The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Date Read: 7th January 2017
“Set in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Havana, Hemingway’s magnificent fable is the story of an old man, a young boy and a giant fish. In a perfectly crafted story, which won for Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a unique and timeless vision of the beauty and grief of man’s challenge to the elements in which he lives.” (Goodreads.com)
I read this as part of The Classics Club
I have never read any Ernest Hemingway before, so when a friend recommended The Old Man and the Sea to me on the basis that it was one of their favourite books, I jumped at the chance. I had no idea what to expect. I’ve now read it and I can’t quite seem to put into words what I thought about it. So to make things easier I’m just going to write what the book is about – or rather what I think the book is about?
Initially the first half of this novella didn’t really appeal to me, it was slow and boring and I did not care for the extensive details regarding the intricacies of being out at sea in a boat and fishing. Yes the first 40-or-so pages didn’t really reveal anything other than how the old man, Santiago, had been fishing for most of his life. However, there is a twist. Despite Santiago fishing for most of his life, it turns out he has not managed to catch anything for a while. So the young boy, Manolin, who usually fishes with him is forbidden from joining him on his next fishing quest. So Santiago ventures out into the sea on his own to try and finally catch some fish. It was at this point while I was reading, that I was already making assumptions on how the book is going to proceed and making the judgement before I’d even got halfway through, that I was not going to like this book at all. I assumed it would either be a tale of a failed redemption: Santiago tries to catch a really large fish on his own but he is unable to, which casts even more shame upon him. Or it could be a tale of humbleness: Santiago would catch a really small fish and return to the town where he would remain proud of his catch despite it not having much worth to any of the other fishermen. However, this is where the book started to pique my interest: it did neither of these things and what happened was completely unexpected.
Santiago manages to get a fish at the end of his line which he assumes to be quite large. Consequently a considerable chunk of this novella consists of the effort that is required at keeping this fish on the end of the line. The attention to detail was very extensive and Santiago’s knowledge of how to go about catching this fish was unquestionable; catching the fish requires a great amount of perseverance and body strength. It appears that every move that the fish makes, every pull the fish makes, Santiago is aware of the counter-move that he needs to make. He can’t pull the line too hard in fear of snapping it, he has to wait for the fish to pull on the line enough so the hook embeds itself into the fish and kills it. It is a waiting game in which Santiago is playing blindly, the fish is so far below in the sea Santiago can’t actually see what he has caught and what the fish is actually doing . The fish is pulling, Santiago tautens the line. The fish swims against the current, Santiago places most of his weight on the line. The fish starts to struggle, the line cuts into Santiago’s skin. Despite all of this Santiago makes it clear that catching this fish is entirely dependent on the fish losing it’s strength after pulling for so long on the line and gradually following the current and rising close enough to the surface where Santiago can then secure the fish himself. It is at this point it dawned on me that Santiago is effectively fishing for his survival; both physically for sustenance and for his reputation amongst the other fishermen. It seems that Santiago’s adamant desire to catch this fish is a result of his constant worry of his elderly disposition as it will prove that despite his age he is still capable. In essence, catching this fish is just an idea of self-gratification.
Then again, I felt like it wasn’t only self-gratification that Santiago was trying to find when catching the fish but also he was performing some kind of service. Once the fish, which turns out to be extremely large, is visible to the surface of the sea, the novella then focuses how tactful he needs to be in order to catch the fish. Being entirely ignorant of the effort needed to fish, I didn’t understand the extent to some of his actions. Santiago would move in a particular way which would surely lose the fish? But no, it only led to bringing the fish closer to the boat, Santiago’s immense amount of effort is admirable in a way I’d never even considered alongside fishing before. The novella wants to show Santiago as a knowledgeable fisherman. However, the way in which Santiago captures the fish loses all the etiquette Santiago had when reeling the fish in. He resorts to getting a lance and brutally spearing the fish through the head so it dies almost instantly. Santiago feels that this way of killing a fish is disrespectful, which I believe is one of the reasons that leads Santiago to holding onto the fish instead of just releasing it. He would be doing the fish a service by keeping hold of it even though the bloody way in which he killed it will pose a threat to his safety. It seems like he does this almost as an act of repentance for the shameful way he caught the fish. Another reason that may have led Santiago to keep hold of the fish is the sheer desperation to prove to himself and the other fishers that he can catch something of this size. Not only that but it would gain him a lot of money which, after not being able to catch a fish for a considerable time, would be quite a relief I expect. Although the real reason why Santiago keeps hold of the fish is never actually acknowledged and this was the one thing that I continually thought about once I’d finished the book. It’s a very thoughtful book because there’s not really a meaning to the book which led me to just try and find my own.
The one thing that I read as having a lot of relevance was the importance between the size of the fish that Santiago catches and the sharks that he encounters that ravage the fish on his return to the town. There’s just so much pain: the sharks pain when Santiago is attacking them to fend them off, the fishes pain which ultimately led to it’s death and Santiago’s emotional torment revolving around this one fish. For me, I just kept seeing a resemblance between how the fish, the sharks and Santiago are just all motivated by survival and overall it justifies the brutality that is just underlying through the whole book.
I have no idea if I read this book the way Hemingway intended or if I’ve taken from it something which I have completely conjured up myself? Then again, this is one aspect of reading books that I thoroughly enjoy, the range of responses one book can elicit and how many different ways it can be read. I think I’ve realised that I’m not overly fond of the book itself, like I definitely won’t pick it up again. However, I really appreciate what the book is trying to do: it’s complete lack of direction and meaning therefore allows the reader to see the events in whichever way they wish to see it, and I like that. Once I’d decided to read this novella, I made a deal with a friend called Dan, where we agreed we’d both read it and then subsequently write a blog about it. So this was my reaction to The Old Man and the Sea but Dan has also written his take on the book too!