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I think that there is something majestic, dangerous, and enthralling about stories that are set on the sea. Indeed so many canonically literary classics are set amongst the beauties and dangers of the ocean: Moby Dick, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Voyage of the Beagle to name a few.
As I am currently in a bit of a reading frenzy, straight after closing the cover of In Cold Blood, the cover of another celebrated sea-faring adventure was opened and its narrative devoured. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Set in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Havana, The Old Man and the Sea is a fable about the seemingly undying endurance of man told in a rich and succinct storm of beautifully crafted language. An unlucky old fisherman sails beyond the usual haunts of the other fisherman and miraculously hooks a marlin that is bigger than his boat. Wrestling with this beast for three days, the old man triumphs, but the trial is only beginning, as he must battle the elements and beasts of the deep in order to bring his fish home.
Exploring a theme that is very masculine (almost to the point of being nauseating), Hemingway, through his swift and poetic prose, brings a certain sort of romanticism to the concept of a man proving his strength.
The struggles of the old man: the sheer size and strength of the fish, the distance to travel, and the time spent alone on the ocean, are very poignant and told in such a way as plants the reader right there in the skiff with him. The smell of salt and blood, the swaying nausea of the sea and dehydration are actual parts of the reading experience, and of course they add to the drama and the hope that the old man will make it home.
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Yet despite the odds that are stacked significantly against the protagonist, there is never a fear for his survival. However, by the time he sets his feet on shore again, there is a great sense of loss and melancholy that descends upon the reader. It’s truly impressive when a book as small as this (not even a hundred pages) evokes such emotions. It really demonstrates the awesome power of language and the written word!
The Old Man and the Sea might be small, but it really packs a punch and is a wonderful demonstration of how language can dramatise and romanticise a story as simple ‘as a man catches a big fish’.
Author: Ernest Hemingway, 1952
Published: C. Scribner’s Sons (New York), 1952
Achievements: Pulitzer Prize for Literature 1953