The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Donovan’s Version: (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1955. 127 pp)
Andrew’s Version: (New York: Scribner, 1980. 93 pp)
Since both of the contributors are actively involved in a book group, we thought it might be interesting to review the books we read for this group in a “book discussion” style. What follows is less a critical reflection on the literary themes in a particular work and more a discussion about the novel. What we liked; what we didn’t like; what we thought the author intended to say; whether or not we thought the author succeeded in communicating those thoughts. Who knows how it will end up but here we go!

Donovan: We just finished Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Andrew, and before we analyze the book, we should probably give a brief plot summary. A short novella, The Old Man and the Sea is Ernest Hemingay’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and final work. Set in Cuba during the Joe DiMaggio-era (sometime in the 1940s), the tome follows Santiago, an old fisherman riding the longest fishing drought (84 days) of his life. Although a typical day of fishing involves the help of a young boy and apprentice, Manolin, Santiago’s recent string of bad luck results in the boy moving to another fisherman.
Faced with another day at sea with no help, Santiago rows out into the gulf on his small skiff. Unlike previous days, a giant fish takes the bait early on during the day.  After an early and intense struggle, Santiago realizes that he has hooked no ordinary fish. With the creature swallowing an enormous length of line and Santiago’s calloused hands struggling to fight back, the fisherman knows he has a hefty marlin on the line. What follows is a story of humanity’s fight with nature and the will of an old man to reel in one final catch.

Q: So Andrew, what did you make of The Old Man and the Sea? Did you enjoy it? Was it a simple man-in-nature story or did Hemingway intend to write something with more depth?

Photo by Fadzly Mubin

Andrew:  Well, as I started the story, I harkened back to my high school years when I was forced to read it. So, I began reading the story with some trepidation, seeing that all I remembered was an old man fishing, which doesn’t resonate well with a teenager. But, as I began to re-read the story, I saw some pretty obvious Christ imagery jump off the page, even from page one, when Hemingway describes the main character, Santiago.

“His hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords…” (1).

Later on while out at sea,

“He had pushed his straw hat hard down on his head before he hooked the fish and it was kitting his forehead.  He was thirsty too…” (40).

And, finally, toward the end of the work, Santiago mimics Christ by showing Santiago climbing the road home,

“He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulder. He tried to get up. But it was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked toward the road” (89).

And those were the more obvious ones: Christ’s scars on his hands from the nails, on his head from the crown of thorns, and falling from the weight of the cross. Imagery like this is somewhat rare to find, and I think it enhanced the depth of the novel.

Q: What about you, Donovan?  Did you see any depth in the novella?

Donovan: I did, Andrew. To be honest, I did not readily see the Christ imagery you so eloquently stated. While I read The Old Man and the Sea, I continued to link the story back to Hemingway. With this book acting as the final work before Hemingway’s death, there is certainly a link between Santiago as the over-the-hill fisherman and Hemingway, an author whose best work many considered behind him.
Photo by Kivanc Nis

Thus, there is a sense in this novella that Hemingway is pouring out his creative passion to prove that despite his eleven year absence in the literary world; his work remains a force in literature.

Moreover, I found Santiago’s continual yearning for the young boy’s assistance during his bout with the marlin to link to the vigor of youth. Hemingway writes,

“If the boy were here he would wet the coils of line, he thought. Yes. If the boy were here. If the boy were here” (83).

As a fisherman struggling not only with the strength of the fish but also with the limits of his frail body, Santiago longs for the boy’s help not just to catch the marlin faster but also as a sort of eulogy to the vigor of youth long lost.
They say the moment you turn 40 your body exponentially declines. I can’t help but link Hemingway’s advancing age, his length between novels, and the old man looking at youth with fondness.

Q: So Andrew, you have clearly found a depth in Hemingway’s imagery. But let me bring you back to the surface level. Did you enjoy reading The Old Man and the Sea? Did the novella’s length enhance or inhibit the work? Would you recommend that those who have yet to read this book do so?

Andrew: For me, good short reads are hard to find. While I enjoy longer novels, because there is a depth of character and plot development, I found that Hemingway achieved the same level of character depth in this novel. I think the length enhanced the work, as it was as though Hemingway was telling the story orally to friends that he knew. It was very refreshing, and a good read overall. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Q. What about yourself? Would you recommend this novella to others?

Donovan: I would. This book reminded me of the reality television show, River Monsters. Previously, I believed fishing to be a pacific exercise. I thought the act of catching a fish carried less significance than the serenity around waiting for a fish. River Monsters and The Old Man and the Sea depict the torturous action of catching a fish. Simply put, fishing is brutal through the time and strength it takes to put a fish in a boat. Hemingway’s novella expresses bravado, brokenness, and the basic fight with nature. The Old Man and the Sea is a classic well worth reading. I give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, Ernest Hemingway began writing in 1917 for The Kansas City Star. He served as an ambulance driver during World War I and moved to Paris in 1921. While in Europe, Hemingway associated with a group of notable expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford. Noted for his terse prose, Hemingway’s fiction won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and his work, The Old Man and the Sea, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. He died in Ketchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961.
Posted by: Donovan Richards and Andrew Jacobson
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