584. The Old Man and the Sea

Back when the Great American Read was happening I promised my own best list. I tried for a long list and settled for fifteen, of which I have presented twelve so far. Looking at that list, I find that only three were written by “classic” authors. Today’s entry is one of them; Stevenson and Dickens were the other two. The other twelve choices just write better than most of those old guys.

I once said that Hemingway is the greatest writer who ever wrote a novel where the hero won a fight, made love to a woman, caught a fish, and died on the final page. I wasn’t referring to Santiago’s fish, but to all the fish his heroes caught in a sporting fashion in nearly every book he ever wrote.

Hemingway was the master of a small set of circumstances, but those did not represent all of the human condition — not even a significant chunk of the human condition. Shakespeare wrote about all of mankind. Hemingway wrote about roughly 1%.

What he wrote was wonderful, if you thought like he did. But it didn’t have much depth or breadth, and it certainly never tackled a situation where there were two ways of looking at something. There was only one way — his way.

I have to be a bit careful here, so you don’t think I’m trashing him. I love to read Hemingway. He is a fine writer, within his limits. He isn’t a great writer. He isn’t even close. His focus is too narrow and his reach is too small. But I still love to read him.

Hemingway won a Nobel prize for literature. If he had won it for The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls, that would bother me, but he won it for his masterpiece, The Old Man and The Sea.

It’s likely that you have read The Old Man and The Sea; most people have. Hemingway’s style was minimalist, which makes him easy to read, so he ends up on a lot of high school required reading lists, and The Old Man and The Sea is his shortest book.

In case you haven’t read it, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, hasn’t caught a fish in months, but he still goes out every day. We see him first in preparation for another trip, then we spend the day with him. Eventually, he hooks and lands a giant marlin. This amounts to too much success; he can’t get it into his small boat, so he has to lash it alongside. Then he spends painfully long hours bringing it in, while sharks tear it to bits. He reaches shore, with only a small portion remaining. The next day, he will have to go out again.

It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but that is the point. It isn’t about what he does, but about how he does it.

I think there are two reasons that The Old Man and the Sea worked so well, one minor and one major. The piece is short. It is not a novel by any reasonable reckoning, but a novella. Hemingway is a man with a few ideas which he presents well. The Old Man and the Sea let him say everything useful he had to say, without padding or repeating.

More importantly, Santiago spends most of the book alone. He does not have to be a man before women. He also does not have to be a man before other men. He can simply be a man.

He didn’t have to win a fist fight. He didn’t have to have sex with a woman. (The term “make love” does not really apply to anything Hemingway wrote.) And when he caught the fish, it was a real fish to sell for pesos, not some allegorical event.

He also didn’t cop out by dying on the last page.

Let’s look at a short passage. Santiago is alone at sea in a small boat, so he his talking to himself.

Don’t be silly,” he said aloud. “And keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.”

“I’d like to buy some if there’s any place they sell it,” he said.

What could I buy it with? he asked himself. Could I buy it with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?

“You might,” he said. “You tried to buy it with eighty-four days at sea. They nearly sold it to you too.”

The first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, in high school, I missed that passage. That is, I read it, but I read it wrong. I read it like it was something from television.

Let me I tell you what I heard on TV this morning, so that will make sense. The pitch woman for a self-help book said, “You won’t get your dream job right out of college. But if you work, you will get it eventually, when you find the job you were meant for.”

She actually said meant for! This is Christianity turned up a notch, and given a bank loan. It was also, by actual count, the five millionth time I had heard that particular load of crap.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is the pure quill version of this notion. And floating in the air, unsaid but understood, is the implication that the reason will be for your own good. Work hard and you will succeed. If things don’t seem to be going right, it is just life’s way of getting you ready for better things to come.

The Great American Lie.

The flip side of the GAL is that, if you don’t succeed, you weren’t trying hard enough, because “Everything happens for a reason.”

Hemingway knew better. Santiago knew better. He knew that 84 days of trying wouldn’t buy you any luck. When I was in my teens, I read that it did, even though the words on the page were clear enough. When I read Santiago’s statement a few years later, I read it like Hemingway wrote it. I had learned a few things by then.

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