Monday 22 July 2013

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“It's silly not to hope. It's a sin he thought.”

It took me a while to warm up to Ernest Hemingway but after finishing The Sun also Rises and now The Old Man and the Sea, I can see why he is held in high regard. After several negative reactions to his style of writing, especially in relation to the dull and overrated  A Farewell to Arms, I was completely discouraged from reading anything else by him. Luckily, I decided to give him another chance and not only was I completely enthralled by this novella, but it exceeded my expectations in every possible way. It may be a very simple story but it packs such a powerful emotional punch right to the gut. For me, Hemingway is the anti-thesis to Faulkner; his terse and distilled style of writing is in contradistinction to the latter whose prose tends to be poetically verbose. I mean Faulkner no disrespect and this is not meant to be a slight against him; however, there is something very appealing about Hemingway's simple and concise approach to narrative. The use of repetition, sparseness and transparency in his writing is mesmerizing to behold. Or it can come across as contrived and aggravating depending on how the reader approaches the text. 

Hemingway presents a simple story and yet, there seems to be so much subtext lurking beneath the surface. Similar to the elusive marlin that the old man is trying to catch, the implicit meanings make themselves partially visible; they are difficult to fully grasp and then quickly submerge back underneath the murky depths of the narrative. As one of those quintessential American Classics, it has been analyzed to death and there exists so many different interpretations especially in relation to the use of symbolism.

The religious parable angle is noteworthy but I am still unsure of how everything completely fits together within this particular context. Is the marlin supposed to represent Christianity (the symbol of the fish) or is it supposed to be the Leviathan? Is Santiago a martyr figure? There also seems to exist some critical undertones towards capitalism. Perhaps one can criticize Hemingway for championing male chauvinism or masculinity but I do not think the power of the story is strictly devoted to one gender since it's various ideas are universal. Personally, the novel is most meaningful to me as a story of determination, morality and redemption: the human struggle when facing adversity. One must overcome fear and do whatever is necessary to succeed. Santiago becomes an idealistic figure in his simple way of attempting to challenge the forces of nature to achieve his goal.

The ending is incredibly poignant and left me close to tears. Santiago sets out on a dangerous quest to catch the giant fish; he pushes himself to the limit, enduring much pain and suffering and although he defeats the mighty beast, he also returns home defeated. What exactly is Hemingway trying to say here? Again, I am not entirely sure but it seems to me that perhaps the fish represents the old man and they share a kind of symbiotic relationship. Thus, Santiago's real fight is not with the fish, but with himself--shattering any disillusions to prove his self worth; a way for him to seek validation for his existence in an incomprehensible world. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it and the story is simply about an old man who is a fisherman by trade, veers off course one day and does battle against nature and a giant fish.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

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