We return once again to the timeless asshole, Ernest Hemingway. A writer whose quality varies to such extremes that a short passageway about a male and female fish broken apart by the fisherman capturing the latter is more heart-breaking than the literal death of a mother and child in the operating room.
Hemingway’s last and, for some peoples, greatest novel follows an ageing Cuban fisherman as he follows the greatest catch of his life out to the unforgiving sea. It’s a remarkably short novel, only ninety-nine pages in length. Forty less and it’d be referred to as a lengthy short story.
The perspective is a little odd as often times it’ll switch back between a first person and third person narrator, with interludes of Spanish that might confuse non-speakers- who will either have to break away to look up a translation or push on in confusion. The structure of the book is quite interesting as well. There are no chapters, no breaks, the linear story goes on like a film with one lengthy scene encapsulated within one shot.
Because of this the book is suitable for people who are just getting into reading or in a hurry. The overall quality of writing is better than the author’s previous books of I’ve reviewed. Unlike his novel To Have and Have Not, which is also set in Cuba, the Old Man and The Sea doesn’t dwindle in quality or suffer from any unnecessary subplots. On the contrary it’s a simple story revolving around few characters, most of it focusing entirely on the fisherman.
Like all of Hemingway’s books, the dialogue is clunky and off putting. While Dostoevsky writes way too much, Hemingway writes too little. In this novel the dialogue is especially awkward. It feels that he initially wrote the text in Spanish and then translated it directly, word for word, to English.
You know how when you’re translating sentences via Google translator and the translation seems a little off? Like the algorithm didn’t take into consideration the right verbs or adjectives and it just reads… strangely? That’s how the dialogue is for the entire story.
As always Hemingway’s prose elevates that stoic, impartial drone that renders no excitement, even when it’s required. The novel is superior to his previous works, such as a Farewell to Arms. In which a man is literally shot in the head and killed, and all the reader is left with is “oh, that just happened” instead of the appropriate reaction- which would be sheer and utter panic. The action in this novel feels more fluent and natural but again it’s diminished by the impartial tone of the narrator.
The novel follows up on several themes explored in his previous works, such as nature being a healing or meditative effect on the human soul- which was initially developed in Hemingway’s first novel; The Sun Also Rises. But unlike his first novel, Hemingway’s last novel presents nature in a grimmer light. While the sea is beautiful and calming, it can be equally cruel and volatile. The fisherman seems to feel more akin to nature and its harsh way of life than he does with society. In fact, he’s quite the outcast.
At the start of the novel the protagonist has gone eighty-four days without catching a single fish and is seen as terribly unlucky. So unlucky that his helper, a young boy, is ordered by his parents to stop going out with him and to work on a more successful boat. Despite his terrible luck the fisherman still has hope, citing that eighty-five is a lucky number and tomorrow will bring good fortune.
Both the boy and the old man live in severe poverty, the latter often going without food for days on end. The old man is ignorant of pretty much everything outside of how to fish, he talks about his favourite baseball player being the son of a fisherman when in fact he wasn’t. A variety of other falsehoods lead the reader to presume that the old man’s perspective on the world is flawed and shouldn’t be trusted, his hope is flawed.
The book lends itself to religious allegory, such as the slashes to the old mans hands caused by fishing wires to reference the nails driven through Jesus’ hands upon being crucified. At one-point Hemingway literally describes the protagonist feeling as if his hands were nailed to the stern upon sighting several sharks coming his way. When he arrives home, defeated, he carries his sail back up the hill to his shack and collapses to the ground four times- like the experience of Jesus- and when he reaches the shack he collapses on his bed, resting and healing up, planning to return to fishing with the boy. A resurrection, of sorts.
But the religious allegory falls apart when you consider that Jesus is believed to have died for our sins, meaning he acted as a software update for the human soul so that we could all get into Heaven. While the old man flat out says that no one is worthy to eat the exceptionally large Marlin. The fisherman isn’t following the fish for the people or for his livelihood- he follows it for pride. The most Un-Christ like motive.
Upon finally bringing the fish to surface he realises that it’s too big and too heavy to pull onto his rather small boat. Out there for three days following this fish as it pulls him along and he cannot enjoy the fruits of his efforts. At the end the fisherman is devastated for both himself and the fish, that the latter would die in a way like this deeply offended him. He approached the fish like a brother.
The novel could be about a lot of things. It could be a cautionary tale about pride, literally biting off more than you can chew. It could be about the pursuit of fame, about how you follow it relentlessly only to find that you can neither maintain or acquire it- creating a devastating effect on the user as others steal the fruits of their efforts. It could be about testing your limitations and how treading farther than anyone is willing to go may not end with success, but it will garner you respect.
It could be about masculinity, which I would be more than happy to discuss if it weren’t for the fact that Hemingway was an objectively terrible person with an objectively terrible world view- so I don’t necessarily want to discuss whatever the hell he thinks a man ought to be.
But it could also be a story about isolation. In his previous novels, Hemingway’s protagonists seem to thrive in solitude. The protagonist in The Sun Also Rises is shaken after a rowdy week in Pamplona and only finds a semblance of peace while he’s in isolation for R&R. While the protagonist of a Farewell to Arms only uncovers the futility of honour in World War One when he’s forced into isolation. Both stories present isolation as an ultimately positive thing on the characters.
But in the Old Man and the Sea, isolation isn’t as beneficial. If he weren’t alone the fisherman could have railed in the Marlin a hell of a lot sooner, or he would have seen the sense in giving up the pursuit. If he had help he could have caught more fish instead of wasting all his efforts on capturing one. With the help of others, he could have successfully fended off the sharks as they devoured the Marlin’s body, he could have avoided so much suffering if he had sought out help.
The book’s ending is somewhat positive as the boy promises to go out fishing with the old man as soon as he heals up, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. An over-dependence on too few people will cause a lot of issues in life. What will you do if the only person you know dies? The final message I get from this book is this; don’t be alone and don’t depend on too few people. Cast your net out and build a support system. That way when you do need help, there’s definitely someone at the end of the line.
In conclusion, the Old Man and the Sea isn’t one of my favourite books even in the author’s own bibliography. It is however a step up from his previous works with a consistent level of quality throughout, a hard thing for an author to pull off. Some themes may be better explored in other works and this novel is far from essential reading. But it is interesting and compact. I’d recommend reading it if you have minimal free time or need to kill a few hours.