Chapter 9: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway (1953)

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite authors—and one of my favorite men. I’m not the first one to say this, not by a long shot, but I’ve considered Ernest Hemingway to be a man’s man: an outdoorsman, a sports fan, an appreciator of beers and wines and cigars and pipes, a fantastic writer, a lover, an explorer. I’ve read a few of Hemingway’s other novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, his short stories, and, of course, A Farewell to Arms—definitely in my top three favorite novels, always jockeying for position with The Catcher In the Rye and Fahrenheit 451.

His 1953 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Old Man and the Sea, is one that I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to. So being forced to read it to complete this journey came as a blessing. What also came as a blessing is the fact that I was able to start and finish it in about an hour—this is definitely going to help me get back on track with the goal of finishing all of the books in one year. I was almost considering changing up the rules a bit and reading all 83 of the Pulitzers in 83 weeks, rather than 52.

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There seems to be a trend in award academies.

While Joshua and I were in Chicago last week, getting a $50 parking ticket, we stopped by a rare book store that specializes in first editions and antiques. We got to chitchatting with the guy working that day—the owner’s assistant—and I told him about the Pulitzer Project and inquired whether he could help us out with any of the books we needed. I told him that our goal was to read all 83 books in one year, and he stared at me with a dumbfounded look, then replied, “Why the hell would you want to do that…?” To be honest, I didn’t really have much of an answer for him. I simply said, “Well, I wanted to embark on a reading journey and Pulitzer-winning novels seemed to be a great theme. I mean—these are the best of the best in American literature.” He rolled his eyes, then scoffed, “Look, man—prizes don’t mean anything. It’s all politics and favoritism. It’s like that with any award academy. Look at the Academy Awards, for God’s sake! Jeff Bridges is a fantastic actor that should have won the best actor award every other time he was nominated. So they gave it to him because they felt bad and finally decided that he was worthy of a prize. Same goes for Pulitzers, man.”

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And the more I think about it, the more I think that’s true—particularly after finally reading The Old Man and the Sea. Now, don’t get me wrong—I liked the book. I liked it. It was a good a book. It was not, however, a great book. Certainly not by Hemingway standards anyway (though, to be honest, by Pulitzer standards, The Old Man and the Sea is absolutely brilliant). A Farewell to Arms is arguably one of the most perfect novels ever written—it is a literary masterpiece in every single way. I believe it to be Hemingway’s magnum opus. And, yet, that’s not the book he won the Pulitzer Prize for. He won it for The Old Man and the Sea.

It’s almost as if the Pulitzer committee was sitting around their boardroom in 1953, discussing literature, and they had all come to the conclusion: “Boy, there really weren’t any amazing books this year!” Then, one of them timidly spoke up and said, “Well, Ernest Hemingway just came out with a new book last year—The Old Man and the Sea, it’s called. Maybe we should just give the prize to Mr. Hemingway for it. After all, he DID write A Farewell to Arms.” The other board members stroked their beards, pondered the suggestion for a while, and said, “Yes! That is a fantastic idea!” Then they promoted that timid little guy, who later awarded William Faulkner for The Reivers rather than As I Lay Dying.

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The thing that I still can’t get over, after finishing the book last night, was the moral that I got out of the story. Of course, I don’t know if this is what Hemingway was shooting for with this book, but it’s the feeling that’s been resonating with me since I turned the last page, closed the book, and set it down on my nightstand—futility.

I can’t get over the epic struggle it was for this old man to finally catch the marlin he’d been waiting for on the wide open sea—the hook, the fight, the tension, and ultimately the catch. He fought the fish for hour after hour, becoming dehydrated, more and more weak, starved, tired. Then, after hours of struggle—struggling both with the fish and his aged body, which was failing him in this fight—he finally gets the opportunity to harpoon the fish, then land him. He ties the fish to the side of his little dinghy—a symbol for his old age, as younger, up-and-coming fishermen were trolling the waters in their much more modern, larger boats—and sets sail for home. Along the way back, there are three shark attacks, in all of which he manages to be the victor. His prized marlin, however, doesn’t quite make it back. By the time he lands on the beach, he has sailed home with nothing to show for his long trip to sea, save for the skeleton of what would have been an great catch. And, in his weakness, he becomes a mirror image of that fish—nothing but a shell of what once was a great man.

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I have a rich history of tough men in my family. My father, closing in on 60 years old, is just as active as ever; his father battled pain everyday of his life, but was too stubborn to get help from a doctor (he viewed it as taking the easy way out); and then, of course, there’s my great-grandfather, Ivan Forrester Germain—or as the family knew him, “Pa.” If you never met Pa, I can almost guarantee that you’ve been denied the privilege of knowing the toughest son of a bitch there was.

He died in January, 2000 when he was almost 90 years old. About two or so months before he died, I rode my bicycle over to his house to visit, and to see if he’d let me play his prized possession: a 1933 Gibson acoustic guitar. He usually said “no,” obviously—he wouldn’t even let his own kids look at it, let alone touch it! But, for whatever reason, he would sometimes let me play it. Every now and again, he would even request songs. He had given up playing in his old age—too weak to even press down on the fretboard. I remember the last time I ever saw him play it though.

I had been playing guitar for a couple years and asked me if I had learned harmonics yet. I shook my head, No, I hadn’t. He told me to get his guitar for him, so I ran to the room where he kept it, ran back with it, and eagerly placed it in his lap for him. He rested his middle finger on the 12th fret, just barely touching the strings with his old, leathery hand. “Now,” he said, “Strum a couple strings for me.” I did as he told me and the strings rang out a swelled tone that hung in the air between us; neither of us spoke—we just listened until the final notes faded into silence. He leaned back in his chair, turned to his wife, Gwen, who was sitting on the couch beside the chair, smiled and calmly exclaimed, “Isn’t that the most damn beautiful sound you ever did hear?”

But the last time I went to his house specifically to see him, that November before he died, I knocked and knocked on the front door but there was no answer. I was obviously concerned about his life—the man was closing in on 90 years old and was only becoming more and more frail. I dropped my bike in the front lawn and ran around to the back of the house and was amazed to find him hauling huge piles of firewood in a red wagon from his garage to the house, then carrying them, one by one, up the stairs. “Pa! What in the world are you doing??” He gave me a puzzled look and replied, “Well, what the hell do ya think I’m doing…? I’m getting ready for the goddamned winter!”

That was Pa.

But when he lost his wife after 60+ years of marriage, he lost his will to live. And just like the old man in Hemingway’s novel, Pa’s toughness became more and more futile. He stopped eating, he couldn’t sleep, he didn’t clean himself up—he became a hollow shell of a man. And yet, despite his obvious weakness, he refused to acknowledge it. He spent hours in his workshop, day after day, building, lugging around firewood, working on his car that he hadn’t driven in 10 or more years. I was fooled by this facade all the way up until I played guitar for him for the last time, that November.

We walked back to the house, after I helped him carry the rest of the firewood up the stairs (and by “helped him,” I mean “carried the rest of the firewood by myself while he yelled at me to get a move-on”), and sat down in the living room. I watched him sip at his coffee—some of it trickling down his scraggly beard and onto his flannel shirt. “Grab that guitar, would ya?” he said. “Play me one of your damn songs.” “Actually,” I replied, “I just learned a new one. Hank Williams.”

Hank Williams was his favorite.

“Thank God,” he said. “Finally, some good music.” And clumsily, I strummed the chords of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Root-strum, bass-strum, root-strum, bass strum. C, F, and G. Over and over. I sang the lyrics I could remember over the top of the strumming and fudged the ones I forgot, simply by humming the melody or apologizing profusely for forgetting the words to one of his favorite songs. When I finally reached the end of the song, I looked up, expecting Pa to spew out on of his signature smart-alecky comments to humiliate me (he always told me that he only did it to toughen me up—it worked).

Instead, I was amazed to see Pa, gazing into the distance behind me with a million-mile stare as tears welled up in his eyes. I had never seen the man cry before—not even at his wife’s funeral; especially not at his wife’s funeral. But here he was now, with tears in his eyes. And I thought of the futility of his feigned toughness in the last few months of his life. We all knew how miserable he was, we all knew he was depressed and lonesome. He didn’t want us to know, but we knew.

And, in the end, he was nothing more than a shell of a man.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 9: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway (1953)

  1. I started reading The Old Man and the Sea a long time ago…like 7 years. And I never made it past the first few pages. haha.Fahrenheit 451? I'd never read it before, but I had to read it for class this semester. I actually thought it was pretty boring…I mean, I read it straight through in one sitting, but when I was done I was just kind of sitting there thinking "wow, that was kind of stupid." And then I reflected on the major themes of the book and wrote a paper about it. Tomorrow in class we're having "book club" and discussing it…I'm skipping. And I also did not like The Catcher In The Rye. Haha…there's very few books that I actually like, although I read a lot. It's kind of weird.

  2. I loved this post! Definitely makes me more interested in picking up some Ernest Hemingway – and a fantastic anecdote to go with your novel summary. Too bad he's passed away because I want to meet your Pa! He sounds like one bad ass old man.

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