The Old Man and the Sea has always been one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read. I’d think to myself, “Well, it’s short and Hemingway is one of those authors you should probably read in your lifetime, so why not?” So I thought I should give this one a go, I have a little bit of time and how hard could it be?
Harder than I thought, apparently. This book humbled me. Lesson learned: just because a book is short doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. I don’t mean the writing style- Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is as advertised. It’s simple to read but elegant. It doesn’t make use of fancy language but it can evoke a lot of emotions in you. I read once that he wrote like that because he’s a journalist and it kind of shows. This book was really well-written and the challenge came more from the subject matter and themes rather than it’s language.
From the get-go, I did kind of have a hard time with this one because well, I did not imagine I’d learn so much about fishing. But, I’m glad I stuck with it because the payoff was ultimately rewarding and I got to think a little more about its themes of sacrifice, perseverance, and strength in adversity. I’m not too sure about the fisherman-as-Christ symbolism so I won’t dwell too much on that.
But first, if you’re interested in The Old Man and the Sea, please watch this short Academy Award winning animation by Aleksandr Petrov:
I think this short film really helped me digest what I read and it helps that the animation is beautiful. Even if you’re not interested in reading the book, I can recommend watching the film. The style really enhanced the story and fleshed out the details already in my mind.
As I said earlier, Hemingway’s writing was simple, but elegant. He doesn’t really use flowery words but he doesn’t need to. His writing style was powerful enough to evoke emotion and imagery of this old Cuban fisherman who lives in near-solitude and constantly reminisces about his past. Practically the only form of companionship was in the form of his former apprentice, Manolin.
Manolin’s loyalty to Santiago, the fisherman, was very touching and I really enjoyed how their friendship wasn’t described in many words, but shown throughout the book. Manolin makes sure he eats, his boat’s in order, and wants to continue to help him out despite Santiago being considered unlucky for not catching fish for eighty-four days.
The core of the novella however, focuses on Santiago’s fishing trip. On its own, it wouldn’t seem to be too interesting to read, but his trials and tribulations on that said trip make it worthwhile. There, you really get to see Santiago’s personality shine. Alone in the boat with only his thoughts and fish as company, we get to see a lot of Santiago’s inner consciousness. From reminiscing when he got to see lions on a beach as a boy to an arm-wrestling bout he won as a young man, Santiago as a person becomes the main focus. This is a novel that mainly focuses on the character, not the plot- which means that it might not be for everyone as it’s easy to dismiss the plot as boring. The plot isn’t really the point.
In the novel, Santiago was able to catch a big marlin which he injures drawing sharks to its blood. In the process, Santiago himself injures his hands and drifts away from the coast, making things a lot harder for him. From when he first reels the fish, I was struck by how much Santiago empathizes with the fish and admires its strength. At one point, he calls it his true brother and notes that the fish must die at the end of the day because he’s a fisherman and that’s what he does.
Santiago struggles a lot during his trip. From his catching the marlin to fruitlessly fending off the sharks, he proves the quote that “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Santiago sees the marlin as an equal, an opponent worthy of his efforts. While it may look like Santiago struggling against nature, the novella explores a lot about his relationship with nature. He even empathizes with turtles at one point. In contrast, sharks are all brute force, intent only on killing the marlin and not nearly as intelligent as it was. They’re graceless and only out for the kill and they wouldn’t stop until they stripped it of everything.
In the end, Santiago was only able to bring home the marlin’s skeleton despite all of his struggles. Still, he wasn’t defeated. Yes, he struggled and sacrificed, but he was alive and he still had something to show for his efforts. Besides, his young apprentice, Manolin was still there to help him and even insisted on going fishing with him again.
I think that while at first, it was kind of a struggle to read The Old Man and the Sea because I wasn’t used to its style, I was able to get into it later on and think about its themes and messaging. Thinking about it made me think of human nature and how we can be be strong in the face of adversity. However, I will say that my favorite thing about this book was the friendship between Santiago and Manolin and how heartwarming and selfless it was.
Overall, it was very worthwhile and I did enjoy the initial challenge of getting into the book and the mindset to read it. I’m not sure if I’d recommend it since it’s definitely not for everyone but if it piques your interest, please do give it a try. Even if the book doesn’t, the short film is a beautiful adaptation I can recommend.