The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea

He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains….

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.  They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.  He never dreamed about the boy.

Santiago is an old fisherman living in Cuba, making his living fishing for large fish.  He has recently had an unlucky streak, 84 days without a fish, and now his young friend and apprentice isn’t even allowed to fish with him, and instead must fish with younger and more successful fishermen.  The boy loves and admires the old man, and wants desperately to help him and to continue to learn from him.  He brings the old man food every evening, and helps him bring in his mast, and they talk of fish and baseball.

Santiago vows that the 85th day will be a lucky one, and so he goes out further than any of the other fisherman, and he is successful in hooking a great marlin, a fish that he estimates to be about 1,500 pounds.  This fish is strong, and the old man feels, noble.  There is no way that the old man can kill the fish until it tires out, so he hangs on for two days and nights while the fish pulls his boat further and further away from home.

The story here is simple and improbable, full of allegory and symbolism.  The language is lovely and rich.  Santiago feels such a kinship with this marlin, the fish he has determined to kill, that he is almost sorry when he is finally successful.  He struggles with the concepts of sin, and wonders if he has committed a grave sin by killing so great a fish, a fish that he had come to love.

I enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea a great deal.  This was my first Hemingway, though either his last or one of his last books.  I’ve heard that the writing and style is different than his other works, which makes me wonder if I would enjoy them as much.  Any Hemingway fans out there?

11 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Sea

  1. J., I adore this book and teach it every year to my sophomore honors students. I have read other Hemingway books and short stories and do NOT like them much at all, with the exception of a couple of stories, most notably “Hills Like White Elephants,” largely because of its incredible skill. Hemingway is terrible at writing women, in my opinion (and the opinion of many scholars and literary critics, to be fair), and his preoccupation with machismo irks me a bit. The Old Man and the Sea, on the other hand, is moving and simple, and I find both Santiago and Manolin very touching and poignant. Their spare dialogue and the methodical description of Santiago’s care for fishing and baseball are, to me as both a writer and a teacher of writing, classic.

  2. J, I have to admit that I am a big Hemingway fan. Funny that you post about The Old Man and the Sea since I just reread it the other night. For some reason, the book has always left me feeling inspired.

    I agree with Nance about Hemingway being preoccupied with the whole machismo thing, and not being able to write women, but there are a few short stories and novels of his that I really enjoyed. This was one of them.

    Just to show you how much I enjoyed this book, back when my youngest brother was in Kindergarten, instead of reading him Green Eggs and Ham or any other Dr. Seuss book, I read The Old Man and the Sea to him. His teacher was shocked that a Kindergarten student could discuss The Old Man and the Sea (and 1984…AND Animal Farm) with her!

    • Chrissy, I have a confession to make. After reading this comment and how you read the book to your brother as a child…I have a little girl crush on you. Is it a girl crush, or a literary crush? Either way.

  3. It’s been years since I read Hemingway. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls but liking his short fiction best.

  4. J, I liked Hemingway a lot when I was in college, and read most of his books. I think you have to look at the macho stuff as his form of compensation for writers often being considerd unmanly. He was out to prove it untrue.

    Stanley Karnow, who wrote for Time magazine for many years and has a wonderful book called “Paris in the Fifties”, a collection of longer pieces (which Time butchered into tidbits) that he saved, wrote about meeting Hemingway, and being surprised at what a cartoon he’d become. He was playing a role–if you can bear that in mind, it can make it easier to see beyond it. As he was a formative writer mid-century, impacting both American culture (longing for a more cultured life in Europe, for example) as well as affecting our language (pared down, simple sentences) he can be worthwhile.

    I agree that he didn’t write women very well. Additionally, much time is spent in characters repressing or avoiding painful topics. If you want to see a bit of this, pick up the Nick Adams stories. One of his first collections was called “In Our Time.” Nick is a soldier home from WW1 gone fishing up in Michigan–escaping the painful memories by returning to what is natural and good. It could be a good portal for you, to see if you want to read more, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls, a good story about the Spanish-American War.

    With all the machismo, people forget what a lefty Hemingway was. I have a collection of his letters. There are some he wrote to Russian soldiers, in solidarity against fascism, that are eye-openers. (Sorry for prattling on.)

  5. I remember trying Hemingway in college, but just finding it too male for my taste. I have to admit I’ve never tried reading one of his novels again. I mostly read nonfiction, and when I do take a little dip into fiction, there are too many tempting contemporary authors to choose from.

  6. Your first Hemingway. Wow. As much as you read, I would have expected you to have covered him early.

    I’d recommend his classics, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. None of the other novels come close.
    Short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
    You want true macho, Death in the Afternoon — Nonfiction about the art of bullfighting. Brilliant as I remember, but its been a long time.

    He probably couldn’t write women, he only wrote part of men but got that part right. His women were probably true from how he saw them. But he did some decent relationships from a male point of view — “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” is still one of literature’s great lines.

    Portraying characters and indirect subtlety wasn’t what he did. What he was great at was economy of speech, short punchy descriptive sentences, not a letter wasted. If your taste is richness of language like Anais Nin, Toni Morrison, Lawrence Durrell, Barbara Kingsolver than he’ll probably seem pretty dry. But look at how his sentences and paragraphs are put together. Papa would have been great at Twitter.

  7. I love this book but don’t know that I’d pick up any other. I went to Cuba in 1991, I think. It was right after Clinton was elected and lifted the embargo enough for academics and journalists to travel (and then it came back down when a Miami plane got shot out of sky while traveling in Cuba air space). I went to the bar where Hemmingway used to hang out, drank mojitos. It was one of the only sections of Cuba that had been really fixed up nicely, for tourists. It was kind of cool, but also sad.

  8. I read all that Hemingway wrote, most before I turned 30, and think my favorite was The Sun Also Rises. The characters might not be particularly admirable but it depicts a time and a way of thinking. I like the simplicity with which he wrote– no wasted words. Biographies of him are interesting to me as well as those of the women with whom he shared parts of his life.

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