It takes a true master of the craft to write a book about one character in a solitary setting. It takes an even better one to do so and to still keep the reader riveted through the entire story. It takes a virtual genius to do this with a story about fishing. Ernest Hemingway accomplished all of these feats in his classic The Old Man and the Sea. For just such an achievement, the book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The Nobel Prize Committee cited it by name when awarding the novelist that prestigious honor.
While all of the above provide great reasons to read The Old Man and the Sea, the narrative itself serves as the primary purpose. Hemingway related an exceptional story regarding a man’s courageous struggle in the face of overwhelming obstacles. I interpret the tale as a metaphor for life. One passage read, “’Man is not made for defeat,’ he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’” (Page 103) While the protagonist reflected on what prevented him from achieving his goal he observed, “’Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’” (Page 120)
In addition to the inspiring message, I also enjoyed Hemingway’s use of language. “The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.” (Page 13) I’m struggling to visualize this one, but I like the creativity. My favorite passage came when the old man prayed for help catching the fish. Hemingway wrote out the Hail Mary then had his protagonist add at the end, “’Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.’” (Page 65) I thought that an interesting thought on an adversary one asked for divine help in murdering.
It’s quite a challenge to wax philosophical about fishing. I applauded Hemingway’s ability to do so in this book. The excerpt below provides the best example.
I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are many people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.
But he liked to think about all things that he was involved in since there was nothing to read and he did not have a radio, he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin. 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? (Page 105)
I never thought I’d see someone try to frame an epistemological paradigm for fishing. I have to give Mr. Hemingway kudos. Once more, he displayed great ingenuity.
I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed the author’s creative uses of language in the book. I thought in some of the passages Hemingway’s muse “went fishing”, so to speak. As readers, no doubt, caught in the passage above, it contained a number of superfluous uses of to. My biggest issue concerned the myriad appearances of the word was throughout the novella. As any writer knows, was is the “mother of all tell words.” Wherever it occurs the author should replace with active verbs. In my copy of the book, all six sentences in the paragraph from Page 30 leading to Page 31 contained the word. I was going to re-print it here, but I realized that was not the right thing to do. See how annoying overuse of that word can be for readers?
I would have to say that The Old Man and the Sea ranks among my all-time favorite books. As this July 2nd will mark the 63rd anniversary of Hemingway’s passing, I thought it a good time to read it again. I’m glad I did; every time I go through it I like it even more. What a tremendous inspirational story about one man’s adversity in the face of daunting obstacles that keep coming at him. While the book didn’t inspire me to take up fishing off the Cuban coast, it did make me want to check out more of the author’s work. But first I think I’ll go to sleep and dream about lions.