Book Ten: The Old Man and the Sea

The tenth book might be the shortest one I’ve read yet, but it didn’t lack in power or depth. Of course I’m talking about Ernest Hemingway’s short novel The Old Man and the Sea. This story of an old man Santiago and his battle with a 1,500 pound marlin has annoyed high school readers and sparked a continued interest in Hemingway works all at the same time. It’s a bit ironic that a story of a man’s great loss would lead to its author’s greatest personal accolade but in 1954 The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the fifth American to have won it.

The story’s origins can be traced back to a 1936 issue of Esquire magazine which contained an article titled: “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter,” written by the magazine’s featured contributer Ernest Hemmingway. This Hemmingway piece in Esquire rambles on about big game fishing and off shore hunting, but one story he told was his most cherished. It was a story told to him by his Cuban friend Carlos about a giant marlin which was hooked on a hand line but a Cuban fisherman. It took two fill days and nights to get the fish close to the boat and all the while the fish was dragging the little skiff further out to sea, but in the end the fisherman pulled the fish close to the boat. After harpooning the giant fish and lashing him to the boat he began to sail the Gulf Stream back to Cuba, but along the way his prize was hit by sharks which he beat back with clubs and his knife. After the second day a fishing vessel found the fisherman and pulled him aboard with his prize fish half eaten by sharks but still weighing over 800 pounds. This was Hemingway’s inspiration for the classic tale we know today.

Three years later in 1939 Hemmingway was asked by his editor to write a book of short stories, one of which he planned to be the story of the fisherman and the marlin, however he began to write a story of the Civil War fist, a more popular subject at the time. Fifteen thousand words later the book of short stories was abandoned and we were given a work that would later bear the title For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t until 1951 that Hemingway finally began to write “The Santiago Story” as he first called it. He originally intended to publish the work as a short story but was given a unique offer to have it published in its entirety in Life Magazine which he accepted. The book was published soon afterwards. As mentioned before the story won the 1954 Nobel Prize and is credited with a resurgence of Hemingway’s works that is still felt today.

The story begins with an old Cuban man and a local boy. The boy used to fish with the man but his father required him to change boats because the old man was having poor luck fishing. Despite the boat change the boy looked up to the old man, and looked after him when he could, and the old man obviously loved him for it. It has been 84 days since the old man’s last catch, but the old man harnesses the spirit of his hero: American baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and is persistent. He is so encouraged that he tells the boy, Manolin that he will sail out further than any boat the next morning and will have good luck.

The next morning the old man, Santiago does as he promised and sailed out further than he has ever into the Gulf Stream and drops his lines at various depths. At noon that day he hooks a very large fish that he suspects is a marlin but he cannot pull it in with his hand line. Instead the fish begins to run taking the slack line that Santiago has set up in hopes the fish will tire out. Santiago is fearful to tie the line off to the boat because if the fish decides to run it could snap the taut line and get away. So instead the old man bears the line on his weathered shoulders, back and hands feeling the burn of the rope and strain of the fish. Santiago often calls the fish his brother and empathizes with it, but has an iron resolve that he will fight the fish to the end, just hopeful it is the fish’s end and not his own. The old man often compares himself to DiMaggio, and his injuries to a bone spur DiMaggio had in his heel he read about recently, but he always told himself that DiMaggio would keep fishing so he did just that. Many times the old man wishes he had the boy there to help him, but chastises himself because he knows the boy is back home.

After two full days of running this magnificent fish finally tires and Santiago is able to pull him close to the boat. While along side the boat Santiago sees he is the biggest fish he has ever seen let alone caught, then thrusts a harpoon through his heart and lashes him to the side of his skiff. The old man raises his sail half delirious from the battle and begins his sail home in the Gulf Stream. The marlin being dragged on the side of the little boat leaves a trail of blood that is soon picked up by a large mako shark who attempts to eat Santiago’s catch. The old man is able to ward off the shark with a harpoon but as the dead shark sinks to the bottom of the ocean he take’s the old man’s harpoon with him.

The old man lament’s “coming out too far” and wishes that this prized fish was never caught and subjected to such an unfortunate death. As the day progresses more sharks come and Santiago fights them off first with a crude spear made with his knife lashed to the butt of an oar, and when that broke the arm to his tiller. All through the day and into the night the old man fought off the scavengers until there was nothing left but the white backbone, head and tail of the fish. Santiago further laments that he went out too far and cannot feed anybody with his catch, making it a waste of such a formidable foe. When he arrives back to his town he leaves the fish lashed to his boat and wearily stumbles to his house where he falls into a deep sleep.

The next morning, while Santiago slept a crowd of fisherman gathered around the marlin carcass amazed at its size. Tourists mistaken it for a great shark, but the fisherman know better. Manolin is moved to tears when he sees the old man back at home because he was so worried when he didn’t return the first night. He gathers the old man some coffee and the newspapers from the days he was out at sea so he can read the baseball scores. The two agree that the should fish again, that the boy could learn a great deal from the old man who wasn’t unlucky any more and the old man drifts back to sleep. He dreamt his usual dream of lions on an African beach playing and was very happy despite the loss of his great fish.

Many believe that the old man represents Hemingway himself as he approached the end of a masterful career as an author and the bloodthirsty and graceless sharks represented the literary critics that sought to bring him down or the effects of nature that would ultimately win out in his struggle for life. However there is one enigma that stands out, the lions at play on the beach. This is one piece to the story that just doesn’t fit to one image. Hemingway mentions them three separate times in the novella without tethering them to a single idea except that they are a source of comfort to Santiago. It’s curious to me how there is clear imagery for all other parts of the story except this one that is mentioned so often.

I also enjoyed how Hemingway turned the old man’s greatest weakness into his greatest strength. Like all heros the old man is tragically flawed, he is prideful. So much so that after 84 days of futility he sails further than anybody has ever and lands a fish larger than ever. Santiago realizes that he let his pride get the better of him while battling the fish saying “I went out too far.” But rather than making Santiago’s pride a fatal flaw, Hemmingway turns it to be one of his greatest strengths as well. Hemmingway demonstrates that pride can motivate men to do great things, because if it weren’t for pride the old man would not have gone out too far, would not have hooked a 1,500 pound marlin and would not have won the battle that ensued because he would have cut the line and his losses before succeeding. The old man meets every challenge, be it catching the marlin, fighting off the sharks, or getting back to Cuba safely with the resilient determination he will bring this fish home or die in the process. Even though he only returned with a carcass the old man is content with himself because he knew that he had seen the struggle to the end, and that the the true achievement of glory.

I never got a chance in high school to read The Old Man and the Sea and I can understand why it frustrated some readers then. The sentence structure is very different and at times it rambles which would annoy a high school me, but now I can really appreciate the story being told. I really enjoyed the old man’s love for baseball especially because I’m a Yankee fan and Santiago’s idol is the great Joe DiMaggio. I could really appreciate the imagery in the book and I liked the really simple story line. It was nice to just read and appreciate the story and the message that Hemingway was trying to get across. I think if I were younger I would have enjoyed this book much less but now that I’m older it was a great read. This is definitely a must read for everybody at some point in their lives.

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