Brother Fish

by Mr. Sheehy

The image of the old man and his brother, the fish, appears first when I think back to The Old Man and the Sea. This fitting pair is my favorite part of the novel, and I am sure I have not partially understood the significance of their relationship. What I know is how much the man respects the fish, how he considers him more noble than people, and I think at times that Hemingway means to be comparing the old man to other fishermen even as he describes the nobility of the fish. We’re supposed to see this pair as similar, and if the fish is noble, then so is the man. Surely, like the fish, this man is much more noble than his peers.

He has a great past that has earned respect, and yet he’s looked on more with pity when he enters a group of fishermen for breakfast. He’s poor and outcast, living in his hut, but the point seems not to be that he’s poor but that he’s alone – he does not move with others, but instead has moved to his own place, away from where he might be bothered, just as the fish has moved out to the mile-deep sea, where the old man theorizes he wasOld man and boy trying not to be bothered. Does the old man want the fellowship? I doubt it. All he ever wishes for on the boat is the boy – a humble companion who will not respect him less for needing help.

Hemingway emphasizes that similarity and brotherhood often, like when the old man and the fish set sail for home, the fish strapped alongside the skiff as if he’s pulling the boat in. And I don’t think we’re to see the fish as a victim. As unfortunate, maybe, since he’s been caught through trickery, but he did take the bait, and he shows such nobility and poise in his struggle to the end, asserting and displaying his greatness and almost overcoming his unknown combatant, that we cannot see him as a hapless victim. Just the same, we cannot see the old man as a victim when the sharks attack. It was sure to happen with such a large fish and the distant locale; he made choices that led to this situation, as some of my students have noted, and though we feel his saddness, we cannot see him as a victim. Instead, I see him as noble, like the fish, in struggling with the consequences of his bold decision. He was brave enough to try for the great fish in the deep water – something the boy’s new boss would never dare to attempt – and he has discovered how great he is, even in his old age. I hope that I am so bold in my older age to pursue the greatest and most noble possibilities.

I have to reference the end of the story to close my thoughts on this, but since my students have yet to reach it, I will say only this – the old man has grown in stature in my eyes. He begins a bit of a sad case: poor, playing a fake game about having anything to eat, and so alone that he hides the picture of his wife. But the more I know him and the more I see him persevere, the more I respect him and realize his greatness.