As far as emotionally draining and anti-climactic fishing novels come, The Old Man and the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as Melville’s Moby Dick, but that’s just about the most non-unique non-compliment I can possibly spare to any work, especially one that has attracted such adulation from the critical community. I suppose I could cap this critique off right here and now by conceding that I just didn’t get this book, but many besides me have made the exact same concession in their respective reviews, and we at the Files aspire for original commentary where most can only weakly parrot each other’s sentiment. In this case and many others where a widely lauded ‘classic’, e.g. Toy Story, Vertigo, or Moby Dick, is found wholly unapproachable or just pointless to a minority of audiences, studies by intellectual elitists desperate to make themselves sound smarter have proven that the reason detractors don’t “get it” usually owes less to their inferior perception and more to the lack of anything one can “get” from the classic in question.
Most of the novel concerns a three-day voyage at sea attempted by the titular man, who takes but a water bottle with him in the way of rations and obstinately refuses the boy’s help because “he’s with a lucky boat”. Readers will observe his epic quest for and contest with a giant, 18-foot marlin for something approaching seventy pages, experiencing in painstaking detail every cut his limbs and face endure and the grueling torture that this tug-of-war exerts on his ancient back. Hallucinations of baseball players inevitably set in and The Old Man moans so constantly about missing the strength and companionship of The Boy that the well-read comics consumer can’t help seeing flashing images of Frank Miller’s Batman grumbling about how he wishes Jason Todd, a.k.a. Robin, were present to lend a senile, no-longer-super hero a hand. Eventually all his hard labor pays off when he skewers the sea monster after 48+ hours of aching muscles, sleep deprivation, and self-imposed starvation. “Smile, you son of a *kaboom*” Fighting the good fight, he finally secures the prize he so ardently sought… until the next 30 pages depict hordes of sharks gravitating to his craft and tearing his trophy to ribbons, leaving him with nothing more than an impressive skeletal framework by the time he returns to the village. To put the matter simply, it was all a waste of time and energy, and not just for the fictional hero.
On the bright side, Shmoop has a hilarious summary of The Old Man and the Sea that’s well worth its weight in words. I’m not going to steal the whole thing, but here are some excerpted passages:
* About the ocean: everyone thinks of the ocean as a woman. That is, all the old, wise people. The arrogant youngsters call the ocean a man.
* The old man sees a man-of-war jellyfish and calls it a whore.
* Some important stuff: the old man compares himself to the sea turtles, because their hearts beat after they are cut up into little pieces. Feeling sorry for them does not, however, preclude eating their eggs.
* He catches a tuna. So much for reaching day 88. He can kiss that record good-bye.
* OK, just kidding. This fish doesn’t count. He uses it for bait for a bigger fish, which is kind of like a guy with a gambling problem putting the chips he just won back on the table.
* There’s about three pages of hoping the marlin eats the sardines and hasn’t gone away, might have gone away, but didn’t, then might have gone away again, and so on. Lots of tension, anyway. Tension, like the fishing line…
* The old man addresses the fish again. I love you, he says, but I will kill you. Fatal Attraction, anyone?
* He then refers to the fish as a friend. The fish responds by almost pulling the old man overboard. His hand is bleeding. Love hurts.
* He says again that he 1) must eat the tuna and that 2) wishes the boy were there. Think of it as a chorus in a song.
* After all this talk about eating the tuna, the old man finally...eats the tuna.
* He wonders if it was a sin to kill the fish. But he was born to do this.
* Think again – was it a sin because he loved the fish, or not a sin because he loved the fish?