“Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.”
Thus Santiago, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” expresses his affinity with the natural world. He is strengthened and sustained by his connection to the giant marlin that he has hooked.
Hemingway’s beautiful novella was first published just 60 years ago, on September 8, 1952. Since then, it has sold millions of copies, been translated into numerous languages, and has never been out of print. It earned Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and was instrumental in his being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
As Vladimir Nabokov famously said: “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” As I reread the tale of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who kills a giant marlin after fighting it for three days and struggles to lash it alongside his tiny skiff, only to have it devoured by sharks before he can reach the shore, I understood what Nabokov meant. On first reading, I was caught up in the plot: this time I knew that this was a story about the place of humans on planet earth.
This slim volume may have been published sixty years ago, but it has an urgent message for us today. The title says it all. As Santiago states, “No man was ever alone on the sea.” We are all one, all part of the same planet, and we must work to protect the world around us. And one way to do that is to observe carefully our natural surroundings.
Hemingway does this brilliantly:
The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-like blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.
Such careful observation of nature leads us to realize that we too are part of this natural world. The movement to re-connect children to nature is growing, but all of us, not just our children, need that connection in order to be complete human beings.
Go read (or reread) “The Old Man and the Sea,” and you will feel that deep communication that exists between Santiago and the giant marlin who pulls him so far out to sea.
Ernest Hemingway is a masterful writer, but his macho attitude often prevents readers, especially women, from appreciating his talents. But in this novella, he uses his considerable experience of marlin-fishing to bring to life this important message: there is a powerful energy in nature that connects us all.
Photo Credit: Freerk Knobbe