[*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read The Old Man and the Sea, and do not wish to have the ending revealed, please do not continue.]
The Old Man and the Sea is a deceptively simple story about an old fisherman named Santiago, who has had a long string of bad luck. That is, until he catches the largest fish he has ever seen. It is the battle of his life - both physically and mentally.
I say that this story is deceptively simple, not only because of its terse language, which seems to be just one declarative sentence after another, but also because many people simply read this story as a fisherman trying to catch a fish, and the particular struggle that goes along with that. These surface readers are missing the deeper meaning. This story is as much about the art and craft of writing as it is about fishing. And the great fish that the old man is trying to catch is analogous to the great story that every writer is attempting capture with his own hook, so to speak.
Ernest Hemingway was struggling with his writing career in the 1940s. Much like his fisherman protagonist, he was having his own string of bad luck. In the 1950s, however, that changed when The Old Man and the Sea helped win him the Nobel Prize in Literature. In other words, despite his struggles and anguish, he had caught the largest fish of his life.
Hemingway, much like Santiago, knew what was on the line as it were. Reading this masterpiece of fiction through this lens helps us come to grips with the metaphorical and thematic powerhouse that Hemingway has constructed for us with this maritime novella. The language of fishing and writing are surprisingly similar (i.e. it’s often hard to fathom the depth of a line about fishing line at the depth of a fathom).
In On Writing — the preeminent handbook for writers — Stephen King gives advice about story development, saying that the writer should allow the story to go wherever it takes them. King explains, “I often have an idea what the outcome may be, but I never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most however, it’s something I never expected.” King is saying that by allowing the story to lead itself, the writer gives up control and allows nature to take its course. This approach to writing is very much in line with the old man’s approach to fishing.
After a grueling fight, which has cost him nearly everything, the old man finally catches the massive fish. Too big to put in the boat, he has to mount it on the side. The language of fishing and writing blur when we read the passage, “Then his head started to become a little unclear and he thought, is he bringing me in or am I bringing him in? If I were towing him behind there would be no question. Nor if the fish were in the skiff, with all dignity gone, there would be no question either. But they were sailing together lashed side by side and the old man thought, let him bring me in if it pleases him." What is described here is the repeated pattern between the old man and the fish. The fish has led him everywhere; not only did it take him out into the sea incredibly far, dragging him helplessly behind it until it finally ran out of steam, but now that the fish has been caught it continues to dictate the direction. The old fishermen knows that the way to catch a great fish and bring him into shore, is by allowing it to dictate the path. The writer, likewise, knows that he must follow the story’s natural direction if he expects to capture it correctly.
Great writers don’t write for the money they do it for the thrill of the craft. Catching that incredible fish, which is to say, writing that amazing story, is done for the sheer exhilaration. As King says, “I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it… I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side - I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.” This reads an awful lot like, Hemingway when he writes, “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him after."
This connection between fishing and writing should be apparent by now. As the old man is returning with the fish mounted to the side of his boat, sharks who smell the fish’s blood in the water, follow the boat and devour the old man’s prize. The old man puts up an admirable fight, but in the end he loses most of the fish. After everything he gave up to capture it, he seemed to be at a complete loss. He laments to himself and the fish, “‘I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish, he said. ‘Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry fish.’” And a few pages later he repeats himself, "‘I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.’” Looking at these words in light of the craft of writing, one can see that perhaps Hemingway as the writer feels he has allowed his own story to get away from him. He has gone “too far out” as it were and “ruined them both.” This is a common fear of writers who allow the story to lead the way.
Stephen King answers this fear directly when he says, “And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.”
We eventually get to the end of Hemingway's novella, and it says, “There was nothing more for them to eat.” That is, there was nothing left of the fish, thanks to the ravenous sharks, and likewise there was nothing left of the story...
Well, that is not entirely true, there was one thing left of the fish, as there was one more point left in the story.
"'What’s that?' She asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide.
'Tiburon,' the waiter said. “Eshark.” He was meaning to explain what happened.
'I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.'”
The fish is to the fisherman as the story is to the writer -- it could be the next piece of garbage going out with the tide, or it could be a handsome, beautifully formed “tale,” so to speak, that others discuss and admire.
1. Stephen King. On Writing. Simon & Schuster. (New York: 2000), 164 - 165.
2. Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea. Scribner. (New York: 1952), 99.
3. On Writing, 249.
4. The Old Man and the Sea, 105.
5. Ibid., 110.
6. Ibid., 115.
7. On Writing, 165.
8. The Old Man and the Sea, 119.
9. Ibid., 126 - 127.