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Why You Should Read 'The Old Man and The Sea'
"You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to."
The Old Man and The Sea is a triumph of masculinity.
Ernest Hemingway’s classic tale is told in a pioneer-like spirit — that longed for willpower that had once built the west — a quality which treats work as good, for works sake.
Like the story of a prizefighter who is at the end of his career, it showcases how the will to endure can offset even the shortcomings of a failing body. But where the biographies of boxers are often bitterly seasoned with tragedy and a general fall from grace, The Old Man and The Sea showcases the beauty of a simple life.
Santiago, the “old man” of the novella’s title, is a lonely Cuban fisherman in a humble wooden skiff. He has endured the hardship of an extended period of bad luck, which has been an insult to his pride. Aside from a young boy who admires him, much of the storytelling is invested in Santiago’s time alone, dialoging with himself or talking to the great fish that he is hunting for:
You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.
Santiago’s fighting spirit is brilliantly highlighted through his own memories, when the people called him “El Campeón” or The Champion. In his youth, he had engaged in a blood-soaked arm-wrestling match which had lasted well into the next day. Onlookers had asked for a draw but Santiago had refused, instead choosing to dig ever-deeper within his own reserves of strength. And with an iron will, he would harness this memory once more to help re-tap that hidden well of strength.
However, it is not just his willpower and strength that help paint Santiago as a good man, but his adherence to a moral compass, even the natural law. He laughs at the idea of man hunting the moon or the sun, as they are too great for him. But in respecting the order in creation, Santiago feels an affinity with the creatures of the deep. Though he does pursue them for the kill, he greatly respects them and disdains any breach of the unwritten rules of the hunt.
The old man had seen many great fish. He had seen many that weighed more than a thousand pounds and he had caught two of that size in his life, but never alone. Now alone, and out of sight of land, he was fast to the biggest fish that he had ever seen and bigger than he had ever heard of, and his left hand was still as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle.
It will uncramp though, he thought. Surely it will uncramp to help my right hand. There are three things that are brothers: the fish and my two hands. It must uncramp. It is unworthy of it to be cramped. The fish had slowed again and was going at his usual pace.
I wonder why he jumped, the old man thought. He jumped almost as though to show me how big he was. I know now, anyway, he thought. I wish I could show him what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so. I wish I was the fish, he thought, with everything he has against only my will and intelligence.
Truth be told, it took me a long time to appreciate the greater works of Ernest Hemingway. Growing up, I had read several of his short stories, which had come to define his career as an author. But I always found his matter-of-fact style of prose too jarring. That being said, The Old Man and The Sea is the book that helped me to appreciate Hemingway’s brilliance for what it is. The book’s lucid descriptions of the technicals of the fishing trade help to immerse the reader into a bygone age of commercial fishing, before big trawlers came to dominate market. So perhaps a lonely old man in a skiff talking to himself is the perfect stage for Hemingway’s style. Perhaps. Either way, this book has found a place within my heart.