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The Old Man and The Sea Paperback – May 5, 1995
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Here, for a change, is a fish tale that actually does honor to the author. In fact The Old Man and the Sea revived Ernest Hemingway's career, which was foundering under the weight of such postwar stinkers as Across the River and into the Trees. It also led directly to his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1954 (an award Hemingway gladly accepted, despite his earlier observation that "no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards"). A half century later, it's still easy to see why. This tale of an aged Cuban fisherman going head-to-head (or hand-to-fin) with a magnificent marlin encapsulates Hemingway's favorite motifs of physical and moral challenge. Yet Santiago is too old and infirm to partake of the gun-toting machismo that disfigured much of the author's later work: "The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords." Hemingway's style, too, reverts to those superb snapshots of perception that won him his initial fame:
Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin. He saw it first when it jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun and bending and flapping wildly in the air.If a younger Hemingway had written this novella, Santiago most likely would have towed the enormous fish back to port and posed for a triumphal photograph--just as the author delighted in doing, circa 1935. Instead his prize gets devoured by a school of sharks. Returning with little more than a skeleton, he takes to his bed and, in the very last line, cements his identification with his creator: "The old man was dreaming about the lions." Perhaps there's some allegory of art and experience floating around in there somewhere--but The Old Man and the Sea was, in any case, the last great catch of Hemingway's career. --James Marcus
About the Author
Ernest Hemingway did more to influence the style of English prose than any other writer of his time. Publication of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms immediately established him as one of the greatest literary lights of the 20th century. His classic novella The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He died in 1961.
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It is about the love between the 'Old Man' (Santiago) and a young boy, his protege, his apprentice, his beloved companion, and about the boys love for him, too.
And if love is also 'committment,' as it surely is, this, too, is what this book is about...The 'old man's' commitment to break his streak of 84 days without a catch. His willingness to to row way, way, way out, way beyond where any of the other fishermen were toiling...and to do this by himself, alone.
And it's also about his love of (commitment to) fishing and, yes, his love of the 18' marlin (over one thousand pounds) that he caught, and with whom he dialogues throughout this wonderful tale..AND dialogues with him even after he had killed him, and, then, finally his ferocious committment to preserve the fallen fish, now dead, from the sharks that relentlessly tore into its carcass.
This is also a book about nobility, about singleness of purpose, about purity of heart and bravery, endurance, and about friendship....about the love of the 'old man' for the boy, and of the boys love for the 'old man.'
For Hemingway, who wrote 'The Old Man' when he was in his early 50's, this book was, I believe, a plaint, a cry about beauty, and about man at his best, and about good fortune and bad fortune, and about loss and sadness, and, in the end, about emptiness.
This book is a treasure of dialogue...dialogue between the man and the boy that is exquisite, but even more, much more exquisite, about the dialogue between the man and himself, his reveries, and also between the man and his fish, the huge marlin, both when the fish was living and when he was dead.
The Old Man and the Sea is artistry, pure artistry at its greatest, nary a spare word, never complicated...always lucid, aways compressed, transparent, pure. I have read that Hemingway labored over each and every word, each and every phrase, and edited and re-edited it endlessly.
Only 127 pages, it is an easy read that bears periodic rereading...For this review, I have read it twice, and listened to it on tape twice...and I had read it before when I was in college in the late 1950's.
Hemingway died about 9 years after this book was published...In some ways, The Old Man and the Sea can be considered his last and final testament...and what a beauty it is...A true treasure. And, of course, it did win both a Nobel and a Pulitzer...
Finally, I don't want or mean to suggest or imply that this book is 'heavy.' Anything but...It catches perfectly the 'lightness of being' in it's descriptions of the weather, the processes of fishing, and the Old Man's love for baseball and Joe DiMaggio, and his arm wresting with a huge black man in Havana...In short, this book is also fun...
The “old man” is Cuban, whose wife has died, and he lives in a shack, alone, along the beach, still practicing the only real profession he has ever known: being a fisherman. A young boy has “adopted” him, and provides moral and physical support to alleviate his poverty. The “old man” has had his “glory days,” sailing as far away as Africa, where he saw the lions on the beach. He also had immense strength in his youth, beating an opponent in a hand-wrestling contest that lasted all night.
The heart of the novella is when the Old Man “grabbed the Brass Ring,” hooking the largest fish ever, a marlin that is two feet longer that his 16 foot skiff. It is truly an epic struggle to reel the marlin in – and the old man fishing experience allows him to “think like a fish,” knowing instinctively the most likely tactics the fish will use. The old man also instinctively knows – long before the days of GPS and weather forecasts, where he is, and what weather will be forthcoming. Even with all his experience, he rues how unprepared he is, in terms of the omission of certain equipment from his boat, for such a multi-day struggle with The Big One of his life. He can still summon forth some of his youth’s strength, along with his cunning, in order to prevail.
Victory though is bittersweet, as it so often is. On more than one occasion I’ve thought that the bleak outcome of this work might have foreshadowed Hemingway’s decision to commit suicide, at the young age of 61, when so many possibilities still remained.
In terms of “high school assignment books,” this is one that I fully advocate still being assigned, for many a student should appreciate the straightforward narrative, and the clean-cut epic struggle, even though today they might never have heard of Joe DiMaggio, or known that the Dodgers were once in Brooklyn. But if you read it in high school today, please make a modest commitment to read it a half century later, and undertake the steps to improve your chances of making it that half century. For your understanding of it, the second time around, might easily be “3 x” that of your youth. 5-stars.
But if you give it a chance, what a story! It puts other Man vs Nature stories to shame. Hemingway puts you in the boat with this old man, and watch his fortunes rise and fall, and how he copes with physical and mental pain, alone and far from shore.
For such a short book, by the satisfying end, you leave feeling like the the old man's constant friend, the boy: sympathetic for the old man's struggles, but in complete admiration of his spirit.