The Old Man and the Sea
1952, United States
Approx. 24,500 words
The Old Man and the Sea
A simple fish story?
A lot has been said about Hemingway's ideals of courage, grace under pressure, and all that. But my own feeling is that what he really wanted was to be considered wise.
His lead characters usually have a stillness about them, often contrasting with the more frantic efforts of those around them, as if they know more of the ways of the world than others and are just playing along.
Or, as author, he brings them to this position that he presumably already occupies.
It's not cynicism exactly, although he occasionally laps over into that, but an acceptance of the game of life which is stacked against us but which we must stoically and with bravado, if not bravery, engage in anyway.
The Old Man and the Sea is his finest distillation of this attitude. The old man is uneducated, has a limited experience of the world, and may not be all that smart. But he understands something of how things go that has little to do with book learning or sophistication. He comes through an acknowledgment of his own ignorance and folly to an even greater acceptance of life's vicissitudes—what we might call wisdom.
The plot is dirt simple: Old Cuban guy hasn't caught a fish in a long time. Everyone figures he's washed up. So he goes way out in his little boat, catches the biggest fish he's ever seen. Tries to bring it back. Fights off sharks. Thinks about his life and baseball.
That's about it. The Old Man and the Sea is hardly even a novel. Maybe a novella or novelette. Or just a long short story.
But my, what is packed into the seemingly simple ruminations of this seemingly simple guy. Without noticing exactly when or how it happens, you're sucked into the man's world and his mind. You're there in the tiny boat with him. Your heart soars...and breaks...with his. The story runs on like the Gulf Stream itself with hardly a comma to break the flow.
No wonder it's considered Hemingway's masterpiece and is his one book that's taught in high school. Which is too bad in a way, because younger people tend to find it dull, repetitive and corny. To catch the full weight of the emotional undertow of this story, you need to have some life experience yourself.
I'm not going to tell you anything else about it. It's short enough, you can read it yourself in an afternoon. In fact, you can read the book and watch one of the films of it the same day.
If you don't get it now, try again ten or twenty years later, when you're older. Maybe wiser.