It would be fairly easy to write a note about Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea that is actually longer than the book itself, but I’ll resist the urge. I don’t care for Hemingway, having read three of his novels before tackling this novella (#32 on the Radcliffe 100 and winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for
Really Short Books of Five-Word Sentences Fiction); his prose style is detached, and I can’t relate to the casual nihilism of many of his main characters. The Old Man and the Sea differs from the other Hemingway novels I’ve read in the latter respect, since it’s more of a fable than a novel, and the title character dares to hope.
The main question around the novella seems to be the symbolic value of the sea and/or the giant fish that the old man catches. These were some possibilities that occurred to me as I read the book:
* The fish represents happiness: You can catch it and hold it for a short period of time, but like all else in life and this world, it will pass. This would mean that Our Lady Peace had it slightly wrong, since happiness would indeed be a fish you can catch, but not one you can keep.
* The fish represents man: King of his little universe until some higher force (fate, God, two-headed aliens with probes … okay, the last one might be a stretch) intervenes. And subjects him to a humiliating, painful decline. This is Hemingway we’re discussing, so you can’t rule that out.
* The sea represents life or fate: Pretty obvious. Man struggling against a force beyond his control and beyond his ability to perceive it, refusing to surrender or accept inevitable defeat.
* The fish and the sea together represent the upper and lower bounds on man’s life. Man can tame or defeat some aspects of his world, but ultimately there is an upper bound on our existence.
We read A Farewell to Arms in AP Lit – I was so pissed at the ending that I threw the book across the room – but never Old Man, which seems to be unusual given how many people tell me they read it in school. Hemingway strikes me as an author best read in an academic setting because his works lend themselves so well to this kind of simple literary analysis. I don’t enjoy his prose, and his stories and characters don’t grip me the way that Fitzgerald’s or Faulkner’s do.