I don’t know when I first met this book. I might have picked it up because it looked like an easy read when I first visited Key West after I got over my fear of flying. I know I developed a ritual of reading it on Smathers Beach every time I went to Key West and stayed at the Sheraton Suites. I’d unpack, cross the road, and rent a chair from the young man who always had plenty in stock. Reading The Old Man and the Sea was a kind of homage to Old Man Hemingway, himself, maybe to my “old man,” too. A member of the “Big Buck Club” in Maine, he fit the Hemingway mold.
A few years after the first time I sat on that beach, I was invited to teach a course in art and literature at the university, a “gen ed” course for those who might not have any interest in either literature or art. I figured Hemingway would help me get my students sorted out. I wasn’t prepared for the response. Some students were convinced the Old Man was “psychotic,” especially at the part where he thinks the fish is his “brother.” Others had no idea why the Old Man liked DiMaggio so much. I introduced the students to Joseph Campbell’s tales about heroes and asked them to tell me if the Old Man was one. Some said, “Yes.” Some (because he failed) disagreed.
I began to view the book as a kind of treatise on the culture of America, a culture perhaps passing away. I used to ask my students questions like, “Why does the Old Man have to fish alone?” “Why does he have to go after the big fish?” I thought I was asking questions about America, but I was a lawyer, a sole practitioner. Maybe I was asking about myself.
I found the Old Man annoyed and frustrated me, much like my “old man” did although like Santiago, I loved him, too. We need children to believe in us, don’t we? Better yet, we need, perhaps, a childlike faith, that when we go to sea and come back empty-handed, we need not give up. Someone, like Santiago, might gently place a blanket over our prostrate form when we are too exhausted to help ourselves. Someone, like Santiago, might offer to help us pursue our most ambitious goals, like writing, as Hemingway said, “one true thing.” This is why I keep reading the Old Man. I know he’s sincere. Maybe that’s all we can hope for our lives – that others believe in the authenticity of our efforts.
Much has been written about The Old Man and the Sea being a Christian allegory. The Old Man’s hands, rubbed raw by the rope he used to lash the marlin to the boat, are often analogized to Christ’s stigmata. Hemingway would likely be happier if we all let the Old Man be, but all good literature transcends itself. We can join teams, but ultimately, we know we arrive and depart, alone, like Joe DiMaggio in the batter’s box. I would respectfully submit that if the Old Man is Christ-like, he is more like the Christ of Gethsemane.
Sometimes I read The Old Man and the Sea just for the beauty of the words. I find myself comforted, lulled like a child in a rocking boat, when I read,
In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the
trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made
as they soared away in the darkness. He was very fond of flying fish as they were his
principal friends on the ocean. He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate
dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought,
the birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy strong
ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean
can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so
suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are
made too delicately for the sea.
I eventually left the law and made my way to Mexico, not unlike the setting of Hemingway’s book. Here, I learn Spanish and learn, too, the art of patience, of reliance on the group.
Hemingway has a reputation for a focus on virility, so maybe I shouldn’t spend so much time wondering about the lions in The Old Man and the Sea, but, of all the elements in the book, they most interest me. The Old Man dreams of lion cubs, in their naïve self-assurance, playing on the beach. Their claws are yet thorns before first blood is drawn for the pride.
I see their tawny coloring enhanced to gold in the afternoon light. We see this iconic coloring in many places -- in halos, in the “wheat” of the hair of the Little Prince, even in abstract art. Those lions, especially as a recollected dream, form the kind of evocative image Eliot called “the objective correlative.”
The Old Man and the Sea, though novella in form, is the big fish, one that wasn’t consumed by the sharks. Once, my son and I went to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Key West. Our waiter, a middle-aged man in a crisp white shirt, open at the throat, sported a little gold chain. My son, concerned about making a healthy choice for lunch, was debating whether to have the free French fries. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” The waiter promptly replied, “Sometimes life takes, so when is free, you take.” Who doesn’t know “life takes”? But, like the Old Man, we get up each day and sally or stumble forth, maybe expecting a little less, but with hope. Sometimes, as in Hemingway’s case, even that much is lost, but look (oh look!) at what he wrought.
Lillian Baker Kennedy