Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Boy meets fish. Boy gets fish. Boy loses fish.

Current book: The Old Man and the Sea
Pages read: 9 - 127 (end)

No, seriously, the post title is a good summary.

All right, all right, there may be a few more details, but not many. Let's see. Santiago is an old, weathered Cuban fisherman (one might call him an old salt, if one were inclined toward nautical terminology) who hasn't caught a fish in eighty-five days. He is friends with a boy, Manolin (who, honestly, I'm not sure is actually named Manolin; he may just be called that. (You missed the parentheses, didn't you? It's ok. You don't have to say. I know.)), who once fished with him as an apprentice, but who now fishes with a different boat due to Santiago's bad luck.

So, anyway, Santiago goes out fishing alone on the eighty-fifth day, and he hooks a marlin. The fish is enormous, and it tows him far out into the Gulf, while he muses upon his life and his relationship with the sea. For several days, the fish pulls him, and he thinks about the fact that he loves and respects the sea and the fish, but also wants to triumph over the fish by killing him. Santiago also contemplates his left hand a great deal, which cramps up on him and doesn't work properly, as well as the fact that he was born to be a fisherman and feels that it's his calling. (He's got a whole thing about baseball and Joe DiMaggio, too, which frankly, seemed somewhat irrelevant.)

He finally fights the fish in, injuring his hands (and possibly his internal organs) badly in the process, and harpoons it, killing it; he ties it to his little boat, towing it alongside because of the fact that it's fully two feet longer than the boat itself. Making his way back to Havana, Santiago is set upon by sharks, and, though he fights and kills many of them with his harpoon and his bare hands, they manage to eat the entire fish, skeleton excepted, before he can make it back. Upon his return, he is greeted and nursed by Manolin, who weeps for his loss of the fish that everyone can see was the most magnificent ever caught. It's unclear whether he dies at the end, but signs point to his imminent demise.

It's funny, actually, that the back of the book in the edition that I have says that this is a story about "personal triumph won from loss." I just don't know, Scribner, if I can agree with that. It's more, as my husband said this morning, about loss in the face of personal triumph, when you get down to it. Not to go all allegorical, but the fish is clearly representative of something here. (Man, also, what is it with giant sea animals and symbolism? Eat your heart out, Herman Melville.) Is it the great tragedy that is life itself? Hemingway has a real glory-worship thing, and there's nothing, it seems, that he likes more than killing large animals as a manifestation of that glory. So, I'd say that the hunting of the fish is supposed to represent all that is good and noble in man, in that it is a sort of simultaneous respect and love for, but also dominance of, nature (and therefore the world).

However, if that's true, then the subsequent destruction of the fish must represent the futility of that search for glory. After all, Santiago fought so hard and so long for the fish only to lose all that he had gained. Certainly he is still covered in glory, in a way, because both he and his comrades know that he caught the greatest marlin they'd ever seen, but in the end, he has nothing to show for it but sorrow and regret. He even says, after it becomes obvious that the whole fish is going to be eaten by sharks, that he never should have come out so far and that he broke his own luck by dooming both himself and the marlin to destruction. The waste, as he sees it, of the fish's carcass is the waste of his own life and his own fate as a fisherman, and it is the hunt for the great glory of the catch that brought them both to that waste.

A lot of people agree more with the Scribner interpretation, which is that the great glory of the fight with the marlin dignifies and ennobles Santiago, proving that it's the fight that's important, and that, even in defeat, glory lives on. Frankly, I just don't know about that. I think there's an indication of that, since, as I said, Santiago retains his glory, but there's a pretty melancholy cast to the whole thing, what with the loss of the fish and Santiago's injuries. The fact that something breaks inside him and he coughs up blood near the end of the book is a pretty dire indicator to me. Then again, he finishes the novel dreaming of his happy youth, so who knows?

It's a pretty good book, regardless of the fact that I don't like Hemingway. You have to admire the style, as well, which is stark and matter-of-fact, but also evocative. He was one of the first to write this way, and The Old Man and the Sea is a particularly good example of the clean spareness of his prose. (Probably because it's a later novel.) It also helps that this particular book doesn't have any war or woman-beating in it, which are things Hemingway likes to put into his books, I've noticed. Anyway, I'm not sure that it's worthy of the list. We'll call it borderline.

Also, this book reminds me vaguely of The Pearl, by Steinbeck, and I'm not sure why. The prose is similar, I think. It could also be the setting, but I suppose it's mostly the fact that they're both about the endless pursuit of something that is, in the end, ruinous to your life. The themes aren't really the same, but they're tangential to each other, which just makes me think that you could arrange a college topics course about stories of the consuming need to conquer and own. Oh, wait. We just call that Western literature. (Zing!)

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