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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
THE JOURNEY OUT (continued)
Santiago is now close to where he wants to fish for the big one that will end his string of terrible luck. And he's doing everything right, keeping each of his lines straight so the baits are down where they're supposed to be instead of letting the fines drift with the current out from the boat, which would make the baits shallower.
This little bit of the nuts-and-bolts of fishing leads him into a brief philosophical reflection. "It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready."
Here's one of several passages you can mentally toss around and examine for meaning. It seems strange that he would call being lucky "better," and nevertheless prefer something else. In this case, what he prefers is to "be exact," meaning to do the job right. Is it a matter of pride-that he would prefer to make success happen by his own efforts rather than waiting for it to happen accidentally? That seems to fit the image of a grizzled old veteran of the sea. But does it fit with his earlier quiet acceptance of Manolin and Martin's generosity?
"Then when luck comes you are ready." Apparently what Santiago is talking about here is not what we mean by the phrase "dumb luck" or "blind chance." Perhaps "opportunity" is what Santiago means. And perhaps he means that opportunities never amount to anything if a person hasn't paid the dues, done the homework, and prepared him/herself to take advantage of the opportunity. We're reminded of the back-up quarterback who suddenly gets a chance to start. Or the unknown rock group that suddenly have a big-time producer in their audience. Luck? Certainly. But it won't mean anything if the quarterback hasn't already put in hours of training, or if the rock group haven't already made themselves good musicians. Santiago's philosophy isn't too different from the business world's saying, "You make your own breaks."
One final idea before we depart from this reflection on luck versus (or combined with) something else. "Shallow men believe in luck," the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson said. You might consider to what extent you agree or disagree with Emerson and Santiago.
Sometimes it helps to identify two opposite poles. One would be a view called fatalism, which basically says you have no control over what happens to you. For example, "When your time is up, it's up," and it makes no difference whether you're a professional soldier of fortune, a race car driver, or an office worker. The same thing would happen anyway.
At the opposite pole would be a view called rugged individualism, which says that you are where you are because you (not somebody or something else) put yourself there. And just about whatever you want to happen you can make happen, if you work at it enough.
What's your view? In any case, Santiago's ability to read the signs of the sea isn't luck; it's experience. He notices a man-of-war bird circling overhead and he knows from its type of motion that it has located fish-flying fish. They're breaking water, pursued by a school of dolphin.
We have a ring full of contestants in this scene, each with a slightly different purpose but all related to survival. The bird is searching for an opportunity to swoop down and catch a flying fish for food. The dolphin are pursuing the flying fish for the same reason. And the old man is trying to follow the activity in hope that somewhere around it will be the big fish he's after.
In the end, only the dolphin win. Santiago muses that the flying fish "have little chance" and the bird "has no chance." Here we have "luck" or chance or fortune again-in this case bad luck. But notice here it's presented as an unavoidable force. Is that because it's concerned with animals in this case, not with people?
Santiago himself doesn't get what he tries for. The school of activity moves too fast for him. But he's too much a veteran to be discouraged. "But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. My big fish must be somewhere." The confidence is apparent. Notice how it's capsuled in the word "my." Santiago speaks of the fish as already his or at least earmarked for him. It's as though there were an inevitable plan or scheme, if only he can carry through his part of it, as though opportunity is inevitable but not necessarily how we take advantage of it.
NOTE: A CONSIDERATION OF "OPPORTUNITY"
Do you feel opportunity is inevitable-that it's always around somewhere? And again just for fun, if you were speaking Santiago's line, "My big fish must be somewhere," what would you say in place of "big fish"? What golden opportunity, what potential prize catch have you thought about recently? To mirror Santiago's situation, it must be something that is possible through a combination of opportunity plus planning and effort on your part.
Santiago jolts us when he literally talks aloud to a Portuguese man-of-war floating beside the boat. "Agua mala," he says. Well, that's not so bad; literally it simply means "bad water." Then he matter-of-factly says, "You whore."
Somehow we're not expecting this. It's not so much the word itself as the fact that previously Santiago has never spoken a harsh or negative word about anything. He has come across as tough but otherwise rather mild-mannered.
Yet it fits with his earthiness. And he has reasons for bad feelings about Portuguese man-of-wars: they hurt. They've given him painful sores and welts when some of their poisonous filaments were caught on a fishing line he was pulling in.
But perhaps it's more than that. Perhaps it's not just their ability to cause pain but also the fact that they're beautiful to look at-in other words, deceptive. Would he feel less negative about them if they were as ugly as they are harmful-in other words, at least honest? He does consider them "the falsest thing in the sea."
You could probably make a long list of "Portuguese man-of-wars"- things or people that are harmful, even deadly, although they look, or sound, pleasing.
In any case, we see a delightful picture of the old man exhibiting the reaction of a little kid at a good guys/bad guys movie: the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what's coming to them. He loves to see the great sea turtles eating the Portuguese man-ofwars. And he loves to step on them himself when they've been washed ashore, because his soles are too calloused to be affected. The next time Santiago sees the bird it leads him to a bit of success: to a school of tuna where he catches an albacore that will make "a beautiful bait."
NOTE: THE HEMINGWAY STYLE
Take some time to appreciate the sparse but effective description in this brief scene. Phrases like "the small tuna's shivering pull as he held the line firm and commenced to haul it in" are again both simple and rich.
And what an incredibly, richly accurate description Hemingway gives us of the just-landed fish! "...his big, unintelligent eyes staring as he thumped his life out against the planking of the boat with the quick shivering strokes of his neat, fast-moving tail." If you've ever caught a fish, that description makes you almost shout, "Yes, that is exactly what it looks like!" Accidental? Hardly. Hemingway may easily have spent a half hour or more perfecting that sentence. He was a dogged rewriter. (The final chapter alone of A Farewell to Arms was rewritten thirty-nine times.)
Another mild jolt: "The old man hit him on the head for kindness." This time it's not so much the concept; we know right away he hits him to hasten the inevitable death of the fish. The jolt is in the words this time, the contract between "hit" and "kindness" within this seven-word phrase. (Another great writer, Shakespeare, gives us a similar jolt in the words of Hamlet: "I must be cruel in order to be kind.")
Since we've mentioned this "Hemingway style" so often, it's worth taking the time to explore or imagine how a different writer might have said the same thing, in a style much more drawn out and explanatory: "Realizing that if he simply left the fish in the bottom of the boat, its death would be prolonged, the old man hit the fish in the head in order to render it unconscious and hasten its end. Although this would seem to be, on the surface, an act of cruelty or brutality, it really was, in a paradoxical way, an act of kindness."
Well, that's not Hemingway for certain. And it's not effective either.
Santiago is far from the harbor now. He can't see even "the green of the shore but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them." Notice the use of color, again in stark simplicity.
He's in water "a mile deep." The big event is about to happen.