The Old Man and the Sea

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The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Published: 1952

Somehow I went thirty years before I read Hemingway. That is just not right. I’ve been itching to read A Moveable Feast for some time now but figured I should have at least one of his fictional works under my belt before tackling his memoirs, so I picked up what is said to be one of his most loved stories.

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

An old Cuban fisherman named Santiago sets out one morning, as he does every morning, to catch a fish. It’s been 84 days since his last catch, so he’s decided to go farther out than usual to end his streak of bad luck. His apprentice and young friend Manolin has been forbidden by his family to continue fishing with Santiago, having been ordered to fish on a successful boat instead, so he has to go out alone. He does get the bite he’s looking for, from a huge marlin, and it drags him out to sea. What follows is a struggle of will, endurance, cunning, and patience that spans multiple days.

I’m of two minds about this. One one hand, the struggle Santiago goes through can be seen as an allegory for how some people are driven to greatness, no matter the cost. It’s a tale of man persevering through difficulties with honour and, despite the outcome, finishing with the pride in knowing he fought his hardest. Maybe this is how Hemingway felt about his writing career.

On the other hand, I can’t help but look at the story literally, and in doing that I see an old man struggling because he’s stuck in his stale ways. If other fishermen are catching fish, and it’s just him having bad luck, then it’s not really luck. He’s not adapting, he’s not learning from his mistakes or from those around him, and as a result he’s come home empty-handed for the last 84 days. If you fail that often, surely at some point you have to take a step back and examine the situation. Is it manly or silly to struggle up a hill only to slide back down repeatedly when there’s a perfectly good footpath just around the corner?

Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.

This quote really rings true with me. It’s something I’ve always believed. Luck does play a role in everyone’s life, but often when someone is hoping for luck and not seeing it, it boils down to two scenarios – they haven’t put in the effort to place themselves in a position for luck to find them, or they haven’t trained enough to be able to capitalize on the luck when it happens. In this quote he’s referring to a specific point in the battle with the fish he’s already found, but if he’d applied his ‘exactness over luck’ theory to the act of finding fish, he might not have gone months without a catch.

This was the work that earned Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize and really gained him his fame, so I have to admit that I came into this expecting to have the top of my head blown off and my mind fondled inappropriately. I did really enjoy it, but I don’t know if it’s going to be one of those books that stays with me for years to come.

Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?

6 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Sea

  1. Pingback: The Classics Club | Loose Logic

  2. The Classics Club

    It has been a long time since I’ve read this, and even though it is his prize winner… I think I’ve enjoyed his other novels more. I really enjoyed For Whom The Bell Tolls, mostly for the way he chose the words and language he used. -Sarah

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  3. Pingback: Weekly Round-up for August 21, 2012. « The Classics Club

  4. Tien

    I remembered liking this one too – I’m not a fisherman nor have I much interest in fishing although I have been on some fishing trips with my husband & group of friends. Nevertheless, this book was just so captivating. It amazed me that fishing could be so mesmerising but then again, I think it speaks of Hemingway’s talent πŸ˜‰

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  5. Rob Post author

    I also have no real interest in fishing, though I have to admit I wanted to dig out the old fishing pole and give it another go after reading this.

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