The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A tale well told…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The old fisherman Santiago’s luck has run out. For eighty-four straight days he hasn’t caught a fish, and is surviving only with the help of the young boy, Manolin, who once fished with him but whose parents have now insisted he go out with another luckier boat instead. Manolin feels an intense loyalty to old Santiago, and helps him each day with his gear, catching bait, and even buying him food when Santiago’s funds run out.

On this day it will be different. A fish takes Santiago’s bait – a huge marlin, so big that Santiago can’t pull him in. As the marlin sets out to sea, dragging Santiago’s little skiff behind him, Santiago must decide whether to cut the line or run with the fish. And so it becomes a matter of will, as Santiago battles with nature, with his own failing strength, with growing exhaustion and with his pride as a fisherman.

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.

This is a beautifully written and absorbing short tale – mesmerising, almost, as hour after hour passes and still the fish won’t tire. Although written in the third person, once Santiago is alone on the sea with his fish, the reader is taken directly into his thoughts. He is a simple man, and his mind dwells on great successes and failures of his past, a lifetime’s experience all guiding his actions in this moment. He knows he is at the limit of his physical endurance as the line cuts his calloused hands each time the fish changes pace. He recognises that the pride of youth has given way to the humility of age, and wonders when that happened. But he still has enough pride to want to kill this fish, although he loves it for its strength and will and beauty.

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.

I suspect people may have read all sorts of symbolism into this over the years and maybe there is lots and I just missed it. But for me, this is simply a tale well-told, by a man who clearly knew what he was talking about. As usual with Hemingway, there’s a degree of pondering on the meaning of masculinity, though less overtly than in the couple of longer novels of his I’ve read. It’s an old theme, man against nature, and Hemingway brings nothing new to it except his wonderful prose. And that alone makes this well worth reading.

Book 13 of 20

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43 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

  1. It took me years to appreciate this novel, having been forced to study it for O Level at a time when there was no way I was going to really understand a word of it. It’s been one of those occasions when I’ve been very glad to belong to a book group because it was someone else’s choice and I would never otherwise have got round to re-reading it. I’m glad you thought it was worth the effort.

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    • I’m pretty sure I’d have hated this as a kid – it’s far too slow and contemplative. I’m glad I’m only getting around to Hemingway now. I’m not at all sure I’d have got on with him when I was younger, but I’ve reached a point when I can look on his attitudes as of their time, and simply enjoy his writing.

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  2. Oh dear, I encountered Hemingway in school with this book at the age of 13, it was such a struggle and gave me headaches and kind of broke my heart, never having encountered such heaviness and monotony in literature, I swore never to read that author ever again.

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    • I can totally understand that – it baffles me why they give books like this to school kids. I’m glad I missed out on Hemingway when I was young – his attitudes would have bothered me more then, whereas now I can just put them down to the time he was writing in and enjoy his writing. Maybe one day you’ll feel like trying him again… 🙂

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    • As you know, I’ve only started reading him recently too, and I’m sure he works better for me now than he would have when I was younger. I’m surprised at how few books he wrote – I felt he’d have been more prolific. Well worth reading though – his prose can be wonderful!

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  3. I am so glad you enjoyed this one, FictionFan. Hemingway’s style here is so appropriate for a sea tale, I think. I also like the fact that he tells his story here without a lot of ‘padding’ and embellishment, so the reader doesn’t get overly mired in the story. I know plenty of people don’t think much of this one, but I think it’s very well done.

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    • Yes, I think he’s great at that inner contemplation stuff and I loved that he managed to keep Santiago simple and not give him lots of deep philosophical thoughts that wouldn’t have suited his character. He really is a wonderful writer – I’m glad I’ve finally become a fan!

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  4. The quality of the prose is drawing me to this novella far more than the tale itself, as it sounds rather melancholy. My relationship with sea stories is oddly conflicted, as I seem to enjoy the idea of them rather than the reality. If I ever decide to read this, I am hoping the language will be enough to guide me through it.

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    • Melancholy is a good word for it, although it’s lifted by the love between the old man and the boy. This isn’t a typical sea story – the action is limited and it’s really more a contemplation of the old man and his acceptance of ageing. I think it’s worth reading for the writing alone – I found the descriptions wonderful, and the whole thing quite moving.

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  5. I remember reading this one in school, and it simply wore me out! I imagine I’d appreciate it more as an adult. Certainly Hemingway’s prose, which is — as you said — stellar!

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    • I can’t imagine why they’d give this one to school kids – it’s far too slow and contemplative! I’m glad I’m only discovering Hemingway at this advanced stage in life – I’m sure I’m able to overlook his attitudes more than I would have when I was young, and just allow myself to be carried away by his writing…

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  6. I am so glad you enjoyed it! I only read about all the symbolism after I finished the novel. Most of it is fairly obvious but apparently I missed the references to religion. But really, I think it’s fine to read the story for face value i.e. mans fight against nature (himself).

    It really hit the mark for me, because I’ve always liked to challenge myself. And whether it’s a (close to) impossible project at work, climbing a tall mountain, running a marathon, it’s always a determining factor how much internal strength you can muster as opposed to how fit/clever, etc you are. And to me that’s what the novel is all about. Sorry, I am babbling, perhaps I should just have said “I agree with your review”. 😉

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    • Haha, please babble! 😀 Yes, there were a few religious references in it, but I felt they were just what any old man brought up in the church would think like. All of the books of his I’ve read so far have been in some way or another about man testing himself to his limits (not women, obviously, but I forgive him for that). And I think he does it extremely well – no superheroes, just people pitting themselves against whatever challenge they face. I can see why it appeals to your adventurous nature!

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  7. I won’t bet my house on it, but I think I read this years ago in school. You make me feel so much better with your last paragraph. I almost always read things for face value, though I can find symbolisms when asked to dig for them. But, with poetry in particular, I wonder if readers (and teachers!) don’t sometimes find deeper meanings that the author never really intended. After all, sometimes all they are doing is telling a good tale!

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    • I often think that too, and I find literacy criticism can actually destroy a story for me. So if I’ve enjoyed it as I did this one, just for what it is, I quite often choose not to look and see if it’s supposed to have all kinds of hidden meanings. Even if something is full of symbolism, I feel it ought to have to work as a straightforward story too, or else it just becomes a kind of pretentious puzzle!

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    • I think this would be a great place to start – although it’s short, it’s long enough to get a feel for his style of writing and know whether it’s likely to work for you in a longer novel. I’ve grown to love him, but I can see why he’s so divisive…

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  8. I loved this story too but it’s a long time since I’ve read it. I don’t remember looking for or finding any symbolism but to be fair, I’m quite a superficial reader who doesn’t really look for symbols or hidden meanings. I just want to be told a story.

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