The Old Man and the Sea (1952), a short story crafted to perfection, won Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. It tells the tale – or perhaps parable – of an old fishermen who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. Fishermen are known for being deeply ritualistic and superstitious at the best of times, but as the days run by the old man feels his luck is now almost running out. He knows what the others in the small fishing community must be thinking of him. The young boy who used to help on his boat is no longer allowed to work with the old man, as if his accursedness could be contagious. In a last and determined effort, the fisherman takes his boat out further out to sea in the Gulf Stream than ever before, and after some time something finally tugs at the end of his line. Whatever this snared creature is, however, it is strong and equally determined. The fish – a marlin – pulls the old man and his boat for days and nights, through scorching sunshine and cold and darkness. It is a fish larger than any that the man has ever seen before, larger than the boat itself. Hemingway pits the creature as a perfect match for the old man – in character, spirit, and physical strength too. The duel is as balanced as it could be and the process of attrition drains the man and fish alike of everything they have to give. When they eventually both return to shore, they are skeletal, ravaged versions of their former selves.
The suspenseful struggle between man and beast left me sad and exhausted and feeling a little bit nauseous. The old man recollects as his mind wanders during the many hours on the boat an episode from younger days, when he had arm-wrestled a man for a day and a night continuously. And won. This is a good portent, but the man is now old, and his flesh is repeatedly lacerated on the page as the fishing line cuts through him again and again as the fish jumps and circles in a desperate bid to live.
There are many ideas that one can take from this story, but the balance and struggle between man and nature is the one that naturally stands foremost.
‘The fish is my friend too,’ he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars’.
Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.
The fish is a noble adversary, so beautiful and majestic that the old man questions his motives for killing him. He is a fisherman, that is what he does, he thinks, but he cannot help also wondering whether the life of this creature is worth less than those that its meat shall feed. He feels almost apologetic that he requires weapons, harpoons, miles of line and ropes to catch the fish. Is this truly fair? Will he win by determination, intelligence, or because he has the right tools? During delirious moments (or perhaps the moments of greatest clarity?) the old man contemplates the idea of sin. This is apt, since the narrative of the novel is one of redemption if nothing else. Amongst a plethora of symbols, his bloodied, wounded palms, his deep compassion for the marlin, and the three-day voyage at sea – during which time he is lost for dead by his friends on land – cast the old fisherman as a clear allegory of Christ.
The Old Man and the Sea does not have the savagery of novels like Moby Dick, but it does contain the violent strain which seem to run through many of Hemingway’s works. For Whom the Bell Tolls, set in the context of the Spanish Civil War, is one of my favourite books, but it is the bloodiness of his works on bull-fighting that have also secured his name. The violent strain in this novel at least is beautifully pitched, and serves as a metaphor of the human struggle for survival and capacity for endurance. There is no sporting element. The old man, who sleeps in a bare shack, on a bed of newspapers with his bundled-up trousers for a pillow, takes no more from the world than the mere essentials – a little food and water, the friendship of the boy fisherman, and news of how Joe DiMaggio is performing. DiMaggio, baseball superstar and son of a fisherman, enthralls the man, perhaps fittingly so since it was this novel that propelled Hemingway to celebrity status. Typical of Hemingway, the writing style is expressive but deceptively simple. Not a word wasted.
It would be almost another two decades before man would actually try to catch the Moon, but he did try, at least. Were we yearning for something more, or was this man’s unsatisfiable lust?
Next week, sci-fi…