The Old Man and the Sea (Book Review)

Title: The Old Man and the Sea

Author: Ernest Hemingway

Publication Date: 1952

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio

Narrated by: Donald Sutherland

The Plot

Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. His luck is so bad that his pupil – at the direction of his parents and against his will – has left him for another boat. The boy, Manolin, continues checking in on the old man every day, brings him food, and discusses American baseball with him.

On the eighty-fifth day without a catch, Santiago takes his skiff alone beyond the shallow coastal waters and into the Gulf stream. At around noon, his lines catch a large marlin. The old man is unable to pull the fish in to the boat. Instead, the fish begins to tow the skiff. Santiago ties the line to his own back, instead of to his skiff, because he believes that the fish might snap the line if it becomes taut against the side of the boat. By using himself, he can give the rope slack as needed to keep the line from snapping. Santiago spends the next two days and nights struggling with the fish. He has great empathy for the fish, referring to it as a brother. He also frequently speaks aloud to himself wishing that he had the boy with him. The contest leaves Santiago with cuts on his hands, his back, cramping, and a spell where he almost faints. Eventually, tired and hungry, both man and fish, Santiago wins the struggle and harpoons the great marlin.

The marlin is too large to fit aboard the skiff. It is the largest fish Santiago has ever seen. He ties it to the side of the boat and sets sail for home. He thinks often on the early stages of the return journey about how many people will be fed by this catch. Unfortunately, the marlin’s blood begins to attract sharks. Santiago is able to harpoon the first attacking shark but not before the shark has taken a bite of the marlin. The shark also costs the old man his harpoon. The blood from this bite attracts more sharks. Santiago lashes his knife to an oar. Fighting off more sharks, he eventually loses the knife when the blade snaps. With only a club in his hand, he faces off with still more sharks. They devour what is left of his marlin. He sails back to shore with the giant skeleton tied to his skiff.

Santiago returns home before daybreak. He ties his skiff to a rock, returns unsteadily to his shack, and sleeps. Sometime later the boy, Manolin, checks in on him. He tells Santiago that the Coast Guard has been looking for him. He leaves to get food and coffee for the old man as he sleeps more. Crowds of fishermen and tourists gather and see the giant marlin skeleton. The tourists mistake it for the skeleton of a shark. The boy weeps openly over the old man in his coming and going. The local fishermen ask Manolin to send their condolences to the old man. When Santiago wakes again, the boy tells him that they will be fishing partners once more.

My Review

If Donald Sutherland reading a novel to you sounds delightful, well, let me tell you – it is.

I am not sure what it says about me that I enjoy this book so much. Is it the old man’s perseverance in the face of impossible circumstances and an aging and failing body? Did I relish in his failure? (I hope not.) Did I enjoy feeling anxiety for the two hours I listened to this book? Did I like the fact that his extraordinary effort made the expedition a success – even though on the surface it was a failure? Do I just enjoy the straight-forward style of Hemingway’s prose?

Maybe it’s all of those things in some combination.

I suspect that a lot of people read this book and grow frustrated, or even angry, that the old man, Santiago, did not simply cut his line, give up on the marlin, and take the boat back to shore. That did not really bother me. He did not understand the impossibility of his endeavor until he was too committed to quit. His age also made defining impossible more difficult for him. In this sense, Santiago feels relatable to me. He was also literally hungry as were the people in his community. Fortunately, that part is not relatable for me but Hemingway does a tremendous job making me feel as though I can understand. (The writing about eating raw fish on the boat… ick.) Once the size of the marlin was evident, then the effort to catch the fish became something more primal for the old man. He wants to learn something about himself at this point in his life.

The ending of this novel is bittersweet. The bitterness is that he lost the fish. It’s also unclear how much of Santiago’s health was lost in that fight. The sweet, though, is that he won the respect of the local fisherman and he gets the company of the boy back. He mentions frequently during the battle with the marlin that he wishes the boy were there. As the novel ends, and the boy sees what the old man went through alone, he vows not to put him in that situation again.

I hope that we all have the courage and ability to continue tackling impossible challenges in our old age. I also hope that for most of us the courage is deliberate and less the product and consequence of poverty and hunger.

I finished the novel reflecting on the aging process. Not all of us will wrestle with a giant marlin during our senior years. However, if we live long enough, all of us will experience that many of the things we once took for granted are now a struggle. Unfortunately, many face these difficulties alone. In Santiago, we see someone whose mind still has much to share even as his body betrays him. His mind won the contest with the much stronger marlin. He has much to give even as his needs grow. There is something comforting in Manolin’s recognition of that tradeoff, as the novel ends, and his decision to give his healthier body to his old friend while he continues learning from him.

THEMES:

I am not going to explain these in detail, as many are self-evident.

  • Pride. Santiago muses about whether he kills the marlin because of pride.
  • Perseverance. Santiago struggles against an impossibly large marlin and somehow wins the fight.
  • The relationship between the old and the young in society. This is the point that resonated most with me and I wrote about it above. The novel communicates that no one should be alone during their old age.
  • Man’s relationship with nature. This is not a novel of man overcoming nature, it’s a novel of man’s relationship with nature. The old man has a tender care for other living creatures even as he is tasked with killing them. He refers to the marlin as a brother and speaks aloud to it with compassion.
  • Christianity. The old man with a wounded palm struggles as he carries the mast on his shoulder up a hill at the end of the novel. It evokes Christ imagery at the time of his crucifixion. Then his seeming defeat becomes a victory as his effort with the marlin wins back the boy and the respect of his fellow fishermen. The old man’s victory through defeat is reminiscent of Christ’s victory through death.

QUOTES:

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

“Let him think that I am more man than I am and I will be so.”

“If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy. But since I am not, I do not care.”

“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?”

“Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.”

“I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one’s own body.”

“No one should be alone in their old age, he thought.”

“He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.”

“He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.”

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