'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (London: Arrow Books, 2004), 99pp


"'But man is not made for defeat,' he said. 'A man can be destroyed but not defeated.'" (pg. 80).

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, a luckless old Cuban fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without a catch. He decides to travel far out to sea to try to change his luck, and hooks an eighteen-foot, 1,500-pound marlin fish. What follows is the indomitable struggle of one man over a period of a few days as he wrestles with the fish to try to subdue it and bring it back to harbour.

As my brief synopsis might suggest, it is not the most exhilarating premise. I have no interest in fishing, and many of the references went over my head (gunwale, skiff, leader, tiller, etc.). I even had to look up 'marlin' to confirm the mental picture I had of it (I was correct, but had been far from sure). But Hemingway writes with a deceptively simple beauty, well enough to sustain my interest for the book's 99 pages. Where the story grabs is in its underlying themes. It is, in essence, an allegory of man's struggle against nature. This is, of course, manifested most directly in Santiago's struggles with the big fish, but also against the elements (as a fisherman, he must use the weather to guide his course and manipulate his craft) and his own natural body (fighting against fatigue, hunger, self-doubt and also pain as the taut fishing line cuts his skin. His weaker left hand is also described as a 'traitor' that 'betrays' him). Despite the title - and the cover (my edition shows a raging sea) - the one natural element that he does not battle is the ocean itself, which is calm throughout.

In showing the old fisherman's struggle with nature, Hemingway also shows how man is one with the natural world. The old man feels a kinship with the marlin (referring to it as a 'brother') and praises its magnificence and strength. "Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts," he muses on page 51. But just as there is prey, there must also be predators. Santiago muses on whether it is a sin to kill such a magnificent creature, and when it is finally subdued, the old man's 'prize' is cruelly snatched from him by relentless waves of sharks. Even though Santiago recognises the inevitable outcome of the shark attacks, he still fights back. When his harpoon is lost, he lashes his knife to an oar. When the knife snaps as it is embedded in a shark, he rips the tiller from the steering rudder. Shorn of all his weapons and weary to the point of collapse, he clubs the sharks with a broken oar, even though he knows this will not kill any of the blood-frenzied predators. To my mind, Hemingway does this to remind us that life is a violent struggle in which creatures, whether men, marlin or sharks, must do battle with one another. This is evident when a small bird comes to rest on Santiago's boat. Knowing that hawks will soon be hunting it, he invites the bird to rest but that it must eventually go and "take your chance like any man or bird or fish." (pg. 40). Hemingway alludes to a sort of primitive chivalry in this eternal struggle. He honours his opponent (the marlin) and, like two enemy soldiers clashing in an anti-war novel, regrets that they must come together to do battle. He does not celebrate his victory, conceding that, with his guile and with his hooks and baits, "I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm." (pg. 76). With the sharks, he fights against the hopeless odds and, upon returning to harbour, bears his loss stoically and rests.

To return to the quotation at the start of this review, the old man could be destroyed but not defeated. Defeat is a man-made concept; it is alien to the natural chivalric order of things. The marlin did not give up; it endured to the end of its natural limits. The old man did not surrender the fish to the sharks; he fought back, even when it was futile. Rather, both were destroyed: the marlin by the old man, and the old man by the sharks. Upon returning to harbour, Santiago dreams of the lions, as he did before he departed, showing that even as his efforts have been destroyed and made irrelevant by the sharks, he has not been defeated. Arguably, merely catching the fish was a victory in itself, as the old man had proved to the other fishermen that he was still capable of doing so despite his 84-day unlucky streak. Had the story not ended with his return to the harbour, one could imagine Santiago setting out again as soon as he had recuperated, and casting his line out into the depths. Hemingway even hints at this when Santiago bemoans his lack of preparedness, particularly on page 85, and resolves to rectify this for the next trip. Perhaps the eternal struggle is not futile; on page 57, Santiago is thankful that man is not cursed to hunt and try to kill the stars, or the sun and the moon. Like the fish, these are natural things. But fish, at least, can be caught and subdued, and defeat on one day could be victory on another (whilst wishing he had not encountered the marlin only to have it snatched from him, the old man notes: "But who knows? It might have turned out well." (pg. 86)). Trying to subdue the stars would be futile but, against the denizens of the ocean, man can fulfil his compulsion to do battle with nature and still have his small victories from time to time.

This, at least, is my humble interpretation of the story. Even if others do not agree with my perspective, it shows how remarkable The Old Man and the Sea is, that Hemingway can present, in less than 100 pages, a thematic story of as great a depth as the ocean in which it takes place.