The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of those authors that I had always meant to read and yet somehow not quite got round to actually trying. Yes, I know. Gran used to go on and on about how amazing For Whom the Bell Tolls was and after reading Naomi Wood’s marvellous Mrs. Hemingway I was even more keen to give him a whirl at some point. As it happened Rachael chose The Old Man and the Sea for book group which I was both excited by (as I had meant to read him and it was a novella, so a quick intro) and wary of (because as we all know I don’t like books set on boats) before I started. Yet the whole point of a good book group is that it gets you reading things you mightn’t normally, and so I got on board…

Vintage Books, paperback, 1951 (1999 edition), fiction, 112 pages, bought by myself for myself

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But 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 to another boat which caught three good fish in the first week.

The first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea pretty much gives you the premise of the book straight from the off. There is an old man, who used to be quite the fisherman we gather, who now lives alone and hasn’t caught a fish in ages. He used to have a young man help him who still visits, and gives a wonderful and touching start to novella, yet now the locals believe he brings bad luck and so he goes out by himself though less and less. Upon waking one day he has the feeling his luck might be changing like the tide (just to through a seaside metaphor in there, there’s a fair few in the book) and so sets out to catch a big fish, hopefully the biggest that he can.

This makes The Old Man and the Sea sound both like a tale of adventure and one of adversity, an old man in his slightly knackered boat, going out to catch a blooming big fish and show those youths he still has it in him. Indeed in many ways it is, and I liked that feeling despite my aversion to boats and sure enough pretty soon fell in love (I wanted to say hook, line and sinker – sorry) with the prose. With sentences like this…

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

Or this…

Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.

… How can you not? Sometimes, sadly no matter how wonderful the words, if you aren’t quite lost in a book it loses its charm and fairly soon after we had set sail I started to get rather disinterested. I think there were two reasons for this. The first is that whilst I spent a lot of time with the old man and occasionally in his head, as Hemingway flips between perspectives now and then, Hemmingway holds of telling you exactly what he’s thinking or feeling outside catching a bloody massive sea monster of a fish. He remainssome sort of unknowable figure with little characterisation therefore meaning I didn’t care about his plight or quest. The second issue was that no matter how much beautiful writing there was at the start, and indeed again at the end, it all seemed to be rather flat and monotonous in the middle making me somewhat bored. I can see how this may have been the idea, we had to wait patiently for ages while the old man does, yet there is a difference between being bored literally and being literally bored.

He was rowing steadily and it was no effort for him since he kept well within his speed and thethe surface of the ocean was flat except for the occasional swirls of the current. He was letting the current do a third of the work and as it started to be light he saw he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour.
I worked the deep wells for a week and did nothing, he thought. Today I’ll work out where the schools of bonita and albacore are and maybe there will be a big one with them.

That said when the old man finally encounters the big fish there are some rather exciting scenes where the old man must conquer both the nature of the sea and its other inhabitants. Be warned though, if you are a fan of fish for your dinner this may turn you, I haven’t fancied eating fish since I read it which was about two months ago. The Old Man and the Sea does encourage some interesting discussion; though we were divided about how much we liked it we had a really interesting conversation about whether this was a fable about adversity, as I mentioned above, or actually about greed – and it got slightly heated!

So did I like The Old Man and the Sea? Well, I am not really sure… kind of. If I was being very honest I think I would describe it as being an inoffensive and interesting-ish read. (It only won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, so what would I know!) I think the writing is wonderful, if sometimes a little lengthy even for a novella as it felt longer than it was. That said, it is certainly a book I won’t forget and not just for the fact I may never eat fish and chips again. As it was “Hemingway” I expected that I would be much more bowled over than I was and really needed more character and a little more back story. Maybe it’s not the best of his books to start with? Maybe I needed something meatier (rather than fishier – sorry again) to get my teeth into.

Who else has read The Old Man and the Sea and what did you make of it? If you fancy some more thoughts you can see Sanne of Books and Quills discuss it here, we seemed to be of a mind. As I am still keen to read more Hemingway where would you recommend I head next where I might have a little more success?

15 Comments

Filed under Ernest Hemingway, Review, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics

15 responses to “The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

  1. jananav

    The only Hemingway I’ve read (she shamefully admits) is A Moveable Feast.

    “It is a literary feast, brilliantly evoking the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the youthful spirit, unbridled creativity, and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.” (Goodreads blurb).

    I highly recommend it! And I do not recall a single fish.

    • jananav

      Oh wait, I mean that is the only Hemingway in addition to The Old Man and the Sea! I recently listened to the audible version read by Donald Sutherland. An excellent narrator for the story. I liked A Moveable Feast better though.

  2. Oh no! I’m disappointed that this was your first EH because honestly, it’s my least favorite. For some reason (it’s short!), it gets assigned for school reading, but his other books and short stories are just so much better.

    I hope you’ll give him another chance.

  3. I’ve read The Sun Also Rises which was utterly fab (but does have bullfighting) and To Have and Have Not in addition to The Old Man… Preferred both the others to the old man.

  4. I grew up knowing my mother hated The Old Man and the Sea, so I was happy to escape high school without having to read it. I didn’t quite escape. When I was in training to become a teacher, I was asked by my lead teacher to create a lesson plan for Old Man and the Sea and teach it myself. I came to the book dreading it, but I loved it. I drank in every word and got all caught up in the struggle between this old man and the fish. The human struggle for our basic needs and our dreams was right there in front of me.

    I was thrilled to teach it to this group of 11th and 12th grades. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into that lesson plan. I even made it interactive with a tug of war of sorts. “Imagine doing this for the amount of time the old man did.” Blah, blah, blah was the response I got from most of the students. I was personally offended that they hated (or more accurately didn’t bother to read) a book I loved and right then and there I decided teaching English wasn’t for me. Books are sacred. Those cretins? Not so much.

    I’m sorry it didn’t have the same impact on you that it did on me. I’ve not read it again since. There very well could have been a link between me trying to figure out what in the hell I wanted to do with my life and that book that was a perfect match. Who knows. What I do know is that The Old Man and the Sea saved me from building my career on what I thought English Majors were supposed to do. I’ve never regretted leaving classrooms behind.

  5. Ugh, I read this in school and am surprised all these years later to hear it was only a novella, it was probably one of the first books I read that I really struggled with, but I didn’t know enough about what I responded to to know why, I am actually glad to hear you acknowledge its challenging mid-section. As a result I never read him again for years, but like you started to read around him, The Paris Wife, Mrs Hemingway and then decided to read his A Moveable Feast which I really liked. Hemingway is interesting as a character himself and I seem to prefer his nonfiction perhaps unsurprisingly.

    This week I was in Spain and visited the amazing town of Ronda and its famous bullring, one of the venues which in part inspired Hemingway to write two of his early novels and then Death in the Afternoon his work about bullfighting and despite the fact I hate the sport, I was really moved by seeing the venue and the museum with the famous matadors and the ancient tradition, its artistry, and realised I already knew a little about them and that place thanks to Hemingway.

    I guess I prefer his appreciation of the artistry of the bullring to the solitary struggle of an old man at sea, bravo you for picking him up.

  6. pam

    oh, simon – I’m so sorry you didn’t get on well with EH on your first outing. My all-time favourite of his is “garden of eden”. it’s so sexy and cool. I also quite liked his African writing. green hills of Africa is undoubtedly my favourite African work of his. BUT (and this is a huge but) I read it while living in a small east African village. it’s so true that the setting in which you read a book has so much to do with how you remember it years later. even today when I look at that book on my shelf I am immediately transported back to my little stick hut on the lakeshore where i can see monkeys in the acacia trees out the window and smell the paraffin of my lantern . . . hmmmm. perhaps a future “readers” topic? either way – please read “garden of eden”.
    pam

  7. I haven’t read this novella in years, but I will say, I have read most, if not all, of Hemingway’s short stories. His stories from the 1920s are wonderful–well ahead of their time. Also, his other novellas The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber and The Snows of Kilimanjaro are better to me because they have autobiographical aspects. But I am one who enjoys reading about Hemingway’s life more than his works, although his works are amazing. My favorite novel of his is The Garden of Eden that was published posthumously in 1986. Read the Wikipedia entry on it. He wrote it over the course of many years. His final wife and an editor cut much out, too. Cheers, Denise

  8. I have read it – but I only really realised I’d read it when you quoted it, which suggests it made very little real impression. It’s a swallow of a book – it flirts and it skims, but it never dives properly in.

  9. Like Claire, had to read it in school. Hated it. So dull – especially for 14 year olds! A Moveable Feast sounds more like I could cope with it…the two male American authors we got most of in school were Hemingway and Steinbeck, and, for me, Steinbeck was far more accessible. I’ve got Mrs Hemingway though and am going to get to it soon. I never much liked him as a man either…although Mrs H may revise that opinion!

  10. I recently read ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and was similarly less than impressed. The writing may have been sparse and beautiful (or so I’m told) but I just thought it was dull. Sorry to all Hemingway lovers out there!

  11. I don’t like Hemingway at all – apart from A Moveable Feast which is wonderful

  12. Toffeeapple

    My copy of this book is so very old that it almost falls apart when I take it in my hands, but I would never part with it, I love it too much.

  13. I completely loved this book, despite a thorough dislike/distaste for fishing I was thoroughly enthralled. But when I went on to read a couple more of Hemingway’s books, my reaction was closer to yours: it’s great writing but I wasn’t hooked.

  14. Sorry to admit it – I am quite the contrary of a Hemingway fand. Fiesta is without doubt one of the worst and most annoying books I ever read. (For those who really want to know why: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=602) This whole “Hemingway industry” is not for me…and the style: unbearable. Ok, The Old Man and the Sea is a better book than Fiesta, but I couldn’t connect to the main character who is without debth and rather one-dimensional in my opinion.

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