19 September 2011

Reader's Report: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

I don't know why but it took me forever to get around to reading Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. You'd think I would have come across it in high school, or maybe have picked it up in one of those undergraduate kicks you can get on where you read everything you can by one author. Alas, the author I chose for that kick was Faulkner. Very rewarding, that. Less rewarding was when I went on the same kick with Kerouac.

In my teaching of Hemingway, I've stayed pretty close to the In Our Time or The Sun Also Rises texts. I like the angle of Hemingway as representative of post-Great War alienation, and by the time The Old Man and the Sea rolls around in 1952, well, we've got another major war to deal with and I'm not sure -- although correct me if I'm wrong -- that Hemingway deals with WWII in any of his work. Maybe a short story. I don't know.

So one of the nice things my wife bought me this year was an old library copy of The Old Man and the Sea. She gave it to me in June. I read it in September. It's very striking for how isolated it is. It's pretty much the old man, Santiago, and the big fish, and since Santiago is all alone out on the sea, the entire text is pretty much what we'd call Man v. Nature, although you could also argue that Man v. Himself is also pretty heavily involved. When Santiago interacts with his village, if you can call it interaction, it mainly establishes his position as an outsider who follows his own way, which makes him a perfect Hemingway code hero.

I also find it interesting that Santiago's great success is in a way only fleeting; while the fishermen in the village may marvel at the remains of the fish he brings home, he himself is upset that it is only remains. There's a certain mythological quality to the tale because his obsession with the fish -- his knowledge of proper pursuit and landing of the fish -- requires him to be carried so far beyond so many limits.  You could argue that even with Santiago being left with nothing but bones, he regains his reputation among the villagers and attains a certain peace in doing things the proper way, much like Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

At some point, I'll get to the next book my wife gave me in June, Hemingway's Islands in the Stream.

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