A Fisherman’s Tale

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

‘….nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat.’

oldmanseaHis name is Santiago, and we are left to guess his age. What is old anyway? It’s an adjective applied by the observer, in this case Hemingway himself, who was around fifty when he wrote his story. So we must assume the ‘Old Man’ is meant to be somewhat older than that. He is certainly a man past middle age, one who has led a full life as a mariner sailing the world, as a fisherman, and as a champion arm-wrestler. He is ‘thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles’ we are told at the beginning, ‘with brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropical sea.’

However, he is strong; a man has to be strong to be a lone deep-sea fisherman. But he is poor and has not caught a fish for 84 days. The other fishermen say he is bad luck and the boy who has been his companion has been forbidden by his parents from sailing with him.

The Old Man believes the 85th will be his lucky day and he sets out in his skiff before dawn, equipt with all the lines, bait and other items needed for deep-sea fishing. And he does indeed hook a fish, a big fish, a marlin – the biggest he has ever seen.

‘The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright from the sun and his head and back were dark purple …’

Bringing in his catch is not the work or one day or of two. The Old Man must play with the lines, using all his strength and cunning to outsmart and defeat his antagonist. And having at last brought the fish to the boat, he must contend with new enemies and endure the hazardous journey back to the Havana coast before he can market his prize.

The Old Man and the Sea is a difficult work to classify. Often regarded as a short story, it is, at about 30,000 words, too short for a novel and rather long for a conventional short story. Yet into this work, Hemingway poured what must surely be 30,000 words of his best writing. A passionate deep-sea fisherman himself, he brings the pastime alive in the detail. Whatever one thinks of fishing as a ‘sport’, one cannot help but admire the atmosphere, the tension, the colour of this simple story, or feel the excitement of the contest and the pathos of its ending.

We get inside the head of Santiago and share his thoughts, the snatches of his memories, his enthusiasm for baseball and admiration for the great Joe DiMaggio, his dreams of lions in Africa and above all his love-hate relationship with the fish. We feel his sympathy with its fate as a ‘brother’ as well as his steely determination to make the kill.

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‘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 and the Sea won Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 and contributed to the Nobel Prize which he collected the following year.

***

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11 thoughts on “A Fisherman’s Tale

  1. I read this a few years back, wondering what the Hemingway excitement was about.
    I remember enjoying reading it, the storyworld was inviting, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the fuss over it.
    Hemingway makes it easy to read, a skill in itself, but left me a bit flat having heard of all the accolades prior to reading it.

      1. Well I did like some of the school reads. Master and Margerita are still one of my favorite :). Besides Hemingway’s work might’ve been a bit tough for a young brain 😉 but I still think it was good.

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