Defending the old man, the sea, and me
by Mr. Sheehy
A former student recently saw a copy of The Old Man and the Sea sitting on my desk and asked whether we were reading it. After I answered affirmatively, he began to berate the book, informing me how dumb it was, how boring it was, and how pointless it was. A guy in a boat tries to catch a fish but then it gets eaten. End of story.
Okay, so maybe that is partly true. And maybe that’s one person I do not want speaking at my retirement party. At least, I would hope that anyone reckoning my career would be more generous than some of my students are with the old man: A guy without a boat hung out with kids and tried to teach them to read and write better, but then he got eaten. End of story.
Obviously, I contend against this student’s estimation of The Old Man and the Sea, but that is no surprise. The book has risen to become one of the greatest in American literature, so to claim that so many people were dumb in liking it is mostly a teenage response and maybe a frustration with not understanding what all the hub-ub is about.
To be totally honest, I get huffy when someone complains about this book, but it’s not because I take the complaints personally. I do not need other people to like or enjoy what I like – their opinion is not why I grew to like The Old Man and the Sea. I get huffy because they dismiss this wonderful old man, Santiago, as a crazy loon, and I consider their easy write-off a personal knock on any wonderful and capable, if simple, old men. Or elder. Or person, including me. Which means, I suppose, that I do take their complaints personally.
I honor a class’s thinking process when they need to discuss whether the old man is crazy because he constantly contradicts himself and talks to himself:
“How do you feel fish?” he asked aloud. “I feel good and my left hand is better and I have food for a night and a day. Pull the boat, fish.”
He did not truly feel good because the pain from the cord across his back had almost passed pain and gone into a dullness that he mistrusted. (74)
Those are important aspects of the book and they need to be addressed, but I grow sad when my students cannot move beyond that issue, cannot connect with the idea of a perplexed and thinking mind: “‘I’ll rest on the next turn as he goes out,’ he said. ‘I feel much better. Then in two or three turns more I will have him'” (89). Have they never thought about something and attempted to make a decision? Have they never coached themselves through a difficult task? Have they never attempted to provide for themselves the source of encouragement they were not hearing from anywhere else? “I must get alongside him this time, he thought. I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. You’re good forever” (92). This old man talks to himself, but he does not sit in his shack going insane. He is an old man engaged in the most difficult struggle of his life all while longing for the companionship of his one remaining friend. To dismiss him is to write off ourselves when we pursue a difficult task.
And as I look back to this old man, I wonder about the difficulty of his task, and I ask myself whether I could have endured such suffering to obtain something, anything, that I wanted. As a reply, the words of one student resound deeply: “He probably did a lot better than what most of us would have done. I bet most of us would have said forget it. It’s just a fish.” What passion this man possessed, with only the fish to see it: “But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures” (66). When I think of his suffering, one image dominates my thinking. I realize he suffered in various ways through three days on the sea, but the part that I stick to, the part where the man’s endurance clearly out paces what I think could be my own, is when the great marlin jumps from the water. Here lies Santiago, his cheek crushed into a slice of dolphin, unable to see the jumping marlin, only hearing “the breaking of the ocean and the heavy splash as he fell” (83), enduring the pain of the line on his hands, which were “cutting badly” (82), taking the strain willingly and patiently, because “he had always known this would happen” (83). No, I admit to myself when recounting such an event, I am no Santiago. I am not the archetypal quiet sufferer that Hemingway thrust before us as the American ideal of a man’s man. But as abused and unrealistic as that archetype may have become through the years, I still admire this old man, love him for his gentleness when he awoke the boy, taking “hold of one foot gently and [holding] it until the boy woke and turned and looked at him” (26) and for his humility as he lets the boy carry his things and buy him food.
The peak of suffering, of course, is his loss of the fish, but I cannot recognize the event as one of despair, because I have had the privilege of watching the old man work. There is beauty in this world in places where you are willing to find it, and the old man’s wit and skill as a fisherman, without, it seems at times, a single piece of helpful technology or convenience, grows to breath-taking levels. It can be no mistake that Santiago obsesses over the great DiMaggio, a man who played baseball with such grace and style that he made it look easy. Perhaps Willy Mays might have fit, but Hemingway chose the man whose father was a fisherman too. Calling this fishing DiMaggio-esque should be no exaggeration:
He could not see by the slant of the line that the fish was circling. It was too early for that. He just felt a faint slackening of the pressure of the line and he commenced to pull on it gently with his right hand. It tightened, as always, but just when he reached the point where it would break, line began to come in. He slipped his shoulders and head from under the line and began to pull in line steadily and gently. He used both of his hands in a swinging motion and tried to do the pulling as much as he could with his body and his legs. His old legs and shoulders pivoted with the swinging of the pulling. (86)
Such passages are surely part of why I read this book out-loud, for in reading it, I am determined to convey the beauty of every movement from this seasoned fisherman, a man who catches and slices a dolphin with one arm while steadily clinging to an 18-foot marlin with the other, a man who kills or severely injures more than five sharks in a desperate fight to save his glorious catch. By the time he begins to draw himself to the fish, I am so taken by his skill that I am more than rooting for him. It is not that I want him to catch the fish; he must catch the fish. Through his self-talk and contemplation about “this fish which is my brother” (95), he has convinced me that he and that fish are connected by more than pencil-thick fishing line. Somehow, I begin to think, this fish is a symbol of the greatness of the man and his connection with that sea.
And despite the destruction of the marlin and the failure to bring a fish that will feed a town, I admire the man no less. Neither does the boy, who recognizes that “He didn’t beat you. Not the fish” (124), even as he mourns with streams of tears the suffering the old man endured. I do not know that I can see this old man’s fate as anything but hopeful. He endured what no other fisherman would even attempt, accomplished something so great that it became impossible to complete. Is not that what I would hope to attempt with my life? Aren’t great things here on earth often ephemeral and fading? Does the passing of greatness diminish its value? Does being beaten negate the previous accomplishment?
I should not expect my students to see the old man the way I see him, but I want for them to see more of him; I want them to be able to look at their own lives, which can so easily be summarized the same way they summarize this book, and see something more. I would hate for them to see an act as great as the old man’s and misunderstand it like the tourists misunderstand the marlin, thinking not with wonder about a strange and wonderful old man and his astounding act of beauty, but with uninformed curiosity about a giant shark. Such uninformed curiosity, I notice, does not wonder about the old man. It probably sees him only as a poor man sleeping on a bed of springs in a shack by the beach.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1980.
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