’s. It was a very easy to read piece and I did so in a single sitting as it was only about 90 pages long. Very often I have heard the quotes of how he seems fixated on depictions of manliness and uses very simple language. It brings the mind the image of a man stood upon the shoreline with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and breaking open nuts, bear handed, in the other. He called this writing technique “the theory of omission” or “The Iceberg Principle.” While some authors criticized him for it, his style is widely considered to be very effective. Hemingway attributed his terse style to his training as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star because he had to communicate from Europe to North America by the expensive medium of cable, it was naturally expected that he should compose his reports to be as succinct as possible while including all the story’s salient information.
“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea…”
When I was in school the English teachers always found it hard to find pieces which intrigued the more traditionally inclined boys who preferred to be outside playing sport rather than sat reading and analysing fictional events. Often when asked to write comprehension essays, utilising the various narrative techniques we were learning, the teachers would bemoan how they ended up with multiple stories about football matches or other sporting events with little variety. I reflect now if perhaps studying the works of Hemingway might have caught their attention and, if not drawing them to become avid readers which admittedly would be a Sisyphus like endeavour, at the very least would indicate to them that not all respected literary classics are verbose and focused on societal or emotional content which is an anathema to teenage boys asserting themselves in order to impress upon others their masculinity. Hemingway is a ‘man’s man’ of a writer and using his work would be indulgent but at least show results by getting the attention of boys who find themselves disengaged in English lessons as they cannot identify with the subject matter they are presented with within the studied texts such as the works of Shakespeare.
“Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?”
To me the piece is a reflection of Hemingway’s fears of aging just as D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ reflected Lawrence’s fears of being unable to physically satisfy his wife after a near fatal attack of malaria and tuberculosis made him an invalid for the remainder of his life. Hemingway, in his novella, meditates on what will happen when he is no longer physically capable of leading the rugged lifestyle that he almost seemed to feel was all consuming both as a public perception of him but also his opinion of himself. Santiago for the most part is the standard Hemingway protagonist, a competent, utterly determined paragon of manliness. But he’s also ultimately an old man and the ravages of time have weakened him thus, despite his herculean display of willpower, he still is ultimately defeated with only a pyrrhic moral victory in the end. He proves to the other fishermen he still has what it takes to compete with them though it almost leads to his death and is meaningless to the wider society represented by the American tourists who misidentify the remains of the marlin. Hemingway was starting to age around the time he wrote Old Man, and it came right after he wrote Across the River and into the Trees, a book which got significant bad press. In a way, Santiago is probably something of a reflection upon the way Hemingway felt about himself and the hopes that he could remain ‘himself’ to the very end – which he ultimately did by committing suicide at the age of 61 rather than face old age and the deterioration which would inevitably come with it.
“The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.”
“I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one’s own body.”
“What kind of a hand is that,’ he said. ‘Cramp then if you want. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good.”
“You did not do so badly for something worthless,’ he said to his left hand. ‘But there was a moment when I could not find you.”
Santiago seeks challenge and to prove himself to society. In the marlin he finds a worthy opponent and when returning deems the blue shark, the first to attack the marlin lashed to the boat, as another. However after this initial attacker which Santiago is successful in killing he is later attacked by brown sharks who he speaks more and more disparagingly of as they are, it seems, scavengers taking advantage of his weakened state. Again this symbolism of the ravages of age and the fears of being at the whims of younger foes, which in his prime he could have easily fended off, arises yet again. There does seems an element of prejudice when comparing the blue shark and the brown, lesser sharks, but that may just be my interpretation in there being some defining distinction between what makes a worthy or unworthy opponent. A one on one fight is honourable while the scavengers appearing in groups are detestable in his view as they take advantage of a weakened individual.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
“It is not bad,” he said. “And pain does not matter to a man.”
“They would hit a man in the water, if they were hungry, even if the man had no smell of fish blood nor of fish slime on him. “Ay,” the old man said. “Galanos. Come on galanos.”
“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”
In conclusion: It was a very easy to read piece and I did so in a single sitting. It felt both a worthwhile read and yet at the same time underwhelming. You have the easy to follow story of a man’s struggle and the implicit commentary on aging through its symbolism but what do I take away from this? Aging is bad. You must fight it. It is inevitable. Others will come and take advantage of you. All your achievements will ultimately garner you no real respect. Loss and death are amongst the major themes in his writing and nowhere is this clearer than in the endeavours of Santiago.
“His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.”
“Then he was sorry for the great fish… How many people will he feed?.. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course, not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.”
It is a novella for people who don’t like reading more poetic language but prefer facts – to be told bluntly what is happening without digression. However through Hemingway’s use of language he still delivers greater meaning beneath the seemingly basic surface level he presents for those with an eye to perceive it. It is the male equivalent of chick literature on the surface level and yet a powerful mediation on universal themes should the reader take the time to acknowledge that economy of language does not equal a simplification of message. This is a good story to get young, active, boys to understand why literature is important but I doubt it will inspire them to then go on to read his other works leaving this to be remembered by them as a ‘man vs nature’ story only sadly.
“He spat into the ocean and said, “Eat that, galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man.”
Hemingway’s writing style is deceptive. His powerful economy of words masks a nuanced narrative which would take other writers far longer to depict and ultimately would not have the same impact. Ultimately there have been many imitators incapable of having the same impact which has diluted people’s perception of Hemingway’s prose but nowhere will you be shown the power of economised word use than in this novella.
“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.”
“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”
I had a bit of a break from blogging. On the bright side it means anything uploaded at least will have been considered though perhaps not editted and drafted as well as it might have been if I was not so busy.
I enjoyed this novella but there are other works which I enjoy far more. this is a good introduction for traditional gender role orientated boys to the world of literature but I find Hemingway has always been at odds with himself and his desired audience. Journalism, going out and hunting a story down in the classic patriarchal role of hunter/gather is fine but creative writing has always, in the media, seemed to be portrayed as a feminine, not a masculine, pursuit. The sort of men Hemingway depicts are not men who would read his literature ironically. He idolises figures who would respect him as a man, if they knew his life story involving amongst other things the Spanish Civil War, but would never read anything he wrote despite its inherent masculine orientated world view.