I had not read any of Hemingway’s works until I chanced upon The Old Man and the Sea, and was surprised that it was never introduced as a Literature text while I was at school. The novella played a huge role in Hemingway winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature. It was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Old Man and the Sea established Hemingway’s position as a master in writing and he was also given credit for changing the style of English prose in the 20th century.
The protagonist is an old man, Santiago, who has not caught a fish for eighty-four days. The other fishermen assume he is down on his luck and shun him except for a young boy, Manolin, who is very close to him.
One morning, Santiago gets into his boat and heads out to sea to fish as usual. Before long, he hooks a really big fish – a “marlin” to be exact. What ensues becomes a great struggle for Santiago.
The marlin, determined to get away, brings Santiago further out into the sea. For three days, Santiago puts up with the fierce boiling sun, hunger, thirst plus bruises and cramps on his hands. On several occasions during this period, he thinks of the young boy and wishes for his presence:
“I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this…No one should be alone in their old age…But it is unavoidable.”
Interestingly, Santiago does not see the fish as his enemy but as a brother. Still, he never gives up the idea of killing the animal, which he ultimately does. Santiago straps the dead fish to the side of the boat and heads home. But trouble never ends (as in real life). He has to fend off sharks eating away at the marlin. By the time he reaches the shore, there is nothing left of the fish but a skeleton.
What a remarkable story. It reminds me of my own constant struggles in life and of my loneliness in the face of these struggles.
I did wonder for a moment if Santiago’s perseverance in the face of adversity is worth it; he is both mentally and physically exhausted by the end of that experience. But I guess it is because he is never truly defeated, emerging as a hero for his courage and determination.
Still I believe the courage and determination to face those struggles would not be possible if Santiago is not full of pride. He admits to himself finally that his pride is his biggest weakness and it has caused his undoing. He said to himself, “Nothing…I went out too far.” But I think this weakness makes Hemingway’s character so credible. Santiago is representative of most men because like him, it is pride and determination that make men achieve success and, at the same time, cause their downfall.
The novella is written in a short and clipped prose, typical of Hemingway’s style. The language is simple and unpretentious. I also like the way Hemingway pays attention to little details:
“But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat. It turned on its side and then righted itself. It floated cheerfully as a bubble with its long deadly purple filaments trailing a yard behind it in the water.”
Unlike some of Hemingway’s other works (Hills Like White Elephants and The Killers) where readers hardly get a chance to enter into the characters’ heads, The Old Man and the Sea provides plenty of opportunities to do so. As Santiago is out at sea alone, he either frequently talks to himself aloud or is engaged in his own thoughts:
“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.”
In another example:
“But you have not slept yet, old man,” he said aloud. “It is half a day and a night and now another day and you have not slept. You must devise a way so that you sleep a little if he is quiet and steady. If you do not sleep you might become unclear in the head.”
This technique has the effect of reducing the psychic distance between the reader and the narrative, thus, bringing the reader closer to the character in the story.
The only drawback I can think of is that The Old Man and the Sea has been narrated from an omniscient point of view, which may put off some readers as this technique is not popular in fiction writing today. But I still believe the novella is worth reading simply because it’s symbolic of our life.