I found Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea quite dull. Well, at least until page 57. I finished it almost two weeks ago, but I choose not to review it straight away, as I knew I couldn’t give it the justice that I suspected it deserved.
The truth is that I was distracted by its greater meaning. I couldn’t quite figure it out: I knew that it wasn’t just a fable about an unlucky old man who caught a really big fish after days out at sea. And I also recognised that most of the negative reviews that I had read stem from a general misinterpretation of the story; “just throw the fucking fish back in”, some say.
Yet, a few days after putting it down I found myself wanting to tell people, “I’ve just read the most fascinating story.” A passage from page 57 had been stuck in my head. It was the first time while reading the book that I began to acknowledge its ‘greater meaning’, and yet I was still puzzled:
I am glad we do not have 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 Old Man, Santiago, reflects on his place in the universe and the natural order of things: he may have caught the fish, which he is determined to kill despite his respect for it, but he knows that there are greater entities than himself.
The book relies heavily on symbolism, and one of the most obvious examples of this, is the numerous references to The Bible:
He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast on his shoulder. He tried to get up. But it was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked at the road.
The Crucifixion imagery is symbolic of personal sacrifice and assimilates Santiago with Jesus. But Santiago is also a sinner:
But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it.
Before The Old Man and the Sea, I had only read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but these two books could not be anymore different. The Old Man and the Sea is beautifully written, but deceptively simple. Despite initially finding it dull, my awareness of a greater meaning to the story meant that I found it difficult to put it down.
The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest thing in the sea…
I have intentionally not went into too much detail regarding the plot: although simple, it does take a few unexpected twists and turns that captivate your attention. And if I’m being honest, this is a book that I’m still trying to come to terms with myself.
Surprisingly, I suspect that The Old Man and The Sea will go down as one of my favourite books. Like As I Lay Dying, I admire it because it perplexes me, challenges me, and reveals a greater meaning to me that I hope I will never fully understand.