posted on Oct, 17 2006 @ 03:47 AM
This question has been sitting around for some time and no-one seems to be interested in answering it, so I'll have a go. Before I begin, I'd like
to state that I went through my Hemingway phase many years ago and I've only read The Old Man & the Sea once. Take what I have to say as
provisional, no more.
TOMATS (as I'll abbreviate the title for convenience) is a story about what it means to be a man. Humanity (more accurately, manhood -- see below) is
understood as a struggle against nature, which is also a struggle against the natural elements of the self. Man is a part of nature because he is, of
course, an animal, one whose relationship to the natural world is that of predator and prey. A substantial portion of TOMATS is given over to
illustrating these opposed aspects of the relationship and the balance between them -- old Manolo is both predator and prey. But man is also set apart
from nature by his rationality and self-consciousness. This separation causes him grief and pain (old Manolo is starving, but what really bothers him
is his shame at not having been able to catch a fish for twelve weeks). Yet this painful disconnect from nature is also the source of man's greatest
glory, the true core of what it means to be human, and this is illustrated in the book through Manolo's struggle with the marlin.
Hemingway's obsession, which runs through all his books, is the question of what it means to be human. He saw it a bit differently, though, being an
extreme male chauvinist in a male-dominated age -- he saw it as the question of what it means to be a man. He understood this question in terms of the
opposition of body (physical limitations, needs, instincts) and spirit (ego, duty, ambition, love). These concerns were expressed in their purest form
in The Old Man & the Sea, which is probably why it tipped the scale with the Nobel judges and led them to award Hemingway the prize for
literature in 1954.
Having said all that, I should like to add something more. Whatever your teachers or others may have told you, it is foolish to read a work of
literature for its 'symbolism' and its 'message'. These are the least important things in literature.
A great novel is not a bible or textbook. Literature is not written to instruct or uplift; it is written to entertain. Literature written by and for
intelligent people sometimes entertains by making us think, but it is far more concerned with raising questions than answering them. This is true of
TOMATS and just about every great book ever written.
Furthermore, when it comes to great literature, the first person it is written to entertain is the author. The reader comes a definite second, though
of course the author hopes for as wide a readership as possible. This is important to bear in mind when reading good books -- part of the pleasure is
trying to put yourself into the place of the person writing the book.
There are many pleasures to be gained from reading good literature -- you can enjoy the plot, the characters, the quality of the writing, the humour,
the psychological insight, the philosophical exegesis, the erotic content, the crafty little tricks the writer pulls to keep you guessing or to
surprise you and, oh, any of a dozen other things. Symbol-spotting is part of the fun, but remember, good writers are rarely concerned with sending
'messages' to their readers. 'Message' writing is generally humourless, clumsy and all-round bad. Animal Farm is one of the great
exceptions, but please note, it is not symbolism that Orwell deploys in that book, but metaphor. There is a distinct difference between the two.
That's enough from me.
[edit on 17-10-2006 by Astyanax]