I know I’m always claiming I started a book for high school reading but never finished it. Thanks to untreated ADHD and an uncanny ability to predict stories, this is largely true. But I must have read some of these books in order to ace AP English, right? Unknown. What I do know is that while I was fairly certain I had never finished The Old Man and the Sea, my gut-level memory is good enough that I am doubting that assertion.
That’s what you feel when you read The Old Man and the Sea.
I am exaggerating, as well as channeling my less-nuanced, teenage self. Yes, the tension felt while reading this book mimics the near-breaking-point of the fishing line that holds the Old Man’s great fish. But there are other (often quite tight) emotions that float this masterpiece above most other books you will read in your life. There is patience. And love. And strength. And a compassionately etched portrait of humanity which is just so, so amazing.
And in the end, there is a type of victory and a type of hope, even though there is tragedy. (And don’t go saying I gave anything away. Any careful reader will know from the first sentences that this book is not a comedy.)
My favorite part of The Old Man and the Sea are two of the best, most honorable characters in all of English writing. It’s not that a tremendous amount is said about them. Hemingway’s writing is always close-cut and sparse. But we draw so close to them in the few scenes that are shared, and we find them heroic in a very modern and yet very primal way. Other favorites? The loving treatment of language itself. The beautiful scenery that pops up from that same language, describing everything from the mounting clouds over the sea to the shining, iridescent bodies of every fish the Old Man encounters.
Part of the dread I remember feeling while reading The Old Man and the Sea, I admit, came from having to return to the same scene, over and over. It is almost completely a one-act story, which takes place on a single boat with only one (arguably two) character(s). I am always surprised and amazed, though, when artists pull this off, and Hemingway does much more than pull this off. Can you imagine the pitch for this book? Old Man goes fishing, hooks a big fish, and spends majority of novel bringing it in. I can just imagine the endless line of editorial eye-rolls and sighs. Yet, at least as my adult self, I stayed glued to this story, which played out relatively fast in only 127 pages. It was harrowing! It was exciting, while also driving home the length of the adventure. We never would have seen the Old Man’s patience and strength, his humanity and manhood, without feeling a little of the monotony and blankness. But blankness isn’t really the word, because I was utterly wrapped in the sky and the sea and the skiff the whole time, feeling tired and cramped and thirsty.
I don’t know as I need to say any more. This is a wonderful book. You might not like it because you want something a little easier or flashier. Otherwise, this is a book I would put in a time capsule for our future selves, for sure.
“He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carries no loss of true pride” (p13).
“But I try not to borrow. First you borrow. Then you beg” (p18).
“‘I may not be as strong as I think,’ the old man said. ‘But I know many tricks and I have resolution'” (p23).
“‘Age is my alarm clock,’ the old man said. ‘Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?'” (p24).
“The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought” (p30).
“But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready” (p32).
“”But I’ll do something. There are plenty of things I can do” (p45).
“No one should be alone in their old age, he thought” (p48).
“You shouldn’t be that tired after a windless night. What are birds coming to?” (p55).
“Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so” (p64).
“I am glad we do not have to kill the stars” (p75).
“Nor was he really resting except comparatively” (p76).
“He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony” (p93).
“Sail on this course and take it when it comes” (p103).
“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is” (p110).
“Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her?” (p117).