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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
THE JOURNEY OUT
If you've ever gone fishing very early in the morning, you'll identify with the scene where Santiago sets out from the Havana harbor. If you haven't, and if you read it slowly and carefully, you'll get a good sense of "being there." Again, Hemingway's language is, as usual, extremely simple; there's no lush overload of descriptive words. Simple phrases like "the dip and push of their oars" get the job done.
This is sometimes called "the theater of the mind," a phrase often applied to radio dramas, where the listeners create the scene in their own minds from a few, well-chosen details.
Notice how many sensory details are here. All are stated with the barest of language and often left to the theater of your mind-phrases like "the smell of the land" and "the clean early morning smell of the ocean" and the "trembling sound" as the flying fish leave the water.
If you're up early enough, you can see the morning coming. But Hemingway says that Santiago can "feel the morning coming." Stop for a minute and try to examine that phrase. What would it be like to feel the morning coming? We get the impression here of a great event, a real happening, as though the morning is a real thing whose coming can be felt from a distance.
And it certainly tells us a lot about Santiago. We know he is no stranger to the sea. But to feel the morning coming, entering into the darkness of the open sea? That calls for a closeness with nature most of us don't have.
This closeness to nature is reinforced when we listen to Santiago's thoughts about the sea itself and its creatures. We'll come back to them after a brief note.
NOTE: POINT OF VIEW
"Point of view" in fiction is not the author's opinion of his/her subject. it's how-actually by whom-the author decides to tell the story. Another way to put it is: who is the narrator? If a character in the story relates the events, that's first person point of view. (Usually, but not always, it's one of the major characters.) If the narrator is not a character, if it's somebody (never identified) outside of the action, that's third person point of view. And within third person point of view, the author has two other choices: objective and omniscient. Objective means the author tells only what could have been observed by someone who was actually on the scene. Omniscient means the author relates the inner feelings and thoughts of the characters.
Each point of view has its advantages and limitations. In The Old Man and the Sea we're obviously seeing third person omniscient point of view. You might ask yourself why it was a good choice for this story. In fact, after you've read the book, you might ask if any other point of view would have been possible and why or why not. Would a different point of view have been more successful?
Santiago has many feelings for the sea and its creatures. That's expectable from someone who has spent a great deal of his life on the sea. He feels "fond" of the flying fish because they are "his principal friends on the ocean." We know by now that Hemingway doesn't choose words lightly or just to be cute. So why this word "friends"? "Amusement" or "entertainment" or "diversion" might seem more likely. Is there any way an animal can be a friend to a person? Friendship, after all, assumes something in common, so we can wonder what Santiago has in common with the flying fish. But this much is certain: the flying fish are his guides, leading him to the school of larger fish.
He feels sorry for the small birds "that were always flying and looking and almost never finding." It almost seems unfair that they're doomed to a harsh existence out over the sea.
Here's a chance to wonder if these birds are like (perhaps even symbols of) certain people, because the sea is often a symbol of life itself. Maybe you can think of some people who seem too fragile for the often rough journey through the great "sea" of life. What's your inner, gut reaction to the word "sea" itself? Perhaps little or nothing; maybe it's a word that has no added feelings or associations (called connotations) for you, much like the words "floor" or "ceiling." They mean something but they don't make you feel anything. That's perfectly all right and very understandable if you've never lived by the sea or spent much time reading or dreaming about it.
But to Santiago the sea isn't just a word or a fact or even a thing. To him the sea is a living being with a personality-almost a genuine person, although of a different order of existence.
Some fishermen, Santiago notes, view the sea as masculine and therefore as a rival or an opponent. But Santiago always sees her as feminine. (Ladies, prepare for a bit of chauvinism here-and try to forgive Santiago for it. He is, after all, a product of his time and place, which is a very simple, male-oriented culture.) The old man views the sea with a certain stereotype of femininity: the sea is immensely lovable but irrational, flighty, and capricious. "...and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought."
Well, that's certainly not the image of today's totally-in-charge woman, who can be just as good a senator, doctor, or executive as her male counterpart. But we can note that there really isn't any tone of looking down on or mild contempt in Santiago's stereotype. It's an expression of his uncomplicated world view, in which things simply are what they are because that's how they're made. Santiago lives in a male-dominated society.
NOTE: A PERSONAL REACTION TO "SEA"
Just for fun, you might spend a couple of minutes asking yourself how you see the sea. As masculine or feminine? And-most importantly-why? What reasons, observations, feelings (or perhaps even stereotypes) cause you to see it as masculine or feminine?
You probably won't understand the sea any better, but you'll gain a clearer understanding of your own concept of masculinity and/or femininity. That's a fairly important issue to know "where you are" in these days of debate over unisex versus traditional roles. And if this fictional fisherman can help stimulate your thinking, that's one of the benefits of good fiction. Comparing and contrasting ourselves with well-drawn fictional characters is a great aid toward self-understanding. To make it happen, though, we need to open our mental eyes wider than just enough to "see how the story comes out."
The description of how Santiago's lines are set out and particularly of how the baits are arranged on the hooks is not terribly essential to understanding the plot or the significance of the story, but try reading it slowly to see if you can visualize the details. Sections like these are part of what makes a good story more than just an outline of events.
The same is true of the following paragraph describing the sunrise scene. What do you visualize by the word "thinly" when Hemingway says, "The sun rose thinly from the sea"? An odd word choice. Why? Could the sun set "thinly" as well as rise that way?