For the last ten years, Hemingway and I have had a complicated relationship. That is to say, I disliked the first work of his that I read (A Farewell to Arms) and vowed from that point forward never to open the pages of something he’d written ever again. I was disconcertingly stubborn in this resolution, despite positive reports over the years about his superb literary skill. I know I should probably give A Farewell to Arms another chance because I was only sixteen when I read it, and is it fair to keep a decade-long resolution based on a teenage whim? Perhaps; perhaps not.
I suppose it depends on the maturity of the teenager, and while I can’t speak volumes about my teenage maturity, I will say that, as a buddingly independent young woman trying out the world for the first time, the misogyny I perceived to be dripping from the pages of that book really rubbed me the wrong way. I’m no feminist, to be sure, and I can even be said to be a bit on the traditional side now and then when it comes to male-female interaction, but the overt anti-feminist vibe I got in 2001 from A Farewell to Arms left me with a lingering lack of respect for Hemingway. My disdain extended so far and so long that I even spurned an opportunity to take a Hemingway tour of the city while I was in Paris one summer – a tour I now, of course, wish I’d taken.
And I will admit, the main reason I chose to read The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s short (well, that and, I have a boyfriend who is determined to see me succeed in my resolution and has therefore embarked on a quest to find the shortest books possible that can still count as classics). The Old Man and the Sea was the first in a stack of three he sent me home with a couple weeks ago, and I’m pleased to say that I finished it a few days ago within twenty-four hours of picking it up.
It is the story of an elderly fisherman who sets out for a regular day of fishing and ends up attempting the biggest catch of his life. As the story progresses, so does the old man’s frailty, not to mention his resolve, and the reader is pulled irrevocably in to a slow-moving yet suspenseful and endearing narrative that turns the pages surprisingly quickly.
It’s man versus nature, the ultimate test of willpower and strength of both body and mind. I think what I probably liked most about the book was its introspective quality. I sit around and think a lot about my actions and motivations and personality and goals, etc., etc. So I like that the old man pretty much has nothing to do other than sit around in his boat and think about stuff while he waits for the giant fish on his line to get tired of swimming. One thing I found interesting is that, even though the old man spends most of the book alone, either talking to himself or thinking, there is an implicit but strong focus on relationship throughout the entire narrative.
First, there is the relationship between the old man and the boy. The reader is not given a lot of information about their relationship or why they are so close, other than that they have gone out fishing together several times. Their closeness is revealed mostly through dialogue, most notably when the boy says, “‘I remember everything from when we first went [fishing] together.'” To me, this speaks to the deep and long-standing friendship they have shared over the years. Other dialogue and interaction they share serve to provide the reader with a fuzzy feeling that there is a mutual respect between them, each offering and being willing to care for the other, each maintaining a humble independence, and each respecting the other’s right to that independence. This is, in short, my relationship utopia (boyfriend, I hope you’re taking notes).
From the time the old man hooks the giant marlin to the time that he gets back to shore in his boat with the catch, he repeats over and over this sentiment of wishing the boy were with him. It seems a double desire to have the extra strength, help, and fresh ideas (and perhaps even someone to talk to) as well as a pure longing just for the boy to have the experience of being involved in such a monumental catch. He seems to know that none other than the boy would appreciate the adventure itself and understand what it means to the old man so that, by the time the old man gets back to shore with the tale of a lifetime, the reader searches for the boy on the horizon and cannot wait until the old man gets to see him and recount the adventure in such excruciating detail that eventually the boy will almost feel as if he had really been there.
The second notable relationship explored in the book is the one between the old man and the fish he catches. He speaks to the fish often during his great endurance struggle. Two of the more amusing statements he makes are:
“‘Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.'”
“‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.'”
There are other instances when he calls the fish a brother and his equal. He often laments his resolve to kill the fish, solely because the fish has proved itself such a worthy nemesis. The old man eventually apologizes to the dead carcass of the fish on the journey home because he is unable to pull it into the boat (because of its size) to keep it from being mangled and eaten by the scavenging sharks they meet along the way. The old man feels this is a disgraceful destiny for a fish that fought as valiantly as this one did, and he regrets that he cannot prevent it from happening.
It seems to me like this is the type of dominion God intended man to have over the natural world when he put Adam in charge all those years ago. Killing for the purpose of eating and surviving rather than for sport. Respecting the qualities that make each component of creation what it is rather than assuming inherent superiority. But the old man really gets it. He considers it a privilege to be towed along, farther out into the ocean, in the wake of this enormous marlin; a privilege to have the chance to participate in what turns into a battle of sheer will with the fish.
The third relationship Hemingway invites the reader to explore with him may not be evident in everyone’s reading, but it was certainly so in mine. It is the relationship between the old man and the reader himself, a connection I was surprised to find existed between the pages of this book. I did not expect to be able to identify so easily with a character who is so different from me, but there are so many universal truths in the book that it was nearly impossible not to. For instance, the way that the old man eats only because he knows it’s necessary and not really because he enjoys it anymore. “For a long time now eating had bored him.” I tend to feel this way about sleep from time to time, and I’ve noticed that my feeling only gets stronger with age. It seems like sleeping only serves to get in the way and waste my time and efforts toward realizing my dream of experiencing as much of the world as possible before I die.
“He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.” I especially resonate with this idea, though I think here it is more of a nod to superstition than anything else, whereas for me, it is a conscious attempt to guard my heart from becoming too hopeful about its deeply rooted desires. And even though, for the old man, this is purely about fishing and for me, it’s almost exclusively about love, I still find that there is something beautifully common about these beliefs – something that bonds the old man and me in our shared caution.
On page 84, the old man asserts, “…Pain does not matter to a man.” After reading this, I wrote my reflection thus: Perhaps not in the moment, but it might later. At least, that’s how it is with me. Then, near the end on page 117, the narration says, “…From his pain he knew he was not dead.” With this idea, the old man’s experience merges with my reflection from several pages earlier – later, rather than in the moment. And I love the latter quote here. There is something morbidly raw about needing to feel pain to be sure that life goes on. It reminded me of that lyric from the popular Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris,” from back in the ’90s: “You bleed just to know you’re alive.”
As a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old singing along to that song, I had no idea what pain was or what it meant to need such a paradoxical assurance of life. But something about the honest exposure of those words spoke to me, if only for the fact that I was your stereotypical, angst-filled teenager, awed by the idea of emotive pain and all-consuming brokenness.
And now, as an almost-twenty-seven-year-old, I still don’t know that I could claim true solidarity in having experienced such intensity of feeling as Hemingway’s old man – at least, not physically. But I do know that I have been broken, and I have reached into my brokenness and my deep wounds and have juxtaposed seemingly opposing words in attempts to describe my pain – the kinds of phrases that only make sense to others who have experienced the same, irrational-feeling levels of pain and have tried themselves to make sense of it. I can honestly say that I have willingly poured (metaphorical) salt into my numbed wounds in an attempt to stir things up and convince myself that my heart is still beating and that good days will surely come again. Haven’t we all done this at some point? If you haven’t, I dare say you will. And when you do, you’ll be able to identify with Hemingway, with his old man, and with John Reznik.
Finally, I can’t end a review of my first-Hemingway-since-2001 without some mention of his attention to women in this particular work. The first time a woman is mentioned is near the beginning, and it is a reference to the old man’s late wife. “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” Besides the obvious indication of affection, there is something even more poignant underlying this glimpse of the old man’s former life and love. I love the seemingly insignificant detail that it is kept “under his clean shirt.” To me, this implies it is not forgotten in a box somewhere. It’s not collecting dust, and it is not under a pile of his dirty clothes. The picture (and the woman in it) are still worth remembering, but the memory is also still painful, so it stays hidden but in a respectful place. There is also the suggestion that he would see the picture every time he removes or replaces his clean shirt. I was encouraged by this one detail, this one sentence. It made me think, Maybe Hemingway isn’t the misogynistic old codger I thought he was.
A few pages later, I reached this description of the sea: “Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.” It seems to me like men tend to anthropomorphize in feminine ways the things they love and the things they find unpredictable or unexplainable or indescribable and the things they cannot give up or live without. Again, I have to give Hemingway some credit for this comparison because it does, in fact, feel like a rather high compliment. It acknowledges and respects this strange sort of power that women seem to be able to wield over men and have done since the beginning of time. I know many would argue that the power has sexual roots, but I am unwilling to give men such little credit because, speaking from experience, they have certain power over us too. Perhaps, in a perfect world, it is the mere manifestation of pure equality – a perfect give and take, a perfect partnership and likely what God intended all along. But we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in a broken world, where this supposed-to-be-beautiful relationship gets reduced to a psycho-sexual power struggle because we are all just helpless idiots. And maybe, deep down, Hemingway knew that too.
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the lack of anti-feminism in the book and was willing to reconsider my opinion of its author. And then, just a few lines after this mature insight about the sea, I encountered: “…If she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.” Excuse me? This is not nearly as flattering! This is the type of line that hearkens back to my old argument a decade ago about how poorly Hemingway understood women. This makes women out to be helpless, inanimate, unable to choose our own actions, and not to be held responsible for reckless decisions. This removes an enormous amount of credit conceded in the previous description, almost as if Hemingway felt he had to have some sort of antipathetic balance, lest any female readers’ egos get too puffed up by his perceived generosity.
But then, after I calm down a little from my rant, I find that I am willing to concede that perhaps Hemingway held these opinions of women because these are the only kinds of women he knew. After all, he did have four wives. Any jerk who can convince that many women to marry him is either an impressive charmer or choosing incredibly daft women. I suppose both are likely. However, if this is the case (not that he didn’t understand women but that he kept the company of silly, unintelligent, ridiculous women who perpetuate all the stereotypes the rest of us are desperately trying to shed), then I still must admit that I have trouble respecting a man who avoids the company of independent women. I have a pretty strong personality myself, and I prefer to deal with secure men who are neither threatened by my confidence nor too weak to handle it; men who let me do my own thing but know when (and how) to stand up to me. I don’t think I would’ve gotten along with Hemingway. Then again, I don’t know the circumstances of why he was married four times. Maybe he married four confident women who all left him (though I don’t think that was the case).
All in all, I can honestly say that The Old Man and the Sea did not leave me with as bitter a taste in my mouth about Hemingway as A Farewell to Arms did. And when I look at publication dates, I can see why. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and Old Man and the Sea in 1951, and I could feel a maturity in his writing and perspective that is consistent with this timeline. There is still some chauvinism (after all, would he be Hemingway otherwise?), but it also feels like there is less naivete and a subtle (very subtle) respect for women, and I can dig that.
On the whole, I really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea, would recommend it to anyone, and am glad I decided to give Hemingway another chance. My only regret was that I had to take notes and keep my reflections in a notebook. I would’ve preferred immensely to write in the margins of the book, but considering whom the book belongs to and our historical disagreement on how books should be treated, it seemed like a no-brainer to keep my indiscriminate and irreverent ink markings outside the book’s pages.