The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway


In my commitment to revisit some "classics" and reacquaint myself with them, I decided to take on my least favorite of the Big Four of the early twentieth Century. Full disclosure--I do not like to read Ernest Hemingway. Part of it may be the macho trappings and myth of Hemingway--the truth of which I do not know, but the extent of which colors my perception of Hemingway. While I think that Hemingway was radical in his excision of much of the excess of prose of the very early twentieth century (exemplified by James at his most orotund), I think he went so far that direction that his prose is almost self parody. It is so stripped down that rather than a lean lyricism it becomes a kind of drone instrument--the things one is supposed to pay attention to become so obvious and so overbearing that it is almost painful. For example, the old man's dreams of lions on the beach obviously have some deep and symbolic purpose and meaning. I shouldn't be able to pluck the symbol out so easily, but it recurs throughout the work--the symbols are obvious and occasionally odious. However, they are also sometimes lovely as in this uncharacteristic moment for Hemingway:

The strange light the sun made in the water, now that the sun was higher, meant good weather and so did the shape of the clouds over the land. But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat. It turned on its side and then righted itself. It floated cheerfully as a bubble with its long deadly purple filaments trailing a yard behind in the waves.

"Agua mala," the man said. "You whore." . . .

From where he sung lightly against his oars he looked down into the water and saw the tiny fish that were coloured like the trailing filaments and swam between them and under the small shade the bubble made as it drifted. They were immune to its poison. But men were not and when some of the filaments would catch on a line and rest there slimy and purple while the old man was working a fish, he would have welts and sores on his arms and hands of the sort that poison ivy or poison oak can give. But these poisonings from the aqua mala came quickly and struck like a whiplash.

The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest things in the sea and the old man love to see the big sea turtles eating them. The turtles saw them, approached them from the front, then shut their eyes so they were completely carapaced and ate them filaments and all. The old man loved to see the turtles eat them and he loved to walk on them on the beach after a storm and hear them bob when he stepped on the with the horny soles of his feet.

One can't help but wonder reading this whether Hemingway himself might not have taken the same delight.

This book is a little less lean and a little less overbearing than some by Hemingway. A recent blog correspondent informed me that it was a favorite of John Paul II and so I thought to take it up again and see if it struck me.

My conclusion is that it is one of those books that you really have to be there to understand. For example, I couldn't care less about fishing. I wouldn't know a dolphin (fish) from a tuna to save my life. I could probably identify a marlin pretty readily, and flying fish seem pretty obvious--but I am sea-illiterate. I also have never experienced the kind of physical trial that is discussed in the book.

That said, The Old Man and the Sea has been referred to as Hemingway meets God. And I suppose one could read it that way. Certainly it is meant to be read that way. The trial takes place over three days--three days in which the weight of the world is borne on the shoulders of one man, in which the single striking simile for pain compares the Old Man's pain to the pain of a nail attaching flesh to wood. And there is this striking reflection on sin:

from The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway

But he liked to think about al things that he was involved in and 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?

"You think too much, old man, " he said aloud.

But you enjoyed killing the dentuso, he thought. He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and know no fear of anything.

"I killed him in self-defense," the old man said aloud. "And I killed him well."

The dentuso referred to above is the mako shark who makes the first strike at the old man's hard won prey.

In all the book is interesting, and one could force Christian symbols on top of it and read it in a way about the agonies of Christ--but I'm not certain that the text bears that full weight. I find it difficult to read that way even though the obvious comparisons are there--fisherman, cross, and nails.

While I enjoyed revisiting this classic, and while I would recommend it to almost everyone as a quick and light exposure to Hemingway without some of the trappings that come with The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, it did not have great resonance for me. Nevertheless, I will think about it for a few days and regard it as a palate cleanser in between bouts of Faulkner. My next read--the remarkable As I Lay Dying.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 22, 2008 7:59 AM.

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