Review: The Old Man and the Sea

Just about the only English books I read nowadays are for bookclub…even though I still struggle to make any progress on the Japanese stuff on my backlog. I wish people would stop choosing 300-400 page bricks! This particular choice was an exception, but it might not have been the best choice for, as it turned out to be, a group of people who haven’t read much Hemingway.

Published towards the end of Hemingway’s life, The Old Man and the Sea was initially widely acclaimed for being so completely different from the rest of his oeuvre, a departure from the realism that characterises all his other works. Word is that this novella was the major catalyst for Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Since then, however, views have become more critical, with some like Robert P. Weeks pointing out the irony that the extensive focus on natural objects in this novella belies the romanticism with which they are treated, especially from an author who had been criticised for his devotion to realism.

So, what did a Hemingway virgin think of it?

Ringing in at around 100 pages, I expected this to be an easy read. In some ways, it was – taking me about 2 hours one afternoon to read. The trouble came when I had to find something to discuss…the story itself is rather basic – an old fisherman, who has gone without success for many months, travels far out alone, and battles and conquers a large fish, only to have it taken from him by sharks on his journey back. A lot of possible symbolism there already – perhaps linked to Hemingway himself at that particular time in his life? Unfortunately, I wasn’t really interested enough to check the context any further.

What made it a slightly more difficult read is the style of prose, which is infused with a simplicity that is supposed to be reflective of the fisherman. It only became rather tedious to me as the story wore on. My father used to take me fishing, and as a child, waiting was not my strength. I expect that fishermen wouldn’t think about the same things that I do – movies, books, anime, daydreaming about where I’ll be and who’ll I’ll meet in the future – but do they really think so much about what the fish are doing? Brushing the line, taking a nibble of the bait, giving a mate the choice morsel…? Perhaps that’s what years and years on the sea will do to you…definitely not a life for me!

Finally, Hemingway himself said in an interview that he “tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.” Call me pedantic, but I went about looking up marlin, and the largest (the Atlantic Blue) apparently grows up to about 14 feet in length, as opposed to the amazing 18 footer in the novella. So…a real fish? Hm…though I did find it interesting that the old man labelled it a male due to the way it fought, even though the largest fish are females. The assignment of gender gave me something to think about (fish = adversary and equal = male, sea = adversary = male vs. the old man’s sea = mother = female etc), i.e. how people assign gender to nature (the sea, the moon, the sun) and how our cultures affect such assignments, and even how we label cars and other possessions.

(So…hands up those of you who have named your car, computer and/or iPod! Are they male of female, or maybe neutral? For me, two have names derived from a female game character whose name is similar to mine, and I did it because just “~’s computer” and “~’s iPod” sound really boring… /tangent.)

Ultimately, The Old Man and the Sea probably deserved a deeper look from people who’d actually read enough Hemingway to know what all the fuss was about, but at least it provided a short read for an incredibly busy month.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

2 Responses to Review: The Old Man and the Sea

  1. Kitsune says:

    It is a good book that was adapted by Alexander Petrov to this Oscar-winning animation:

    Like

    • karice says:

      Thanks! I’d read about the film but never really looked it up because I wasn’t that interested in the book. But the “paint-on-glass” animation really is quite unusual, and really suits it…(even though I was a bit taken aback by the “whitening” of characters I’d thought were more likely to be of a different ethnic group, based on their names…)
      Reply

      Like

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