I’ve read the majority of Hemingway’s works, almost all of them when I was in my teen’s and 20’s. I am now in the process of re-reading a number of them, including this finely crafted novella, which was a contributing factor in Hemingway being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Particularly this work, after almost a half a century, resonate all the more, now that you can feel some of the old man’s pains, and you are much more conscious how you have to use your knowledge and experience to overcome the declining strength of one’s body. A high school student really cannot truly understand.
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.