Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is a classic novel you may or may not have read in high school. Having read it as an adult (and a Hemingway fan), I can see both its timeless value and its eye-roll-inducing boredom from a group of teenagers. Some books are easy for high schoolers to enjoy and digest; others like The Old Man and the Sea require an adept teacher to show the majority of teenage students why this story is compelling, which is not an easy task.
If you haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend giving it a read before continuing on here.
The novella follows an old Cuban man, a lifelong fisherman who lives in poverty and has befriended a young boy who respects the man and yearns to learn from him. Having gone 84 days without catching a fish, the old man sets out to the water once more and hooks an enormous marlin – one so big that it drags him and his dingy boat far, far away from shore. The ensuing days depict the man’s struggle with the creature until he finally kills it, straps it to the side of his boat, and heads back home. On the return journey, he battles sharks who are trying to eat the fish, and by the time he reaches the shore, the fish is little more than bones. He collapses back in bed, and when he awakens he reunites with the boy.
It’s a simple story, congruent with Hemingway’s dense but simple style of writing, and yet there is much to be drawn from it. Themes of man versus nature, perseverance, embracing conflict – they are all at the center of this simple battle between an old man and a large fish. However, I would like to focus on another theme prevalent throughout: the old man and his deep respect for his adversaries (or adversity in general).
Most people have heard that you ought to “love your enemy” as Jesus once said; or, if Jesus isn’t quite your speed, try Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Despite the obvious differences between Jesus and Sun Tzu, both of these statements begin with a respect for your enemy. Many films and books have revolved around an inherent respect for one’s enemy, rather than their blind hatred of them – one of my favorites is Ender’s Game, where that is the one thing that enables the protagonist to defeat the enemy.
The old man in Hemingway’s story does not consider himself better or more deserving than the fish he seeks to kill. He does it because he is a fisherman and he needs to eat, but not because he holds any malice or mal-intent toward the fish. “I am only better than him through trickery, and he meant me no harm,” he says after the fish is finally dead. In fact, he develops quite the bond with the fish as the story progresses, lamenting his death when he strikes the killing blow.
You would think that such an experienced fisherman would have no qualms with killing a fish, that it would be business as usual, and that any sympathy for the creatures would have been long since vanquished. And yet, in his experience he seems to also have developed wisdom and empathy for those that he kills. It doesn’t stop him from killing, but he still feels bad about doing it. One could argue that there are some things that are necessary that should always be unpleasant. In my experience, anywhere where you have the necessity to get one’s hands dirty, you have at least a few people who try and convince themselves that they enjoy the dirtying, or that the dirtying wasn’t ever bad to begin with. This appears to be a significant theme in Hemingway’s mind, as it’s also a clearly illustrated through the character Anselmo in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
As he is pulled by the enormous marlin, the old man recounts a previous, similar experience:
“He remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair of marlin. The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic-stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male had stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface. He had stayed so close that the old man was afraid he would cut the line with his tail which was sharp as a scythe and almost of that size and shape. When the old man had gaffed her and clubbed her… and then, with the boy’s aid, hoisted her aboard, the male fish had stayed by the side of the boat. Then, while the old man was clearing the lines and preparing the harpoon, the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went deep down, his lavender stripes showing. He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed.
“That was the saddest thing I ever saw with them, the old man thought. The boy was sad too and we begged her pardon and butchered her promptly.”
The old man still fishes, he still works very hard to kill, but he clearly holds a deep respect for those that he hunts. He holds a similar respect for the sea itself, another adversary that he is well versed in. The obvious difference with the sea is that it lies above mankind on the food chain, just as man does above fish, except the sea is indifferent. Still, any experienced fisherman or sailor will implore aspiring fishermen to respect the water.
For a moment, try and put the hunting aspect of the story out of your mind – the concept of hunting as illustrated by Hemingway here is another discussion for another day. The point is the respect held toward one’s adversary, and it would be difficult to read the book and not get that impression. Multiple times, the old man goes so far as to call the marlin his “brother.”
I thought about writing my thoughts on how this could apply to our modern society today. I thought about how we could see this idea of “respecting adversity” in war and politics in the 21st century. But at the end of the day, The Old Man and the Sea is a deeply personal story about a single old man and a fish. Most of the adversities we endure throughout life are not political, many never experience combat, and sometimes adversity doesn’t grace us with an easily definable face.
What adversity is facing you on a personal level? You may face it with defiance, humility, or courage, but how do you face it with respect?