The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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Notes on The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. This set of Tower Notes is 23 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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INTRODUCTION: THE BOUNDARIES OF MASCULINITY

Aside from the tourists of the final page, there are no women or girls in The Old Man and the Sea . Omission for Hemingway, however, is almost a guarantee of importance:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. ( Death in the Afternoon )

Absence of the female, therefore, could be seen as a theme in itself. In relation to this, Santiago’s loss of his wife is communicated with as much brevity as possible, and the reader can sense that this is something the old man can still not face with equanimity: he takes down her picture because ‘it made him lonely to see it.’ His loss is later paralleled by the faithfulness of the male marlin to its mate. Obviously the ‘great fish’ that he struggles with during the course of the novel could not possibly be the same marlin, but, on some level, the reader knows that, of course, it is, that this reinforces the bond between the fish and the man, and the omission of such a unlikely coincidence only serves to strengthen the awareness of this possibility in the reader’s mind.

The female presence in the book, therefore, is strong, through its very absence, and once this is recognised it becomes easy enough to identify. Hemingway’s novel, after all, is based on a pairing: its title is ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ (italics added). The old man is, essentially, a masculine figure – the sea, essentially, a feminine one. There is more to it than that, but to recognise this is an important first step. Santiago calls the sea ‘ La Mar ,’ as do the older fisherman. The traditional association of moon and tides and menstruation is made by Santiago himself: ‘The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.’ At sea, he prays to the Virgin (p46) and he also calls the Portuguese man o’ war ‘bad water:’ ‘ Agua mala ,…You whore.’ Having said that, the sea – the same sea – is male to the younger fishermen, for whom it is ‘ El Mar ,’ something they think of as ‘a contestant or a place or even an enemy.’ So the female character of the sea is not something outside , but something within Santiago. Indeed deeply within him, as his eyes are, as the reader is told on the very first page, ‘the same colour as the sea.’

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Ernest Hemingway