Ernest Hemingway
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952
127 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2006

Once again I return to the work of Ernest Hemingway after an almost 50 year hiatus. The Old Man and the Sea is a magnificent story. At one level it is the tale of a man and a fish, at another, a story of man versus nature, at yet another, the story of the culture of manhood, courage, bravery in the face of existence, and at yet another a history of what life was like when individuals were more the central actors on the human stage and not groups or organizations.

At the most basic level the very elderly fisherman, Santiago, goes out in his small fishing boat after 84 days without hooking a decent fish. He goes far out, and hooks a gigantic 18 foot long sword fish. The battle then begins, and the fish drags the small boat and Santiago far out to sea. For two days they battle, and Santiago wins that battle, but then loses the great fish on the way home to the scavenger sharks who find him easy prey.

Hemingway celebrates the courage and raw guts of this old man, even recounting a time in Casablanca when he had spent an entire day in an arm wrestling match with a much larger man in a seaside tavern. Hemingway celebrates a concept of humans as beings who go it alone, fierce, brave, courageous without even thinking about it, oozing strength from the nature of the best of the species.

The story is told with incredible economy of words and description, yet nothing is sacrificed which drives home the power and inner strength of this man, who just takes it as what he does, what it is to be a serious fisherman.

Hemingway’s world is not my world. I am no Santiago, no macho man. And the culture of today has little place left for the radical individual whom Hemingway celebrates and Santiago portrays. Yet the power of Hemingway’s telling is such that I couldn’t help but be on Santiago’s side, to admire him, to ache with his loss in the end to forces greater than he.

There is a side tale as well. This great individual, the man who stands alone, is not alone completely by choice. He has developed a friendship, a working relationship, a love with a young boy who began fishing with him when the boy was only five. Now the boy has moved on to another boat, a more successful one, at his parents’ behest, but he pines to work with Santiago, and when the battle with the great fish has been engaged, Santiago pleads over and over and over: “I wish the boy were here.”

Like many readers who might come upon this novel today, I live a life of citified ease and comfort. A life far removed from harsh confrontations with nature. But Hemingway forces me to remember and acknowledge the individual, the struggle for the most basic existence, the battle with nature for survival itself. But most importantly he makes one acknowledge the importance of the individual and the magnificence of courage, skill, art and endurance.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett