The old man and the sea, by Ernest Hemmingway

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 in USA and died in 1961. He worked as a reporter during The First World War in his country and in Italy. After the war, he lived in Paris, Spain and Africa. He worked as a reporter again during the Spanish Civil War and in USA, as a first reporter during the Second World War. After that, he settled down in Cuba, where he heard the story of the old fisherman Santiago.

In 1953 he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, a convincing, short and heroic novel. In 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize.

It is characteristic from his style the use of clear and laconic dialogues and emotional descriptions. His life and work made a strong impact on other American writers from his time, and a great deal of his books are considered classics of the English literature.

There are several important factors to be pointed out in this fabulous and deep novel.

Regarding the plot, Hemingway tells the story of a likeable old Cuban man, Santiago, who dedicates his whole life to fish, and puts all his soul on this consuming task.

Santiago has been trying to capture a gigantic fish for some time; at one point he has to return home with an empty net after 84 days at sea. People from the town are extremely curious about him. The youngest ones laugh at him; the elderly, who are aware of what he was capable of in the past, just feel pity. Only a boy is brave enough to be friends with him. Santiago taught him how to fish when he was only a 5-year-old child and that is why the young man really care about the old one.

One day Santiago put his boat out to sea and found the enormous fish that he had been chasing for a long time. Finally the fish takes the bait and after an almightily battle lasting days, Santiago is able to finally catch and kill him. Santiago tries to take it into the boat, but the specimen is so heavy that the old man simply cannot. Therefore, he sails towards the port with the fish attached to the stern.

On the way back to port a few sharks appear, attracted by the blood coming from the fish. A massive fight starts between the old man and the hungry animals, who convert his crossing in an arduous and almost endless journey. Slowly, these fierce aquatic predators will fill their stomach with the fish meat, leaving only his bones remaining.

During this particular battle, Santiago realises of his admiration for the fish, who has been his biggest challenge. A part of himself will disappear with the fish in the sea.

It is a non complicated plot, but neither simple. It is grandiose, the capacity Hemingway has got to make an unadorned story  become the biggest adventure, and that is because of his powerful ability to describe reality. 

The story is developed in the sea. Santiago lives by the seaside and the main action happens in the ocean. Even when the old fisherman is in the coast, his thoughts are on the sea.

Regarding time, the action takes place in few but absolutely intense days. Although he spends quite a few time remembering previous years; a time when he was younger, agile and strong.

The action is created by Santiago, a fish and some sharks as secondary actors, appearing these ones to move the plot. 

This fight between man and animal (first the fish, and then the sharks), alone, face to face, creates a parable about the individualism of the fisherman for his apparent defeat against the nature, the destiny.

However, his passionate attempt, his reluctance to be vanquished  becomes the true victory. If a man face his destiny with valour and accept it fighting till the end, he will never be defeated. “Destroyed but not defeated”, declares Hemingway in words of Santiago

Santiago is alive, because the author has created true life with this character. He makes it possible that the reader is part of the story and becomes Santiago’s companion. Through the old man’s wise and short monologues about the sea and conversations with the big fish a normal story becomes completely majestic.

Hemingway is admirable when describing the reality. Nowadays, this ability has been lost in novels.

Linda Seger, a famous American screenplay writer states that a writer should introduce surprising elements continuously to keep the reader’s attention. There is nothing wrong with the “keeping the attention” part. However, it is not necessary whatsoever to introduce these surprises in a mechanic way; for example, adding a problem each three or four pages, almost automatically. Hemmingway achieved that result without having to resort to that absurd rule. He knew how to describe everything naturally and make it real and exciting without having to append any complication to the story.

Besides, along with that magic capacity to describe he has got an incredible fluency and amenity, only typical of the most talented writers.

The Old Man and the Sea is about ambition, regrets and last wishes. Some people wants power or money. Santiago just wanted a fish. A fish which would give him money and would make him be in the prime of life, but above all, it would give him pride. A pride he needed to demonstrate everyone since a long time ago. That animal represents his biggest secrets and greatest wishes. Without him, his life would not be completed. The book talks about the dreams. Not only of the ones Santiago has during the night, but also about the ones he wants to become true.

In the story it seems that he does not achieve his dream, or either that he gets it but it is taken away from him later. It does not happen, however, this way. He wanted everybody in town to admire his fish. But that would have not been possible (Hemmingway used to fish himself and lived in Cuba, so it is the most realistic solution that the sharks came to him attracted by the bleeding fish). Besides, people in town can still see the immense bone he is bringing with him.

He caught it and that is quite enough. Moreover, if the author would have wanted Santiago to arrive at the coast without the bone, the essence would have been the same. Santiago finally caught the fish, his biggest enemy and also his best friend, and that was the heart of the matter. He knew that and it was enough.

However, part of Santiago’s dream was to show everyone the capture and that is a better decision from Hemmingway. A bit of good pride in life is not harmful, and Hemmingway knew about that.

Not only people in town, but also the reader and Santiago himself realise that the old man did not loose the battle.

The perseverance and determination Santiago has trying to catch this fish and keep it is impressive. He suffers a lot of pain during his adventure. Santiago is willing to sacrifice everything to catch the fish and the cold, hunger and shattered hands mean nothing to him if he gets it. Hemmingway  manages to make us suffer as if we were in that very same boat with Santiago, or even as if we were Santiago, feeling all that stress, tension, fear and concern.

There are only a few characters in this novel, and this is one of the reasons it is such a magic novel. It is very difficult to create a good story with just a few characters: Santiago, a fish and some sharks make the whole package. Of course, there is Manolo (the boy) and the people from town (to the ones he wants to demonstrate he is still very capable), but the really important characters are Santiago and the animals.

Santiago is a wise and knowledgeable man; he has got that intelligence given by the common experience and not by the books. He knows that everybody is laughing at him, but he pretends he does not know and acts accordingly to that. However, he puts all his energy in proving them wrong.

Also, when he is talking to himself he says very clever things. Santiago is a sensitive man. He attributes human characteristics to the animals. This anthropomorphism is seen in sentences like: “dolphins are kind”. And he demonstrates humility too when he thinks that the fish has got a plan and that he is more able, dexterous and noble than himself.

Besides that, it is also interesting that he considers the animals and the stars like his brothers, and on the contrary, spurns somehow those people in town who look down on him. On one occasion, he says that his fish has great dignity, and that lots of people would not deserve to eat his meat.

Santiago is a passionate man, no doubt. That becomes obvious when he is fishing, even before he goes into the boat. It is a privilege seeing how happy he is just thinking about fishing.

The old fisherman is also a simple man. However, what is most characteristic of Santiago is his faith, his hopes, his dreams.

In a conversation, the boy and him are talking about the faith they both have. It is a short dialogue but very intense and relevant in the book. Manolo says to Santiago:

“Daddy does not have a lot of faith”, to which Santiago responds: “No, but we do, don’t we?” “Yes”, replies Manolo firmly and without hesitation. In another occasion, the old man remembers a chapter of his childhood in which he won a fight against a black athlete, and his thoughts concluded with a sentence that make us shudder: “I decided that I could defeat anybody, if I really wanted”. A sentence that defines Santiago very precisely and one that everyone should say to themselves every morning. We would not need to take it necessarily this way; we could turn it positively: “I decided I could get whatever I wanted, if I really wished it”.

The fish and the sharks, the other characters in the novel, represent the complications that come across in life. They are secondaries, but without them there would not be story at all. The fish is his aim, Santiago’s dream; but the sharks take away his dream (only apparently, of course). Santiago first wants the fish, then he hates the fish, at the end he admires the fish and considers him superior (even after he wins the battle); and of course he hates the sharks, but understand them later, because they are part of the nature. And Santiago understands nature better than anybody else.

Manolo is maybe just a reflection of Santiago; someone who represents what was Santiago like in the past. And it is curious because they both have the same faith, dreams, hopes and exactly the same energy…. Perhaps the author only wanted to tell us that even after so many years Santiago is still the same passionate man he was once when he was just a child. 

 

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