Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
- Ernest Hemingway.
On the surface, American novelist Ernest Hemingway lived the quintessential life of adventure, travelling the world as he wrote his stories. Hemingway often used his own life experiences to amplify his tales, drawing them out with "what if" scenarios - if he had done this instead of that, where would it have lead? He was also a master of "getting the most from the least," using simple, highly pruned yin-like language, leaving out the important things which he believed strengthened the narrative, a narrative that often revolved around the description of one thing, even though another thing was occurring below the surface. Like his stories, as the quote above suggests, even though Hemingway's life appeared exciting at face value, there must have been another thing occurring below the surface, for in a state of depression he ultimately ended his own story with a shotgun.
Of all Hemingway's tales, there was one that took only eight weeks to write, one that he described as "the best I can write ever for all of my life," entitled The Old Man and the Sea (1). It is a simple story that describes the encounter between Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, and a giant-sized Marlin; if you have not read The Old Man and the Sea, and would like to, then I recommend taking a couple of hours to do so before continuing here, so as not to spoil its telling. Moreover, you may take something from it that I have not.
The Old Man and the Sea can be subdivided into four sections. We are initially introduced to the old fisherman Santiago, way past his physical prime, leading a lonely life in a fishing village aside from a boy who helps him fish from time to time, and on the 85th day of an unlucky streak whereby he has caught no fish, Santiago ventures farther out into the sea than he ever has in the hopes of catching the greatest fish of his life. He succeeds, hooking a a Marlin larger than his own skiff, and in an epic day-and-night battle mottled with numerous problems and obstacles that he creatively overcomes, Santiago finally kills the great fish, although by the end of the conflict he empathizes and even sympathizes with the creature, and is sorry to have ended its life. He ties the Marlin up beside his skiff and sails for home, but is attacked by hordes of sharks; he gallantly fights them off for a while, killing and wounding many, but eventually is overwhelmed and every bit of the fish is devoured. Finally, Santiago returns to his village, seemingly broken and defeated, although the boy and many others do not actually see him as either.
In typical Hemingway fashion, the tale superficially describes an old man going out into the sea to catch a big fish, but if that is all it were really about, it would be a pretty boring story. Yet The Old Man and the Sea is far from boring, and the reason for this is that it actually attempts to convey something deeper.
It is usually wise to consider several or more points of view when interpreting a highly metaphorical story such as The Old Man and the Sea.
On one level, Hemingway may have been describing the meaning of having a personal code of conduct. During his titanic confrontation with the Marlin, and later on with the sharks, Santiago remains stoic and dignified, responding to each of his numerous setbacks with practical, creative solutions. He finds no meaning in his own considerable personal suffering during these clashes. Rather, he finds meaning in having a practical and creative code of conduct to addressing the many difficulties that fate throws his way. On this level, The Old Man and the Sea conveys the importance of maintaining a code of conduct that allows one to address the inevitable myriad hardships during one's life.
On a somewhat related level, Hemingway may have been describing the importance of never giving up in the struggle of life. Santiago is constantly faced with both triumph and tragedy, but he never ceases to struggle against either, and although he feels like he has lost everything by the end of the story, the reader knows that through his actions, he never gave up. On this level, The Old Man and the Sea relays the importance of never surrendering, no matter what the fates throw in one's way.
Still further, perhaps Hemingway was describing the human impulse to seek greater things, even though attaining them results in one's own destruction. Santiago rests all his hopes and dreams on finding and catching the great Marlin, even though when he finally does so, the confrontation mentally and physically destroys him. Upon returning to the village, many of the villagers see Santiago's wounds and the skeletal remains of the great fish, and they recognize that he has done a wondrous thing. On this level, The Old Man and the Sea conveys the human need to do something great, and how those few who find that greatness are often destroyed by their own achievement.
These are all fine interpretations, and while all may be true, I believe Hemingway wanted to say much more with his self-proclaimed masterpiece.
The Indomitable Spirit
It seems vital to me that a writer's own life and state of mind must be considered when interpreting the meaning behind their greatest work. As such, perhaps no interpretation by another can truly capture the full meaning of The Old Man and the Sea. That said, my own take is this...
We are introduced to Santiago, an old man past his prime, but with eyes "still good," full of "confident love," that are "cheerful and undefeated." Santiago's eyes represent his spirit - undying, loving, undefeated. The boy admires Santiago's spirit, moreso than that of his own father who eyes are "almost blind." He respects Santiago's willingness to venture far out into the sea, "something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them." The sea represents fate - tempestuous, wild, wicked.
The old man and the sea, a spirit journeying to its fate.