Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An Old Man Goes to Sea What I Did There?

As far as emotionally draining and anti-climactic fishing novels come, The Old Man and the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as Melville’s Moby Dick, but that’s just about the most non-unique non-compliment I can possibly spare to any work, especially one that has attracted such adulation from the critical community.  I suppose I could cap this critique off right here and now by conceding that I just didn’t get this book, but many besides me have made the exact same concession in their respective reviews, and we at the Files aspire for original commentary where most can only weakly parrot each other’s sentiment.  In this case and many others where a widely lauded ‘classic’, e.g. Toy Story, Vertigo, or Moby Dick, is found wholly unapproachable or just pointless to a minority of audiences, studies by intellectual elitists desperate to make themselves sound smarter have proven that the reason detractors don’t “get it” usually owes less to their inferior perception and more to the lack of anything one can “get” from the classic in question.

And so it is with the critical response to Ernest Hemingway’s account of an aging guy all alone at sea.  Published in LIFE magazine in 1952, these brisk 127 pages of riveting action and adventure were the product of ten years’ worth of meticulous planning, drafting, and revising, an investment that apparently paid off for Hemingway in the long run, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize for Peaceful Literature Or Something two years later.  Good for him, but his book makes no sense.  Santiago is an old man identified by the author only as “the old man”; in spite of the skill and masculinity he continually demonstrates throughout his trials at sea, the poor sucker hasn’t caught a fish for 84 days (three short of his “record”), having contracted a bad case of the salao, “which is the worst form of unlucky”.  He no longer dreams of great fish, storms, or his departed wife, but only of lions on the beaches of Africa.  I think that detail’s supposed to be symbolic or metaphorical or real horrorshow deep because it’s repeated over and over, but I don’t speak symbolism fluently enough to explain it.  The Old Man entertains himself by reading of baseball games in yesterday’s newspaper, drinking coffee in the morning, and maniacally talking to himself within the lonely confines of his skiff, in much the same manner that video gamers argue with their unresponsive television sets and frustrated photographers/videographers yell at their editing software.  Perhaps there’s some intelligent design to the fisherman’s portrayal that I inconceivably overlooked (after all, I didn’t identify Dimmesdale as the baby daddy until the forest scene), but none of these assorted habits appear to accomplish any purpose grander than fulfilling the bare minimum of characterization that Hemingway presumes necessary to publish his tale.  The Old Man also loves a nameless “boy” (in the completely relative, senior-to-young-adult sense) whom he has schooled in the art of fishing from the day he was five, but the author declines to give a very clear cause for his affection, quite literally writing the filial figure out for 80% of the novel.  As Prim essentially is to Katniss in The Hunger Games series, so The Boy more nearly represents a contrived literary device to develop The Old Man’s character than a real character in himself.

Most of the novel concerns a three-day voyage at sea attempted by the titular man, who takes but a water bottle with him in the way of rations and obstinately refuses the boy’s help because “he’s with a lucky boat”.  Readers will observe his epic quest for and contest with a giant, 18-foot marlin for something approaching seventy pages, experiencing in painstaking detail every cut his limbs and face endure and the grueling torture that this tug-of-war exerts on his ancient back.  Hallucinations of baseball players inevitably set in and The Old Man moans so constantly about missing the strength and companionship of The Boy that the well-read comics consumer can’t help seeing flashing images of Frank Miller’s Batman grumbling about how he wishes Jason Todd, a.k.a. Robin, were present to lend a senile, no-longer-super hero a hand.  Eventually all his hard labor pays off when he skewers the sea monster after 48+ hours of aching muscles, sleep deprivation, and self-imposed starvation.  “Smile, you son of a *kaboom*”  Fighting the good fight, he finally secures the prize he so ardently sought… until the next 30 pages depict hordes of sharks gravitating to his craft and tearing his trophy to ribbons, leaving him with nothing more than an impressive skeletal framework by the time he returns to the village.  To put the matter simply, it was all a waste of time and energy, and not just for the fictional hero.

Whereas most books that end on so depressing a note of defeat give at least partial victory to the defeated party, The Old Man simply loses entirely, along with everyone else who followed him on a journey of self-discovery only to discover absolutely nothing.  Even animated movies about anthropomorphic animals realize that the losers have to win something for the story to be worthwhile.  Antarctic native Cody Maverick forfeits the Pen Gu Island surfing championship but finds something far more valuable: the friendship of fellow talking penguins Big Z and Lani and of similarly talking Chicken Joe.  On a more somber degree than I think any animated flick has achieved or even aspired to thus far, George Clooney’s character in The Descendants sees almost all that’s dear to him in life ripped away in a sudden and violent chain of disasters, losing his wife to death and, more crushingly, to another man, losing the trust he had placed in friends, and losing whatever bond he shared with his father-in-law, but somehow he emerges from the tragedy a wiser man and a better father.  If The Old Man of this maritime chronicle emerges with any knowledge or wealth he had formerly wanted, it would merely be the recognition that he’s an old man, which isn’t very inspiring, thought-provoking, or surprising given the title of the book.

Hemingway narrates his tale with the same clipped, unadorned, and strictly literal English that evolved from his reporting profession, quickly became his signature, and could appeal to anyone at a fifth grade reading level.  I wouldn’t necessarily condemn his common-man, journalistic prose as amateurish or dull, as it was admittedly engaging enough to pull me through the book in two days – way faster than my average rate –, but the stark simplicity of Hemingway’s style unfortunately parallels the dearth of meaningful conceits he incorporates in the plot.  I actually tend to like minimalist storytelling, from the ancient Greek drama of Sophocles or Aeschylus to the short stories of Poe to Signs and The Village to Gravity most recently, but all those narratives had a point, unlike this one.  Brody’s not the only seaborne hunter who needs a bigger boat, and by “boat” I mean something like “symbolical vessel for the characters’ progression”.

On the bright side, Shmoop has a hilarious summary of The Old Man and the Sea that’s well worth its weight in words.  I’m not going to steal the whole thing, but here are some excerpted passages:

About the ocean: everyone thinks of the ocean as a woman. That is, all the old, wise people. The arrogant youngsters call the ocean a man.
The old man sees a man-of-war jellyfish and calls it a whore.
* Some important stuff: the old man compares himself to the sea turtles, because their hearts beat after they are cut up into little pieces. Feeling sorry for them does not, however, preclude eating their eggs.
He catches a tuna. So much for reaching day 88. He can kiss that record good-bye.
OK, just kidding. This fish doesn’t count. He uses it for bait for a bigger fish, which is kind of like a guy with a gambling problem putting the chips he just won back on the table.
There’s about three pages of hoping the marlin eats the sardines and hasn’t gone away, might have gone away, but didn’t, then might have gone away again, and so on. Lots of tension, anyway. Tension, like the fishing line
The old man addresses the fish again. I love you, he says, but I will kill you. Fatal Attraction, anyone?
He then refers to the fish as a friend. The fish responds by almost pulling the old man overboard. His hand is bleeding. Love hurts.
He says again that he 1) must eat the tuna and that 2) wishes the boy were there. Think of it as a chorus in a song.
After all this talk about eating the tuna, the old man finally...eats the tuna.
He wonders if it was a sin to kill the fish. But he was born to do this.
Think again – was it a sin because he loved the fish, or not a sin because he loved the fish?


  1. Maybe Hemmingway thinks you are just part of an indifferent food chain and the only advantage you might have is a fishing pole, an unstable too-small boat or a fire hardened spear. It won't save no man forever.

  2. Well, that would make about as much sense as your web address, I'm not sure I get it, but the indifferent food chain theory is far more provocative than "every man grows old and loses his youthful vigor". You should write these books.

  3. Wow. That has to be the most convoluted and esoteric cover identity I've ever seen in the 10 years this blog has wandered adrift on the internet tides. Let me muse of a name that had more twists and turns… I cannot do it.


Please be aware that Google/Blogger has a regrettable habit of crashing before you hit the Preview or Publish button, so writing out longer comments separately before entering them into the browser is well advised.

Moderation is to combat spam, not to muzzle dissenting voices.