I’m thankful that when I finished The Old Man and the Sea, I was sitting on the bank of the Brisbane River enjoying what was a truly magnificent spring day. The sun was shining, I was surrounded by happy people and, even if only for an instant, there were moments when life felt magical. And then my mind would be drawn back to the exquisitely poetic yet soul-destroying novel I had just finished and I might as well have been sitting on the pavement in the rain. At less than 100 pages, it’s incredibly easy to knock over in an afternoon, and Hemingway has an easy to read writing style that will appeal to a wide variety of readers. With that said, I fail to see how readers are left inspired after reading Hemingway’s final literary offering. Sure you can, to a certain extent, draw some inspiration from the story. But ultimately the melancholic meditation on success and failure is a disheartening tale of the pursuit of a dream. I wish to make it very clear that I will be talking about the book in its entirety here and giving away all the major plot points. In other words, this review is full of spoilery goodness and if you wish for the novel to remain a secret, do not read any further.
Santiago is an old man. He is a very unlucky old man at that–he has gone 84 days without catching a fish, despite being a fisherman by trade. He lives a very simple life, with only the bare essentials required for survival. To the rest of the village, his time has passed, but the old man still has dreams and determination. His sight is forever set seaward and he tells a young boy, Manolin, that he wishes for nothing more than to catch the biggest fish of them all. Manolin has faith in the old man to achieve his dream and helps the old man prepare the boat for his 85th day. Before daybreak on the 85th day, Santiago sets off alone in his skiff and by the middle of the day, he has managed to hook a large marlin. This is no ordinary fish–unable to reel the fish in, the old man is dragged along by the fish for two days and two nights. Throughout the journey, the old man grows weary and suffers injuries; however on the third day, he manages to harpoon the giant fish and kill it. Although he now feels unworthy to have killed his ‘brother’ and ‘adversary’, the old man attaches the giant fish to the skiff and begins the long trip home. Little does he know that his troubles have barely begun. The stream of blood that the marlin is leaving attracts sharks. Lots of sharks. Santiago manages to fend off the first scavenger with his harpoon, but loses his harpoon in the process, leaving him exposed and unable to adequately defend his catch. The old man fights off wave after wave (pardon the pun) of shark attacks and with each shark, more and more of the giant fish is ripped off and eaten until there is next to nothing left. The old man finally returns home, deflated and destroyed, while the other fishermen speculate about the true size of the fish with only the skeleton to inform their predictions.
So that’s the crux of it. On the one hand, it’s a poetic and poignant love letter to nature–a dedication to a simpler time when people had the patience to connect with nature and disappear for days on end to the great unknown. It stands in stark contrast to our normal lives today, which seem to become increasingly busy as each year passes by. Added to this, we live in a society that thrives on instant gratification. Can’t remember the name of that actor from that film? Your smartphone will tell you in an instant. Got a craving for McNuggets at 2am? Hop in the car and away you go. There are shops open 24 hours to cater to your every whim and the online economy never sleeps. We expect everything to be instantaneous. Many people are not willing to wait for success and become frustrated when it doesn’t seem to happen overnight, and achievements are hardly ever measured by the amount of time and work which went in–the focus is almost always on the output. This is not something I am wanting to dwell on or attempt to change. In fact, I’m fairly sure I participate in this life far more than I realise. But it is a different time that we live in, and Santiago’s zen-like patience and pursuit of his dream is a testament to the true vigor of the human spirit. His determination is unfaltering and though his body cannot keep up, his mind is keenly focussed on achieving his dream. Against all adversity, his tenacious spirit got him home alive.His success was tangible and real, but at the end of the day will only exist in its entirety in his mind. Perhaps that is the message–that we need to not focus on gaining the acceptance of others for our success. Ultimately, we must only make peace with this ourselves, even if it is stripped away from us. In this regard, many of us have a lot to learn from the old man.
The lessons to be learnt post-fish, though, are another story entirely. The old man put in the fight of his life to catch the fish, but the battle of attrition left him ultimately without victory as the sharks came to strip him of his achievements. Even in success, he was defeated. The old man knows that he caught the fish, but he laments to Manolin that he should not have attempted to capture it in the first place. The success is now irrelevant. The point here that I feel Hemingway was trying to make is that in the end, you cannot celebrate your victories because life will have worn you out too much in the pursuit of the goal. The sharks will peck away at your success, slowly and tentatively to begin with, until they realise you are too weak to fight them off and they grow in confidence and attack harder and more determined each time until there is nothing left. Any sense of happiness or accomplishment has disappeared and all that remains is a hollow shadow of your success. It’s a bleak and uninspiring outlook, but sadly is the realisation for many as they travel through life.
I am generally an optimistic person. But Santiago’s dilapidated and broken spirit at the end of the novel was almost too much to bear. He is the underdog and readers can’t help but support him in his quest. The book is exquisitely written and I really enjoyed Hemingway’s writing style. It is the plot and the underlying theme which brought me down. Way down. In the book, as it so often is in life, achieving your goal only gets you half of the way. There will always be those who want to strip it away from you, and I cannot take a positive message away from the book, as much as I so wish that I could!