Taking 1000 words and more to justify The Old Man and the Sea

by Mr. Sheehy

Hey Mr. Sheehy. This is _______. I had a question and . . . I thought I’d ask you since you liked the book so much. I read The Old Man and the Sea a couple of weeks ago and after a lot of thought I’m still kind of unsure on what was so profound about it. I mean I have an idea about why we read it and what the point was but it seems too obvious and so I’m wondering if I missed the bigger picture in the story.

That is part of an email I received last week from one of those students you don’t forget. I was thrilled to receive it and used a large chunk of time to respond to it. My reply is something I had thought to share here by itself, but it took a new twist after I jotted a status line on my Facebook page mentioning what I was doing. That comment (which said, “Geoff is writing a letter to a student who wondered why The Old Man and the Sea was such a reputed book.”) drew a response from a friend wondering “about whether or not we teach the right books in high school.” His comments got me thinking back to my own high school and college experiences, and I tend to agree with the perspective he expressed to me, which retold a philosophy one of his college professors had about teaching literature:

Her specific comments pertained to The Scarlet Letter, which she lamented was taught too early to high school students who aren’t yet able to read it for its subtlety and complexity. I agreed with her about that particular book because I read it in high school and hated it; but when I read it in college, it completely blew me away. I remember missing the point of The Old Man and the Sea in high school, so I was musing to you that maybe it fits the same mold; maybe not.

As you’ll see below, I used well over 1000 words to answer this simple and innocent inquiry from my former student, and that doesn’t count the words to which I linked in my response. Add to this that almost everything I mention here is reaches beyond where any of my classes have been able to go in our reading and conversation of the book (though what is below is informed by conversations we have had), and I am left asking this important question: should I be teaching this book? If it weren’t so short, would anyone?

My initial response (edited)

What a wonderful note to receive on a Monday morning! I would be more than happy to share some of my thoughts about The Old Man. I admit I have written about it at length on my blog, most notably an outburst last year after a batch of my students couldn’t seem to generate any ideas about the old man other than “he’s crazy because he talks to himself.”

Hemingway was famous in particular for his creation of the archetypal American man, the quiet sufferer who is tough, quiet, and seemingly unfeeling or imperturbable. I think of the Marlboro Man as a direct descendant of Hemingway’s characters. Some folks feel that idea and its derivatives have not been constructive, especially for families, since so many men think it’s an ideal to be lived up to and instead it’s often an interpersonal nightmare.

But anyway, one of the traits of Santiago I love most is his humility, especially when contrasted with the boy’s new boss, a man who is so full of himself that he won’t allow a simple boy to touch the important pieces of fishing equipment (whereas Santiago is so humble he will allow a boy to feed him. I never knew the powerful and humbling experience of receiving gifts until my wife and I lived in Venezuela as missionaries, which thus meant that we relied upon the kind gifts of others to pay for everything. One must eliminate pride to receive basic living expenses from others.).

A second response

A beautiful thing about great literature is that its themes and ideas won’t leave you, even if you thought you had left them. While washing dishes this evening I thus found myself returning to our conversation about The Old Man and the Sea.

I had mentioned Hemingway’s archetypal American male, that quiet sufferer, but I hadn’t gone into what causes this archetype’s necessity in Hemingway’s view of the world.

Hemingway did not see the world as full of meaning and goodness-more accurately we could claim he saw meaninglessness everywhere, and when his characters gain insight into this pointless, frustrating life, they are left to suffer:

They are too knowledgeable, too self-aware. The best they can do is develop a code by which to live with dignity and grace, while playing an unwinnable game (“Ernest Hemingway” 1634).

Even the words he wrote he saw as potentially meaningless, which is thought to be why (among other reasons) he uses such sparse labels for dialogue-without that “he said” and “she said” it can be difficult to discern who is speaking, and one perspective of Hemingway’s approach is that it doesn’t matter because the words are meaningless anyway. Personally, this point of view makes me realize how he could have come to the despair that ends in the suicide he committed, though as with any suicide, it is difficult to define what led to it.

I read these things in The Old Man in many spots. For one, I read them in the way Santiago sees himself as a brother to the marlin, one who is able to best the marlin only by a few tricks. Those tricks, Santiago thinks, are the only things that separate him from the fish. I also see Santiago as that quiet sufferer. I’ve noted in my latest reading of the text that he does not state his pains out loud. He asserts out loud his belief in his strength and we gain insight into his weakness only through the omniscient narrator. He suffers in silence, with dignity, even when only the fish would hear.

I think Hemingway’s perspective on the world is legitimate and has to be addressed. It’s captured in bumper stickers and coffee mugs with language too sharp for me to repeat (“Life stinks, then you die,” and others of the like), and many folks’ perspectives of the world are rooted in similar ideas. In a sense, it’s a classic materialistic philosophy–what you see is all there is–and I’m one to think we all have to decide whether we agree with Hemingway.

Is this all there is? Has the old man simply abided by a noble code and begun his descent to death in an honorable way? Or is there more?

Hemingway sees beauty and greatness in the old man, and he sketches a character who has one more great act left in him, an act he can achieve despite the pain and obstacles involved. Again, Hemingway obviously portrays Santiago as a sufferer–see for example the imagery of his carrying the mast up the beach and compare it to Christ carrying his cross, as well as the position of his body when he collapses in his shack, which forms a cross–but I admit I don’t think Hemingway sees much redemption emerging from Santiago’s feat. His feat–the catch–is left to wash up in the waves, to be misunderstood by ignorant tourists.

I suppose I refuse to see things that way. Maybe I diverge from Hemingway, but I think the boy’s recognition of the beauty of Santiago is part of the point. Santiago never feeds a village with his catch, so what? J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for fun, without a plan to publish it. In a sense, Tolkien might never have fed the village, but I don’t think the work would have lacked beauty. Even without a reader, isn’t it still beautiful? Does a poem require a reader to achieve beauty?

From where, then, is value and meaning derived?

That’s a question I ask, and while I don’t know that Hemingway exactly asked it with The Old Man and the Sea, I think his symbolically rich fable allows me to explore it and pose it. It is perhaps this that makes The Old Man great–that it can open discussion and lead to thinking that is much deeper than one would ever imagine could emerge from such a simple tale.

I should note too that the readings of this story could diverge greatly from what I have discussed with you. What you hear from me are my own musings and the thoughts that have emerged through conversations with past students. My anthology of American literature observes, for example, that The Old Man is at least in part an allegory of a theme Hemingway was exploring at the time, “that of the successful writer trying to preserve his talent in an atmosphere of celebrity, luxury, and leisure” (1634). A great work, then, is one that is not easily nailed to one interpretation.


“Ernest Hemingway.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.