Where to Begin…The Old Man and the Sea

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August 11, 2016 by bradcharlesbeals

The Old Man and the Sea…

old manI had to read this in high school, but I’m not sure I got any more out of it than the images of bleeding hands and the [SPOILER!] at the end.

A few weeks ago I picked it up again because it happened to be sitting on cart full of books I’d inherited from a retired teacher.

I was hooked by the end of page one, and I read it through over the next two days.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. 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. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

“Santiago,” the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up. “I could go with you again. We’ve made some money.”

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

“No,” the old man said. “You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.”

“But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”

“I remember,” the old man said. “I know you did not leave me because you doubted.”

“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”

“I know,” the old man said. “It is quite normal.”

“He hasn’t much faith.”

“No,” the old man said. “But we have. Haven’t we?”

“Yes,” the boy said. “Can I offer you a beer on the Terrace and then we’ll take the stuff home.”

“Why not?” the old man said. “Between fishermen.”

Hemingway is considered (by people who know about this kind of thing) as the first modern American author. This opening page demonstrates why. You can see already that this tale will be spare. There’s little exposition, and we’re simply dropped into the story. This was Hemingway’s contribution to American fiction, and because of this, some say he was more influential than talented, and that while everyone else from that point on followed his lead, he was really more of an innovator than a powerful literary mind. 

I agree with part of that: after the release of In Our Time in 1925 and The Sun Also Rises a year later, American fiction was never the same, so yes, he was influential. But even if The Old Man and the Sea were the only story we had from him, it would be enough to establish him (in my humble opinion) as supremely talented. 

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