A Hemingway Book I Actually Like: The Old Man and the Sea

2168Hemingway and I have a complicated relationship. Based on what I know about him as a person, I don’t like him all that much. I am unable to fully grasp his “write one true sentence” philosophy, because what may be true for him can’t necessarily be true for his readers. I read The Sun Also Rises a few years ago and didn’t particularly like it. I didn’t feel like I “got it,” a sentiment intensified by my husband (and Hemingway aficionado) who constantly asked about my progress. Whenever I would say “I don’t get it,” he would grab the book and say “But it’s obvious here that….” Well, none of it was ever obvious to me!

I have read several of Hemingway’s short stories—and liked some of them—and A Moveable Feast earlier this year, which underscored my general dislike of Hemingway. Yet the aforementioned Hemingway aficionado REALLY wants me to change my opinion of his favorite author, so Hamlette’s read-along of The Old Man and the Sea seemed the perfect way to get the book out of the way. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and realized I enjoyed it. Now that I am done, I can actually say that there’s a Hemingway book that I like. I’m pretty happy about that.

Hamlette has a few questions for us participants, and here are my responses to the ones I haven’t already answered.

Have you read any of Hemingway’s other works? If so, how do you like this compared to some of his other writings? What do you think of the writing style Hemingway uses here?

With Hemingway, I have always felt like I am getting dropped into a situation and are expected to know what is going on. But usually I feel like I am missing what is written between the lines. The Old Man and the Sea, to me, felt more like a stream-of-consciousness story where I don’t need to know anything that came before or anything that comes after it. I found this story much more accessible than Hemingway’s other writing. The writing seemed rather simple, which fits the (seemingly) simple story.

What do you think the main point of the story is? What is Hemingway trying to say here?

I’m perfectly happy to take Hemingway by his word when he says the old man is just an old man, the boy is just a boy, and the fish is just a fish. I have no problem seeing this as a story about an old man who is trying to catch the biggest fish of his life. Maybe the genius lies in making this story seem bigger than it is.

With that being said, in a lot of Hemingway’s stories, we have the fight of man versus animal, be it big-game hunting, bullfighting, or deep-sea fishing. It is an important theme in his writing, so it is easy to argue that there is more than only an old man, a boy, and a fish. I wondered why the two people in this story are hardly ever referred to by their names, and why the book is called The Old Man and the Sea and not The Old Man and the Fish. (I admit, the latter doesn’t sound as good!) Both, I think, give the story itself a much more universal feel; the man could be any man, and the “fight” is against nature, not a specific “opponent.”

The old man keeps saying that his intelligence is what sets him apart from the fish, but even though he is able to defeat the fish, in the end, nature wins. His experience and preparation have gotten him ready for catching the biggest fish of his life, but once the sharks come, neither experience nor preparation can help him. I find this rather sad, though I don’t think it is meant as a sad story as the old man savors the fair fight between him and the fish.

The Old Man and the Sea is required reading in a lot of high schools. Do you think this is a good choice for teen readers? Do you think some other story or book by Hemingway might be a better introduction to his work?

I don’t see anything wrong with reading this in high school. It is a story that is open to a lot of different interpretation and generally seems to evoke a strong reaction in people; they either really like or really dislike it. Both aspects should make for a good classroom discussion.

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12 comments

  1. From another “Hemingway husband”, I admire your willingness to give him a try. I’ve liked The Sun Also Rises since I was 15. I’m now – well, older and it’s still one of my favorites. But The Old Man and The Sea is good, too!

  2. So often, there is nothing between the lines; so often, it is the reader who puts it there. I know that we writers sometimes have a message to put across, but the rest of the time a story is just a story and (as you say) an old man is just an old man.

  3. I’ve only read one Hemingway book, A Farewell to Arms, and had a lot of problems with it, but I would like to give him another chance with a different book. Maybe I should try this one next.

  4. Although I’m a fan of Hemingway’s writing, I’m not a fan of him as a person. The same goes for a lot of authors, painters, actors, etc. I can still enjoy what they created even if I don’t agree with their personal behavior — glad you could get past Hemingway the man to enjoy his writing too!

    I really liked what you said here: The old man keeps saying that his intelligence is what sets him apart from the fish, but even though he is able to defeat the fish, in the end, nature wins. You’re so right! He triumphs over the fish, but the sea triumphs over him, in a way. Good observation.

    I’m glad you found some Hemingway you could enjoy! His usual style does leave a lot of things unsaid, and it can be hard to read between the lines and figure out what the characters are experiencing emotionally. He did that on purpose — called it the “iceberg theory” of writing, where what is unwritten is like the unseen part of an iceberg, much bigger than what you do see, and what holds everything up. I like trying to fill in the gaps, but my best friend has pretty well given up on Hemingway because she hates all those things being unsaid. I can definitely understand your frustration with not “getting” books like “The Sun Also Rises.” There, because of the times he was living in, he couldn’t explicitly state in the book what Jake Barnes’ war injury was, and if you don’t figure it out, the whole book works much less well.

    Thanks for joining my read-along!

  5. I read this in high school and I remember liking it. Rather than read any of his other books, I think I would like to just read this one again. I liked reading about your ‘history’ with Hemingway.

    • This is such a short book that a reread probably wouldn’t take up too much time. It would be interesting to find out whether you still like it or like a different aspect of the book now. Since my husband is not a reader, book discussions with him are either about non-fiction stories he watched as documentary or Hemingway. 🙂

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