“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” -Ernest Hemingway, the Old man and the Sea.
Profound lines written by the prolific American author, one would not find this particular line out of place in a gym or in the throes of raging battles. But what he spells out in this timeless masterpiece is the fact that no matter how commonplace or ordinary a story may be, there is always room for courage and daring to shine through.
Santiago, an old fisherman is not a man of many means, a poor old man who is nearing the dusk of his days. Hemingway paints us a forlorn picture of weariness and unluckiness, so much so that he has gone eighty four days without catching a fish, and his apprentice, Manolin is forbidden from working with him.
The image of a withered fisherman, pulling at his oars with a bent back and moving towards the dawn breaking on the horizon is especially strong. One cannot help but marvel at the tenacity and optimism of the old man, despite the lack of faith his peers have in him.
“Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”
As he sails further into the Gulf Stream, he reminisces about the previous fishing trips he had with Manolin, and here is one realizes the importance of compassion with bravery and skill.
He remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair of marlin. The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic-stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male had stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface. He had stayed so close that the old man was afraid he would cut the line with his tail which was sharp as a scythe and almost of that size and shape. When the old man had gaffed her and clubbed her, holding the rapier bill with its sandpaper edge and clubbing her across the top of her head until her colour turned to a colour almost like the backing of mirrors, and then, with the boy’s aid, hoisted her aboard, the male fish had stayed by the side of the boat. Then, while the old man was clearing the lines and preparing the harpoon, the male fish jumped high into the air beside the boat to see where the female was and then went down deep, his lavender wings, that were his pectoral fins, spread wide and all his wide lavender stripes showing. He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed.”
This scene, so poignant, so picturesque, so raw contrasts the necessity to fish and kill for a living, and the compassion and beauty that exists in the sea.
“They are good….They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers like the flying fish”
Santiago finally catches a fish of monumental proportions, one that exhausts him and batters his body without mercy. The marlin is large enough to break the skiff if it so wishes, and is powerful enough to tow it for two whole days and nights. The old man stays beaten all this while, his respect for the fish increasing, on several instances calling him his brother.
“Fish… I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends”
It is here that the old man shows his true mettle, his ability to balance his respect with what needs to be done.
One can imagine him roaring at the marlin with shrunken lungs, daring him to a pitched battle that he knows in his heart will leave him the unlikely victor. His hunched back heaving and pulling with all its might, muscles screaming in agony and cramping, but at no point betraying any indication of giving up.
“Fish… I’ll stay with you until I am dead”
On finally killing the marlin, Santiago feels the kind of sadness that only true hunters feel, that of sadness and respect mingling with equal parts of joy.
He talks about the death of the marlin in terms of his job, that despite his enormous respect for the fish, he has to fulfil his job as a fisherman, for it is not a job, it is his entire life.
The winds of fate that carry him home also betray a certain sense of cruelty, they lead straight into a pack of ravenous sharks. There is nothing he can do, for all his fighting, for all his raging, for all his defending of his brother, the sharks leave nothing of the marlin save a bare skeleton.
His hard work, his effort, his will, all for naught. All is left of the marlin is a pile of bones for tourists to gawk at.
“I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.”
But while he returns home exhausted and beaten, he retains a certain sense of pride. He fulfilled his own destiny. He almost died while killing his brother, and no achievement could ever rival that moment.
It was a moment saved solely for the Old Man, and his brother in the Sea.
“He didn’t beat you. Not the fish.”