Saturday, July 8, 2017

“The Old Man And the Sea"

“The Old Man And the Sea"
by James Quinn

“Ernest Hemingway is one of the most renowned writers in American history, with classics such as "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "The Sun Also Rises" to his credit. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. He constructed a new literary style characterized by lean, hard, sparse dialogue. He influenced literature and young authors for decades. As a teenager I was immediately drawn to his gritty realistic novels. There was no nonsense to his novels. They always involved man’s struggle against death and hardship. Most of his best work was done in the 1920s and 1930s, but he produced one of his finest works in 1951 towards the end of his life. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his story about an epic battle between an old man and a great marlin.

Ernest Hemingway was bigger than life. Hemingway’s real life reads like a Stephen Spielberg Indiana Jones movie. He was an ambulance driver in World War I, where he was seriously wounded. He had four wives. He lived in Paris during the 1920s associating with other famous “Lost Generation” writers. He was a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, while also joining in the fighting. He survived two plane crashes and multiple car accidents. He battled alcoholism and mental illness, eventually taking his own life, just as his father, brother and sister had done before him. His novels reflected the pain, struggle and inevitability of death that permeated his own life.

"The Old Man and the Sea" is a novel about Santiago, an old fisherman whose life is approaching its conclusion, and his final heroic struggle against a great marlin and the evil sharks that ultimately devour his prize. The mark of a great writer is the ability to tell a story that means many things to many people. Hemingway described his aim in writing this novel: “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

His novels always had a gritty reality to them. This particular novel is rich with symbolism and life lessons that are timeless and relevant today. The plot of the story is quite basic, but the character analysis reveals much deeper insights. For eighty-four days, Santiago, an aged Cuban fisherman, has set out to sea and returned empty-handed. So strikingly unlucky is he that the parents of his young, devoted apprentice and friend, Manolin, have forced the boy to leave the old man in order to fish in a more prosperous boat. On the eighty-fifth day he decides to sail far into the Gulf Stream past where most fishermen would dare venture alone. A big fish, which he knows is a marlin, takes the bait that Santiago has placed one hundred fathoms deep in the waters. The old man expertly hooks the fish, but he cannot pull it in. Instead, the fish begins to pull the boat.

Unable to tie the line fast to the boat for fear the fish would snap a taut line, the old man bears the strain of the line with his shoulders, back, and hands, ready to give slack should the marlin make a run. The great fish pulls the boat for two straight days. The entire time, Santiago endures constant pain from the fishing line. Whenever the fish lunges, leaps, or makes a dash for freedom, the cord cuts Santiago badly. Although wounded and weary, the old man feels a deep empathy and admiration for the marlin, his brother in suffering, strength, and resolve. On the third day, the fish tires and Santiago is able to kill him with his harpoon. He lashes it to the side of the boat and begins the long journey home.

As Santiago navigates toward his destination, the marlin’s blood leaves a trail in the water and attracts sharks. The first to attack is a great mako shark, which Santiago manages to slay with the harpoon. In the struggle, the old man loses the harpoon, which leaves him vulnerable to more shark attacks. The vicious predator sharks continuously attack Santiago’s trophy and despite killing several of the sharks, his battle became ultimately hopeless. He fights a gallant fight, revealing man’s finest qualities of bravery, confidence, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence during the struggle.

The scavengers devour the marlin’s precious meat, leaving only skeleton, head, and tail. Santiago chastises himself for going “out too far,” and for sacrificing his great and worthy opponent. He arrives home before daybreak, stumbles back to his shack, and sleeps very deeply. The next morning, a crowd of amazed fishermen gathers around the skeletal carcass of the fish, which is still lashed to the boat. Manolin, who had been worried sick over the old man’s absence, is moved to tears when he finds Santiago safe in his bed. The boy fetches the old man some coffee and the daily papers with the baseball scores, and watches him sleep. When the old man awakens, the two agree to fish as partners once more. The old man returns to sleep and dreams his usual dream of lions at play on the beaches of Africa.

“But man is not made for defeat," he said. 
"A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
-  Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea"

Sadness, resignation and the inevitability of death permeate the pages of this brilliant novel. But it is grace under pressure in the face of overwhelming odds that is the true message Hemingway leaves with the reader. There is no avoiding death, but the critical test of mankind is how you live your life and how you endure the suffering and pain that are inflicted upon you.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; 
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
- Ernest Hemingway

Life is a journey. At the end of every worldly journey, death awaits. That is a certainty. The ending will be the same for everyone who walks this earth. What matters is the course chosen on the voyage through life. The vast sea represents life’s journey, with its ebbs, flows, and storms that must be navigated. In Hemingway’s portrait of the world, death is inevitable, but the finest men will nonetheless refuse to give in to its power.  In both the sea and in life, there are a number of possibilities that lie hidden from the common eye; some are gifts to be treasured and some are problems to be defeated. Neither will be found unless man embarks upon the journey. If man is lucky enough to discover a treasure he must fight until death to retain it; if man is unlucky enough to discover an evil lurking underneath the surface of the sea, he must fight it bravely and nobly until the end. In either case, it is the struggle that is all- important, and a man obtains the status of hero if he battles the sea (life) with grace under pressure. The only way to obtain the status of hero is to set sail on the uncertain sea of life.

“Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how
 he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
 - Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s novel suggests that it is possible to transcend natural law. The very inescapability of destruction creates the terms that allow an admirable man to rise above it. It is specifically through the endeavor to combat the inevitable that a man can prove himself. Indeed, a man can prove this resolve over and over through the worthiness of the adversary he chooses to fight. Santiago, though devastated at the end of the novel, is never defeated. Instead, he emerges as a dignified conqueror. Santiago’s struggle does not enable him to change man’s position in the world. Rather, it enables him to meet his most noble destiny.”

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