Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A funny thing happened on the way to the hatchet. I was chomping at the bit to rip apart Hemingway. His testosterone fueled novels are filled with manly men combating nature and women who weren’t to worry their pretty little heads about anything. In short, just the thing to rile up this feminist environmentalist. The Scribner’s paperback praised him as the author who “did more to change the style of English prose than any other writer of the Twentieth century”. I scoffed.
Though I’ve read most of Hemingway’s work, it’s been years ago, so I grabbed a pile of them at the library and skimmed through them, looking for deadwood to sink my ax into. I have liked some of his writing, such as the Nick Adam short stories and Farewell to Arms, but the rest just irritated me. However, I made a startling discovery; Hemingway did not quite live up to his machismo reputation. Yes, there was the lengthy bullfights in The Sun Also Rises, but there was also the thwarted desire and the almost Psalmic conversations of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Other insightful stories of how war affects people, both physically and mentally, impacting not only individuals, but families and relationships. While there was plenty of big game hunting and fishing, there was also kindness to incremental animals; horses on border patrol, a dog in a battle torn village, a feline in the sweet short story The Cat in the Rain. Most surprisingly, the women weren’t two-dimensional bimbos, but layered, often strong characters, individually drawn. The manly men treated them with affection and respect, not condescendingly. My hatchet job was splintering before my eyes.
And then I reached for The Old Man and the Sea.
Here was the machine gun prose, the sparse plot, the strong and silent type. All of the stereotypical Hemingway hallmarks. An old fisherman goes out in his boat alone and catches an enormous swordfish. The reader suffers every miserable moment of his capture in excruciatingly boring detail; how many times the fish swims around the boat, how many times the man pulls on the line, how many birds fly by. It goes on for more pages than you can imagine, until you are ready to scream. This paen to lost youth and virility is just filled with macho baloney, “..pain does not matter to a man.” the old man says. But apparently it does, because long paragraphs are given over to whatever is aching at that moment. In between, he eats raw fish, recalls boxing matches of his youth and thinks of lions. I understand it’s all reeking of symbolism, but it’s done so obviously that it’s irritating.
This is considered Hemingway’s masterpiece. I’m not sure why, unless it’s because it feeds into all of those comic book fantasies of male book reviewers. Perhaps they are feeling insecure in their masculinity as they sit before a keyboard instead of out there battling nature? It’s not like any other of Hemingway’s work, before or after and definitely not up to the standards of the rest. There isn’t the complex plots of his later novels, nor the rich character arc of his earlier ones. Even his short stories are more developed than this novella. It’s such a departure from his other books, that I wonder if it’s not a half-baked idea he had on one of his drunken binges? It’s unfortunate that it’s so often used in schools to introduce students to Hemingway, because nearly everything else of his is so much better. Is it to inspire those students to become Hemingway wannabes like Cormac McCarthy? It was a big fish. It was a thin book. It was a dull book.

Scribner orig. 1952 127 pp. ISBN 0-684-80122-1

14 comments on “The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Mhairi
    April 7, 2008

    “It was a big fish. It was a thin book. It was a dull book.”

    Wonderful. 🙂

    Isn’t it always the same, though? There you are, happily honing the blade of the trusty axe, when all of a sudden you realize that the passing of the years has changed your tastes and that what you once found intolerable for whatever reason has suddenly become really not so very bad at all …

    But it’s very Hemingway, isn’t it – to say “Pain does not matter to man” and then spend several monosyllabic paragraphs whining.

    Having said that, I actually LIKE The Old Man and the Sea … but then, its length may have something to do with it.

  2. Kirsty
    April 7, 2008

    Couldn’t agree with you more Jackie! I couldn’t even get to the end of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’… and it’s a really short book. Maybe I’m just not cut out for Hemingway.

  3. rosyb
    April 7, 2008

    I think it is a lot to do with expectations how you respond to a book (or a film for that matter). If everyone goes on and on about how great it is and it is mediocre – you feel incensed! If it is something that everyone else overlooks and you discover ain’t half bad yourself, you engage with it more perhaps.

    “Pain does not matter to a man.” Hmm. I suppose any line out of context seems ridiculous but…

    I haven’t read Hemingway and haven’t really been tempted either ( it’s that spare thing again, isn’t it?) unless someone here tells me why I should. Isn’t Hemingway very beloved by male writers but less so by women? Is there something romantic or exclusive that we just don’t get?

  4. Stewart
    April 7, 2008

    “Pain does not matter to a man.” Hmm. I suppose any line out of context seems ridiculous

    I was just about to say that. I’ve read The Old Man And The Sea but I can’t come out in support of it – or to be angry at it – because I can’t remember a thing about it. And it was only two years back I picked it up.

    Is it to inspire those students to become Hemingway wannabes like Cormac McCarthy?

    I thought William Faulkner was more McCarthy’s muse.

  5. marygm
    April 7, 2008

    I’m totally with you on this, Jackie. I’m one of those who started with TOMATS and then got turned off Hemingway. But now you’ve convinced me that maybe I should go back and try his other work. (So not so negative a review!)

    You also mentioned his impact on Creative Writing teaching – the dictum to be spare, laconic, for every word to count. Fine but why did he and so many after him insist that this is the only way to write. Hey, I say, there are times when it’s good to splash out and spend words with abandon. If we only ever said what is absolutely necessary, it would be a boring world. Doesn’t the same apply to writing and reading?

  6. Kirsty
    April 7, 2008

    Hey, another Kirsty, hello there.

    I entirely agree about Hemingway – Jackie, you summed up all my impressions of him and more! But as a fellow feminist I’m always rather repelled by the super special awesome brutal macho school of writing, especially when the authors just cannot write female characters.

  7. Chris Routledge
    April 7, 2008

    I’m a great fan of Hemingway, especially of his short stories, but I didn’t get much from The Old Man and the Sea either, so maybe it’s the way books are boosted that is the trouble. I must disagree with the implication that Hemingway is part of “the super special awesome brutal macho school of writing”. Hemingway writes about masculinity just as Virginia Woolf writes about femininity. But his men–at least the ones he most admires–are not on the whole unfeeling macho oafs, but men who find themselves trapped by a template or expectation for macho masculine behaviour that doesn’t fit with their emotional lives. That, in fact, is the reason why so many of Hemingway’s stories are about unhappy men and possibly why so many men admire him. I defy anyone to read, at the end of The Sun Also Rises, the following (from memory) lines without being touched by the sadness of it all:

    “Oh Jake, we could have had such good times together”
    “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.”

  8. Mhairi
    April 7, 2008

    Interesting point, Chris. Hemingway’s male characters aren’t the cheeriest people in the world, are they? They’re mostly leading those famous lives of quiet (or not so quiet in some cases) desperation …

    But … why should that appeal to men so much?

    I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway, but I found The Old Man and the Sea almost hypnotic. I didn’t expect to like it, but I did … in fact, it’s one of my favourite novellas … along with The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Quite what THAT says about me, I don’t think I want to explore … 🙂

  9. sequinonsea
    April 9, 2008

    Oh Jackie, how I heart your reviews.

    “It was a big fish. It was a thin book. It was a dull book.”

    Such a way with words!

    Well, of course, now I’ve heard so much about The Old Man and the Sea, I feel I MUST read it, if only for the account of lost youth and virility. Hell, even for the macho baloney 🙂

    (Feel obliged to admit I have never read a Hemingway. The shame.)

  10. Jackie
    April 10, 2008

    For anyone that would like to read a decent Hemingway, try “Farewell to Arms” or the one Chris rightly recommends, “The Sun Also Rises”. The macho stuff is kept to a minimum and the stories are pretty good, too.

  11. Pingback: The Reader Online » Links We Liked for April 11, 2008

  12. student
    May 1, 2010

    I agree with you Jackie. I am a high school student part of our ciriculum was reading this novella, our first Hemingway experience. Can i just say that as short as the book is, i must have fallen asleep ten times reading it because it is so boring and the furthest thing from interesting. Ohhh, poor Santiago..fighting with a fish and sharks, like you would think he wrote this story boring on purpose, because the plot is so adventurous, yet the writing style is beyond dull!
    Anyways, now i have to do a project on feminism and misogyny in the novella, when there was such a lack of women in the novella. I understand that the sea and the tourist are both female characters, yet i dont understand how i could talk so much about them. Any suggestions? Why do you think Hemingway did not include women in the novel, and what do you think his views are of women in this book, like what exactly is he trying to say about women in the old man and the sea?? Does anyone really get it? please let me know.

  13. Chris Bradley
    December 8, 2010

    I wonder if, at some point, everyone gets caught up in the current. Hemingway is this and he’s that — who cares? It’s a piece of writing.

    First, why can’t Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea novella have no women in it? Why isn’t that okay? Does every piece of writing have to meet some kind of quota? Call me sexist, I guess.

    Second, the line “pain does not matter to a man.” This is one goddamn fisherman (should I say “fisherperson”??) out on the water, expressing his unspoken desire to be rid of his pain, and to catch the fish, because that’s how he makes his living. He’s not puffing himself up in front of others, to make himself feel superior and manly. In fact, he’s alone on that skiff.

    Third, to each his own regarding the way it was written. But I must tell you, I’ve hunted and I’ve fished — and I call myself part libertarian, part egalitarian. In other words, I try to keep an open mind. And I think I understand the spirit of what the old man is going through. It has absolutely nothing to do with gender.

    The novella stands on its own. In my opinion, a negative review on a Hemingway work is like link bait — you got me — as well as a good first shout in the echo chamber here.

  14. Ellsworth Congrue
    March 5, 2019

    Hemingway said that he believes he did not put a single ounce of symbolism in the old man and the sea, and if anyone does find any symbolism it is “shit” (his word). The fact that he was thinking of his days when he was boxing and thinking of lions was because he is an old man. In his own words “the old man is the old man…the sea is the sea…the boy is the boy…”. Anyways, I respect your critique; you’ve taken an admirable jab at his work. But I don’t think merely stating that ‘it is masculine so it follows that it just into that great’ isn’t enough to raise an objection. If I wrote something like that in one of my essays, I wouldn’t even recieve a passing grade. Perhaps your objective wasn’t to take apart his work, but instead demonstrate some of your views. If that’s the case, you are more than just allowed to do this given this is (I assume) your own website, it’s my fault for accessing the site. The old man and the sea was great because of the emotions it evokes, and the vivid detail that it captures.

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This entry was posted on April 7, 2008 by in Entries by Jackie, Fiction: literary and tagged , , .

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