The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway - Classics Circuit

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Classics Circuit is an awesome opportunity to tour classic books falling under different themes. This circuit is on "The Lost Generation" of American writers - those who "came of age and were called to service during the 'Great War.' (Quoted from the Classics Circuit web page). While at first I thought I would choose F. Scott Fitzgerald as my topic to write about for the tour because he is one of my favorite writers, I decided instead to dive into Hemingway, for a couple of different reasons.The first reason is a little bit silly. When I was in Paris, I happened across a gorgeous little bookshop in the Latin Quarter called Shakespeare & Company. One of the little quirks of this shop is that the second floor houses writing tables, shelves of used books for references, and a few beds for any struggling artist/writer to put up for the night. Hemingway allegedly slept on one of those beds, and I took a picture there. I feel a little like a poser, being so excited about my Hemingway-bed-picture and having only read one Hemingway.

The second reason is because of that solitary Hemingway that I have read. I read A Farewell to Arms for pleasure in high school, and liked it decently. It was not a favorite or anything that made a huge enduring impression, but I didn't hate it either. However, a few months later I was required to read it for my junior English class. I've noticed that I don't hate books that I'm "forced" to read the first time, but if I'm "forced" to reread a book it usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth. After that experience I had a professed distaste for the novel and how dark and cynical it was. It put me off Hemingway for quite a while, although I knew that eventually I'd have to try again.

And here we are with the results of my second try.

The most noticeable aspect of Hemingway is, for me, his writing style. His voice is distinct and different from any other writer I have ever read. It is clean cut, straightforward, and obvious. I think this style is the main reason why people either love or hate Hemingway. I remember my first boyfriend going on about a Hemingway book - he said, "It's just Hemingway talking and it's awesome." It took me a little while to make up my mind if I was in the loving or hating camp, but I think I am a Hemingway convert. His voice is slow, soothing, and obvious, but still manages to paint images in a beautiful, clear way. My favorite passage describes a shark coming to attack the man and his hard-won fish -
He was a very big Mako shark built to swim as fast as the fastest fish in the sea and everything about him was beautiful except his jaws. His back was as blue as a swordfish's and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome. He was built as a swordfish except for his huge jaws which were tight shut now as he swam fast, just under the surface with his high dorsal fin knifing through the water without wavering. Inside the closed double lip of his jaws all of his eight rows of teeth were slanted inwards.
The language is simple, but the picture is completely obvious in my mind.

I also loved getting to know the strength and fortitude of the old man. He is alone for most of the story, but his actions speak volumes about his character. We are first introduced to him by this description: "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated." We learn that he is strong and unwavering, despite his age and his destitute circumstances. We learn he has nothing except the love of a boy who used to fish in his boat, but who has since left it to fish in a "luckier" boat (under command of his father). We see some pathos and loneliness in his life, despite his inner strength and resolve to go forward and catch a big fish - "Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt" and "If the boy were here he would wet the coils of line, he though. Yes. If the boy were here. If the boy were here." We hear the old man suffering as his hands are cut and bleeding, as he rations his water and eats raw fish to stay alive in pursuit of his big fish, as we watch him curled up against the line to snatch just a few minutes of sleep.

As I read, I had to ask myself, what is the point of this story? Because, okay, it's cool that Santiago caught a huge fish, and that he struggled with it over many days and nights. It's touching that the boy cares so much for him, even though he isn't allowed to fish on his boat anymore. The writing is beautiful. But the story itself isn't a cliff hanger - the events are not especially interesting. I think the answer is in Santiago, and I think there are two messages. I haven't really studied literature, and I'm not familiar with the "philosophy" of Ernest Hemingway, if he has one. But the message, to me, was this - that man is noble, and he will fight to achieve his goals to his very limits, but that he is conquerable by circumstance and fate. It isn't a happy ending, but I think it is moving because it rings true with all of us. Whether or not we actually believe in fate, there are moments when things overcome us that we fight and fight, but that may still win. Although the details of Santiago's fishing line and the cuts across his hands would not usually make a powerful story for me, the underlying sense of the human condition made this simple tale a great classic.


  1. I admire your reasons for reading Hemingway for the Circuit. I'll be reading A Fareweel to Arms soon...

  2. I'm glad you liked this one. It's my very favorite Hemingway. I love it as a story and as an allegory for something bigger. Personally, and i don't know if this is "right" or anything, but I think of it as lesson in continuing to fight even in the face of extreme difficulty.

    I really need to reread this one again!

  3. I am a Fitz lover and I am sad to say that I haven't read much Hemingway. My reason is specifically The Old Man and the Sea- I hated it in High School. I have to say I am not likely to start with this novel, but I will be trying to read another Hemingway...someday

  4. Nice review.

    I haven't read any Hemingway since I was required to in high school and then again in college. Both times his simple, understated style didn't appeal to me much. I think I've continued to avoid him for that reason - which is silly - because my reading tastes have VASTLY changed since then.

    Your mention of Hemingway's reflection of fate and the human condition are definitely themes and ideas that I appreciate in literature - I'm going to have to give Hemingway another chance soon.

  5. @Jillian - I'll be interested to hear what you think. I have actually been thinking I should reread A Farewell to Arms again now that I'm not sixteen and bitter about having too much homework, haha.

    @Amanda - I definitely got the vibe that it was about fighting difficulty as well, although I was saddened that things didn't turn out perfectly for Santiago. His determination made me wish I could reach through the pages and give him a hug.

    @Laurie - Yay for Fitz lovers! I always say he is my literary crush. I hope your next Hemingway turns out better!

    @everybookandcranny - Thanks! I think Hemingway is definitely an acquired taste. I want to read everything he's written, but I will definitely be stretching that task out over many years, because his style is very different.

  6. I've read a few Hemingways (am re-reading A Moveable Feast for the tour), but have not read this one yet. Funny thing is, I have had it in my TBR books for forever! I'm going to change that soon. He has written enough books that you can stretch it out over a few years :-).

    I like both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but for different reasons...

  7. A Moveable Feast is my absolute favorite with The Old Man and the Sea a very, very close second. I like older Hemingway a bit more than younger Hemingway works. He just has the ability to tell it like it is, and for that, I absolutely worship him. Glad to read that you are liking his work as well!

  8. Thank you for your great Hemingway review. I read my first Hemingway book for this classics tour and so I'm excited to read other reviews of Hemingway books. Oh, and I love your picture inside Shakespeare and Co! I went there and took many photos, too!

  9. @Valerie - Yes, they are very different authors. I really need to read A Moveable Feast.

    @Coffee and a Book Chick - Yes, he is so straightforward. I can't wait to read A Moveable Feast, especially because I'm such a francophile.

    @MustardSeedReads - Yay Shakespeare and Co! That was seriously my favorite place on my study abroad - I studied there and it was one of the only pianos I could find to play on as well. :) Now I'm going to go check out your classics tour post :)

  10. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I read it shortly after I gave birth to my son, so I read the whole thing thinking of the challenges we each go through, and comparing myself and my own pains to Santiagos. I should really revisit this and see what I think now, almost four years later!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...