Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

When I was in fourth grade, The Old Man and the Sea was required reading.  I did not know it then, but I was reading great literature.  It was powerful and it made an impression upon my soul that would last a long time.  But as a fourth-grader, all I understood was that I felt compassion for the old man and that I admired him for his perseverance.  It would remain with me for many, many years.

Then, as an adult, I reread The Old Man and the Sea, but it did not mean the same to me; in fact, I really hated Hemingway's writing style.  That was about five years ago.  I'll come back to that in a moment.

This week I reread it for a third time for The Old Man and the Sea Read-Along at Edge of the Precipice, and I had a great experience.  I am happy to report that Hemingway and I are back on good terms again - well, at least concerning The Old Man.  Thinking back to my first reread, I wonder: Did I even read the same book?  

This time I considered Hemingway's style and found it unsophisticated, in a good way.  The plot and characters are simple and plain, and since most of the story is told through the old man's solitude and contemplation, the unsophisticated language works perfectly.  

Regarding the Read-Along, Hamlette has a few questions for us, some of which I have already answered; but here are others:

+  Have you read any of Hemingway's other works?  

No, and I must read more while we are on good terms.  Which one should I read next?  

+  Some people say this story is full of symbolism, maybe even an allegory.  What do you think things like the old man, the fish, and the sharks could symbolize?

Frankly, if the author says there is no symbolism, I believe him; however, one cannot help looking for things or seeing objects repeat themselves.  For example, I noted that "eyes" came up frequently (I thought I was reading The Great Gatsby again): 
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. 
The old man looked at him with his sun-burned confident loving eyes.
...with his eyes closed there was no life in his face.
This is not necessarily symbolism, but I thought there were many purposeful, though minor, contradictions in the story, such as the old man and his companion, the young boy; fiction and reality; talking to someone and talking to yourself.  The old man thought, No one should be alone in their old age, and yet the old man went far out to sea where there was no one else.  And another example, the old man said that "Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive."

Those are stretches, I think.

+  What do you think the main point of the story is?  What is Hemingway trying to say here?

Maybe Hemingway did not have a message, but rather wanted to evoke compassion and empathy for the old man and even the marlin.  We can feel for the old man through his companion, the boy, and we can feel for the marlin through the words and thoughts of the old man (who has great love for the fish). In fact, it is as if the old man and the fish are one because they often feel and struggle the same. And one more thing: The old man compares man to the beasts and thinks, Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts. They are more noble and more able; man is maybe a little more cunning, but not any stronger. 


I believe I know what happened when I reread The Old Man and the Sea the first time. When I read it as a young girl, I was expecting anything as I read with an unfilled heart and untrained eyes.  As an adult, I was expecting it to have a deeper, complicated meaning.  I made it into more than it was, and I did not enjoy it.  I blamed it on Hemingway's writing. But it wasn't his writing; instead, it was my adultish-tendency to expect too much and look too deep and make everything convoluted.    

Thanks, Hamlette!


  1. All an author can tell you is whether or not he intended to insert symbolism in the work. A lot of literary symbolism is embedded without the author's knowledge. :)

    1. I see that here. Hemingway may not have meant for there to be symbolism, but it developed during his writing process. So his symbolism was initially unintentional, yet it couldn't be helped.

  2. Hurrah! I'm so glad you enjoyed it this time around.

    I think that sometimes people who are encountering Hemingway for the first time with this story think, "He's a terrible writer! He uses all these very simple sentences, and he's so choppy and blunt." Not realizing that he's doing that on purpose. When I read it the first time, and disliked it so much, it was because I expected it to be sort of full of glorious meaning, with a big and important finish that would leave me going, "Ahhhh! I understand now! That was amazing!" And instead... it ends as quietly as it begins. Really, the whole story has an ebb and flow like waves on a shore, which now makes me go, "How did Hemingway do that? It's amazing!" But it's not showy, it's not splendid, it's small and quiet. And yet, full of power.

    I do think when a writer writes anything, they have a point they're trying to make, whether it's to get people to be empathetic with someone very unlike themselves, to get people to see the beauty in something you would ordinarily think was unbeautiful, or to make a statement about man's ability to triumph despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Perhaps you hit on it -- that man and beasts are similar in many ways.

    Would you really like some Hemingway recommendations? I will give you one non-recommendation for now: don't read The Garden of Eden. Full of nastiness, and it's unfinished, so who knows how it was all supposed to go in the end.

    Thanks for joining -- and inspiring -- this read-along :-)

    1. For some reason, I just remember reading it the second time and thinking he was too complicated in his wording. That's why I now wonder what I was reading. It was so simplified, and it worked really well b/c the old man was very simple. So, I don't know.

      When I read you post, I was thinking, "Yes! Me, too!" So we were probably expecting something huge, and we were taken off guard.

      About the man and beast connection: I almost think he gave the nod to beasts, more or less, b/c he called them more noble, whereas man is slightly more intelligent in his cunningness to kill the beast, which may not be an honorable thing in the first place. However, it was for food and to feed others, and after all everything kills everything else, as the old man tries to justify it, but it doesn't really work. Who knows!

      Thanks for the warning on Garden of Eden.

    2. Okay, then that's just weird. "Complicated" is totally not a word I'd use to describe Hemingway's writing ever. Huh.

      Hemingway spent a LOT of time fishing and hunting, and I think you're right, he came to the conclusion that the beasts who don't kill for sport are more noble than the people who do. The old man was humble, but in the end not humble enough -- he went out farther than he should have. He wanted to catch a fish to sell to make money to feed himself, but also to prove he could, while the fish just wanted to live.

      My favorite Hemingway books are:

      1. A Moveable Feast
      2. By-Line: Ernest Hemingway
      3. The Sun Also Rises
      4. The Nick Adams Stories ("Big Two-Hearted River" is probably my favorite of them)
      5. The Old Man and the Sea

      I've also read "A Farewell to Arms" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which I didn't really like much, but which are my brother's favorites.

  3. I have an online friend who is a Hemingway fanatic. One time on my old blog he sent me a ranking of his favorite Hemingway’s novels:

    1.The Old Man and the Sea
    2.For Whom the Bell Tolls
    3.A Moveable Feast
    4.The Sun Also Rises
    5.A Farewell to Arms
    6.Death in the Afternoon
    7.Green Hills of Africa
    8.To Have and Have Not
    9.Across the River and Into the Trees
    10.Islands in the Stream
    11.Torrents of Spring
    12.Garden of Eden
    13.True at First Light
    14.The Dangerous Summer

    So hopefully that might be helpful.

    Personally, I've only read The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rise, A Farewell to Arms, the first three chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and a handful of his short stories.

    I also would rank The Old Man and the Sea as my favorite, followed by The Sun Also Rises. So The Sun Also Rises would definitely be my pick.

    1. Oh, great! I love lists. I can work with this.

      I do have a copy of The Sun Also Rises. (My husband did not like it. But that's him. He's more into non-fiction.)

      Why did you only read three chapters of For Whom the Bell Tolls? What happened?

    2. The bits I read I remember liking, but not enough. There was just other stuff I wanted to read more so I stopped to pick it up some other day.

      I do that a lot actually.

  4. I like those contrasts you mention. The one which stood out to me was the Old Man talking to himself - how he wanted instead to talk to the Boy, but alternatively, felt liberated in deciding to talk to himself. Interesting, to follow his thought processes about his thought processes. :)

    1. I like the thought processes, too. I imagine, for a writer, it is amusing to write about your character's contemplations because you are free to write about anything and in any way. it doesn't have to be formal because usually humans do not think that way. And there are no limits to what people can think either.