This Hemingway book is considered a classic fable, because of its hallmark pains and gains story. It revolves around an aged sailor, Santiago. After going 84 days without hooking a decent fish, he sails far out and hooks a 18-foot long swordfish. The battle begins then, and the fish drags the small boat and Santiago far out to sea. For two days this continues, and Santiago wins that battle, but eventually loses the great fish on the way home to the scavenger sharks who find him easy prey. He returns home, and his young apprentice brings him coffee and the football scores that Santiago loves so much and promises to sail with him always.
The Old Man and the Sea is a magnificent story. On one side, it is the tale of a man and a fish, and yet, it is a story of man versus nature, AND, the story of the culture of manhood, courage, bravery in the face of existence. Hemingway celebrates the courage and raw guts of this old man, even recounting a time in Casablanca when he had spent an entire day in an arm wrestling match with a much larger man in a seaside tavern. Hemingway celebrates a concept of humans as beings who go it alone, fierce, brave, courageous without even thinking about it, oozing strength from the nature of the best of the species.
The story is told with an incredible economy of words and description, yet nothing is sacrificed which drives home the power and inner strength of this man, who just takes it as what he does, what it is to be a serious fisherman.
There is a side story as well. This great individual, the man who stands alone, is not alone completely by choice. He has developed a friendship, a working relationship, a love with a young boy who began fishing with him when the boy was only five. Now the boy has moved on to another boat, a more successful one, at his parents’ behest, but he pines to work with Santiago, and when the battle with the great fish has been engaged, Santiago pleads over and over and over: “I wish the boy were here.”
Hemingway’s world is not our world. And the culture of today has little place left for the radical individual whom Hemingway celebrates and Santiago portrays. Yet the power of Hemingway’s telling is such that I couldn’t help but be on Santiago’s side, to admire him, to ache with his loss in the end to forces greater than he. But Hemingway forces me to remember and acknowledge the individual, the struggle for the most basic existence, the battle with nature for survival itself. But most importantly he makes one acknowledge the importance of the individual and the magnificence of courage, skill, art, and endurance.
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