Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea

Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea is a short novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1951. The last of his major works published during his lifetime, it earned him a Pulitzer Prize and contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The old man is named Santiago but is usually just called the old man. He’s an aging fisherman in Cuba who, at the story’s beginning, has gone 84 days without catching a fish. A boy, Manolin (usually just called the boy), had been assisting him, but after forty days without a catch, his parents make him quit to work with another boat and tell him the old man is the worst form of unlucky. But the boy still cares for him and helps him out as he can.

As the old man wraps up his tasks for the day and prepares for the next, we see a little of his home and lifestyle. He lives alone with very little interaction with others except the boy. His wife has died and he has taken her picture down because it makes him too lonely. He lives in pretty abject poverty (offering the boy some of his dinner of fish and rice which the boy knows is nonexistent, tattered and patched sails, sleeping on newspapers). His one great interest besides fishing is American baseball with Joe DiMaggio being his favorite (partly because DiMaggio’s father was a fisherman). The old man and the boy discuss baseball while they eat a dinner donated by the local cafe owner. Santiago muses that he must do something nice for the cafe owner when he can.

The old man determines the next morning to go out further into the sea than fishermen usually do. He notices a bird circling the water and decides to follow it. He caches a tuna that he saves to use as bait. He’s precise in his actions and obviously skilled by many years at sea, knowledgeable about the characteristics and habits of many sea creatures.

Finally his deepest line tugs. The old man can tell it is a big fish and is confident that it is probably a marlin. He manages the line to keep it from breaking yet tries to hold it firmly enough that the fish is actually hooked. It’s too big to haul in, however, and he realizes that the fish is pulling him out to sea. At one point he sees enough of it to tell it is two feet longer than his skiff. He pulls the line over his shoulders to distribute the weight of it, but his hands still cramp and bleed from the line. He lets the fish pull his boat until it can get close enough for him to harpoon it. But he is pulled even further out to sea and can no longer see land.

Since this is such a short novel, telling more of the story would reveal the rest of the plot, so I’ll leave it there. But as you can imagine, the man has to deal not only with the fish but his own age, injuries, need for food and rest, and eventually sharks. The reader is given a window to his thoughts about life, baseball, nature, etc.

I chose this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge as a reread of a classic I had read in high school. I do remember the story from then, but I don’t think I had appreciated Hemingway’s sparse, clear writing at the time. I believe this is the only book of his that I have read, but rereading it has made me want to explore some of his other work.

I read some of the analysis of the story at Sparknotes and Shmoop, and both offer some interesting theories about symbolism in the book, but a quote I read from Hemingway (which didn’t name the source) said there is no symbolism in it (“There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.”) But I think the story does show the dignity, endurance, and triumph of the spirit  of the old man through the ordeal he faces.

Here are just a few quotes that stood out to me:

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do  with that there is.”

“I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”

“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?”

“Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. 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.”

“Fish,” the old man said. “Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too?”

I listened to the audiobook read quite nicely by Donald Sutherland.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)