The following is an essay I wrote resently on The Old Man and the Sea.
There comes a point when we are thrown up against ourselves; when we meet ourselves face to face for the first time. A point when we are forced to come to grips with ourselves, with life, the meaning of life and the question of whether it has meaning at all. This point will often come in an extreme circumstance and it will not leave us unchanged.
Jonah was thrown headlong against himself in the belly of a fish and began to preach repentance. Moses was thrown up against himself in the middle of the desert in the presence of a burning bush then went to confront Pharaoh. Jacob was confronted with himself during a wrestling match in the middle of the wilderness and was changed to Israel. Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits in the middle of a dream and became “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”. And an old man named Santiago whom we’ll be examining in this paper met himself on a boat in the middle of the ocean and concluded that life is meaningless. He is a fictional character from a story by Ernest Hemingway; The Old Man and the Sea. It is a small classic about the old fisherman’s struggle with nature and ultimately with God. Hemingway explores questions of the meaning of life, the nature of God and the universe in general through a very simple story. Santiago, his main character, is having a streak of bad luck; his luck is so bad that people say he is salao which is the worst form of unlucky. For even though he goes out to sea every day he has not caught anything for eighty-four days. He now lives only by the charity of a young man whom he trained as a fisherman years ago and who now works with the old man, or would if his parents did not insist that he not work for a man so unlucky as Santiago.
However the old man is not discouraged by his misfortune. He knows the sea will sometimes treat a man like this and tomorrow will be the eighty-fifth day since his bad luck began and he knows eighty-five is a lucky number.
The reader of The Old Man and the Sea will feel subtly disturbed by the old man’s complacency, he seems content with whatever life throws his way and not just content but negatively complacent. What motivates this old fisherman to such a stagnant view of life?
His relationship with the ocean is key to understanding the meaning of the story and the motivations of the old man. Listen to this quote from the book,
“He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
We must keep in mind that the ocean is the representative of the universe to Santiago; it is where he has been put to lead his life and scratch out a living. So if, as we see, Santiago views the ocean as temperamental and unstable--even somewhat chaotic--he must view the universe in the same way. It seems nothing he does will have any effect on this strange woman called Meaning. He is only to get along with her as best he can. So he heads off to sea once more, trusting only to his skills, equipment and a lucky number, for what else can be trusted in a world such as his? He leaves with the other fishermen but goes farther out then they hoping to find a big fish among the schools of bonito and albacore. Hemingway, who was always praised for his simple but compelling prose, builds the tension wonderfully, as can be seen in this passage from the book;
The sun was hot now and the old man felt it on the back of his neck and felt the sweat trickle down his back as he rowed.
I could just drift, he thought, and sleep and put a bight of line around my toe to wake me. But today is eighty-five days and I should fish the day well.
Just then, watching his lines, he saw one of the projecting green sticks dip sharply.
“Yes.” he said. “Yes,” and shipped his oars without bumping the boat. He reached out for the line and held it softly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He felt no strain nor weight and he held the line lightly. Then it came again. This time it was a tentative pull, not solid nor heavy, and he knew exactly what it was. One hundred fathoms down a marlin was eating the sardines that covered the point and the shank of the hook where the hand-forged hook projected from the head of the small tuna.
The old man held the line delicately, and softly, with his left hand, unleashed it from the stick. Now he could let it run through his fingers without the fish feeling any tension.
This far out, he must be huge in this month, he thought. Eat them, fish. Eat them. Please eat them.
The marlin eats them. He takes the bait and runs with it and a sequence is born that is a combination of both Iliad and Odyssey; of epic conflict and wandering as Santiago struggles to hold fast to the fish that is pulling him on a journey across miles and miles of ocean. He must endure despite the cord cutting into his back, his hunger and lack of sleep.
The sun sets and it rises and it sets and it rises and still the fish pulls. The old man admires the fish greatly for his enormous strength and endurance and one gets the feeling that Santiago the great fisherman is drawing some of his strength and endurance from this fish whom he calls brother.
Much of the story is concerned with what takes place right here; in the days and nights spent holding onto the line that the fish is pulling. Much of the old man’s character is seen here also; his strength, stamina and patience. Unfortunately a lot of what happens here is not relevant to this paper so I’m forced to leave out many wonderful and rich details. An example of such a detail would be his thoughts on his hunting of the fish; He says it is lucky that man does not have to get up each day and try to hunt the stars. This thought does not seem to bring much comfort to him because it seems that to hunt and kill this fish does not seem much than better hunting and killing a star. But he must kill the fish, he knows it he just hopes it happens soon.
On the sunrise of his third day at sea the fish, finally drained of his energy, begins to swim out in all directions making circles around the boat. Santiago knew these circlings were coming and he knows what to do; if he can draw the line in a little bit each time the fish circles he will eventually bring the fish in close enough to kill him. Everything has been building up to this point. The days and nights he has spent waiting for the fish to become exhausted; the cuts across his back where he positioned the line; his raw hands and his blurred vision from lack of sleep have all served to bring the fish to this point where he will be close enough and tired enough to kill. But the old man is faint and in the two nights at sea he has had only a few hours of sleep altogether. “I am tireder then I have ever been” he says.
For the first few turns the fish can’t be seen, Hemingway describes what happens on the third turn:
He saw him first as a dark shadow that took so long to pass under the boat that he could not believe its length.
“No,” he said. “he can’t be that big.”
But he was that big and at the end of this circle he came to the surface only thirty yards away and the man saw his tail out of water. It was higher than a big scythe blade and a very pale lavender above the dark blue water. It raked back and as the fish swam just below the surface the old man could see his huge bulk and the purple stripes that banded him. His dorsal fin was down and his huge pectorals were spread wide.
It is many more turns before the fish is close enough to spear with his harpoon and the old man is desperate and light headed, wearied by each pass the fish makes just out of his reach. To do justice to the passage containing the actual death of the fish it must be included in it’s entirety, we find the fisherman summing up all he has as the fish passes for the last time;
He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony and the fish came over onto his side and swam gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff and started to pass the boat, long, deep, wide, silver and barred with purple and interminable in the water.
The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.
Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.
The old man felt faint and sick an he could not see well. But he cleared the harpoon line and let it run slowly through his raw hands and, when he could see, he saw the fish was on his back with his silver belly up. The shaft of the harpoon was projecting at an angle from the fish’s shoulder and the sea was discolouring with the red of the blood from his heart. First it was dark as a shoal in the blue water that was more than a mile deep. Then it spread like a cloud. The fish was silvery and still and floated with the waves.
So now the fish is dead. The fisherman has triumphed over his brother and he wonders if the man who he admires most, the great DiMaggio, would be proud of him. Due to the fish’s size it is impossible to take it back to land in the boat and the old man must strap it along side.
So far this has been a story of endurance and the struggles that humans face. We can sympathize with Santiago in his pursuit of the fish because we have all pursued something, some (like Santiago) even to the point of death. As sad as we are to see the marlin die we are more heartened to see that his struggle was not in vain. But now the world of hard work rewarded and justice falls apart around Santiago when the sharks come.
First one, then two, then three sharks come. The old man fights them off as best he can but eventually his weapons all brake or are lost in the ocean and he comes home with only the fish’s skeleton, utterly confounded by that strange, strange woman; la mar.
What can we say in conclusion? Santiago’s pursuit of the fish is allegorical; it is the pursuit of the meaning of life, or to put it better; it is the pursuit of “that-which-gives-life-meaning”. Santiago grasped that meaning for an instant and had it taken away from him in a clumsy and mindless way. The ocean/universe/God only teased him with the thought that he could find meaning for himself. Santiago learned that he went out to far, he will not try to fish in that deep again; he will not try to delve that deep into the mind of the universe again. But I don’t think it can be said that Santiago has truly been dramaticly altered by these events
Santiago has known all along this thing about life and now he has only had it confirmed. So when he gets back to land he takes care of his equipment as best he can and falls asleep. He will go out again (not as far) when he has recovered.
So we see that it is really the storyteller (Hemingway) who has been thrown up against himself, met himself face to face for the first time and come to this dreadful conclusion. The danger of this story is that it is so dreadfully close to the truth. The story is skillfully and beautifully spun but spun none the less. Hemingway way has thrown his artistic dart and it has landed so very close to the bulls eye of the target that anyone who didn’t take a good look at it couldn’t help but think that he had hit upon Truth itself.