Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before. In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea. I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went. I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread. Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it. Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.
Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck. To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land. This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God. I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags. With many classics the end is known before beginning to read. I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish. The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel. And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.
Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish. Then he begins to reflect on sin. In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all. His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew. Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally. What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good. This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God. Try it and see what you come up with. I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile. And I also feel the trilogy is complete.