Tag Archives: Age of Sail

The Old Man and the Sea ~ Read-Along

I was so excited to hear about this read-along at Hamlette’s blog!  In fact, I got a bit of a head start and made sure to read it this past Saturday.  But that gives me time now to read other people’s posts over the course of this week, and I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts.  🙂

+  Have you read The Old Man and the Sea before?  If so, did you like it more or less after this reading than you did before?

This was my first time reading the book, but I grew up on the classic film with Spencer Tracy.

As a child, I absolutely loved Age of Sail books and movies.  What I especially liked about TOMATS was the Marlin jump.  It never failed to strike a bit of terror in me – I was right there with the Old Man, thrilled and awestruck by the size of the “Fish.”

This made the Marlin in the book sort of anticlimactic.  It was beautifully written and probably would have been exciting had I not seen the film – but it felt short, very short.  I still enjoyed this story; only, that part of it was slightly disappointing.

+  What do you think the main point of the story is?  What is Hemingway trying to say here?

On this first reading, it struck me with themes of old age (of course), pride, and masculinity.  Most of the time I felt Hemingway was talking about the glory of mankind, particularly the male gender, its perseverance, changes, and “complicated” relationship with femininity.

For that reason, the story felt slightly less universal than, say, if it had been written by Melville.  However, there is much to sympathize with and even identify with, closer to the end of the book.

+  Some people say this story is full of symbolism, maybe even an allegory.  What do you think things like the old man, the fish, and the sharks could symbolize?

It was almost as good as stated that the Old Man and the Fish were two sides of the same entity – that is, the Old Man himself sees himself in the Fish at times.  The sharks, then, would be the things that break his strength, such as his aging body and daydreams about baseball.

If you were to base the allegory on and starting with the Old Man himself, there’s probably a political/historical symbolism that could be inferred.  But that’s reading pretty deeply.

+  In 1952, Hemingway wrote a letter to his friend Bernard Berenson in which he said:  “There isn’t any symbolysm [sic].  The sea is the sea.  The old man is an old man.  The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.  The shark are all sharks no better and no worse.”**  Do you think he was telling the truth, or being cagey?  Do you think that sometimes an audience can see more in a story than its author does?

Audiences (myself included) are very good at reading between the lines where there is sometimes nothing to see.  I felt the Marlin was indeed symbolic, but that symbolism – the parallel with the Old Man – was clearly apparent.  For the rest, I think Hemingway was telling the truth.  I was actually hoping for more symbolism to chew on, as in Moby-Dick or Heart of Darkness.  This is not the same kind of book, though, just the same genre.  It’s a simpler story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

+  What do you think of the writing style Hemingway uses here?  Do you like it?  How does it add or detract from the story?

The writing style was refreshingly readable.  It fits the story very well.  My only quibble is that sometimes Hemingway uses fragments for no apparent reason.  I don’t mind grammatical liberties, but it felt disjointed at times.

+  The Old Man and the Sea is required reading at a lot of high schools.  Do you think this is a good choice for teen readers?  Do you think some other story or book by Hemingway might be a better introduction to his work?

While not a fan of making specific books “required,” I actually think this would be a great choice.  It’s short and sweet and should appeal to most people (who can’t relate to the Old Man on some level?).

The beauty of The Old Man and the Sea is what it says about the Old Man.  It’s a character sketch, more like a portrait because it tells us so much about him in nearly every paragraph.  We see him as a young man, a happy man, a depressed man, a weak and a strong man – facing society and the elements single-handedly.  He’s not a “Western hero” by definition, but these same characteristics makes the book an American classic.

I could write a post entirely on the Old Man vs. the Boy, or the Old Man vs. the Young Men, the next generation.  But I’ll stop here with my favorite quote, which says as much:

He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dark of the water.  He kept them straighter than anyone did . . .  Only I have no luck anymore.  But who knows? . . . It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.

Age of Sail book haul

An incredible, incredibly busy summer quarter hasn’t left me much time to read.  I’m taking two classes, tutoring part-time, and job-hunting on the side.  However, yesterday I was able to get over to Barnes & Noble and pick up this lovely trio.

I couldn’t keep myself out of The Old Man and the Sea, so I read it today and will be posting a review for Hamlette’s read-along at The Edge of the Precipice.  Not gonna lie – the cover and typography are just gorgeous!  (Admittedly a purchasing factor.)  I will say nothing yet of the story, except I’m glad I finally read it.

And then there’s Melville and Conrad.  Conrad really is best-read in hard copy.  His writing is wonderfully intricate, so much so it’s easy to feel a little lost in the e-Ink versions.  I already know the story of “Billy Budd” from a radio drama, but I wanted to read the original and also “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which comes highly rated.  Also, on a tight schedule, short stories are always fun.

Have you read these three giants of nautical literature?  Particularly, what do you think of Hemingway’s style?

The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended.

A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship.  What he doesn’t know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship’s second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.

This is the third story by Conrad I’ve read, and maybe even the best.  It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad’s signature style–full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration–was strong from start to finish.  At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different “voice” than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books).  Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn’t feel rushed or abrupt.  And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but Conrad’s writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.

This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator’s life.  The title would confirm this–the “shadow-line” refers to the “line” which a person crosses as they go from youth to “grownup”.  This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story.  There is certainly a strain of mystery–and even ghost story–in the whole thing, especially in the characters–what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship’s former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn’t the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship’s steward really is, etc.  This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line…some things we’ll never find out.  

Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt.  Without describing this subplot, I will say that it’s very well-written.  I don’t get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn’t run away from his responsibility. 

I loved the bittersweet ending, too.  Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined.  So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.

You know you’ve been reading too much Moby-Dick when…

…you glance at a shopping list and, for a split second, read one of the headings as “Whale Fishery”.  What it actually says is “Whole Foods”.

Years ago, when I first tried to read this book (and stopped halfway), I thought it was the most boring classic I’d ever read, as well as one of the hardest books I’d ever read.  The plot is pretty simple–an insane captain sets out to get revenge on a whale.  The book, however, happens to be over 600 pages long.  It alternates between telling the story and talking about whales, with whole chapters that read like encyclopedia articles with author’s commentary.

Surprisingly enough, though, this time I like it.

The writing style is very interesting.  It’s first-person, but the narrator is able to tell the reader practically as much as third-person narration does.  Sometimes the narrator tells the story like any other author, with even comic relief.  Other times he goes on for chapters about whaling, and whales, and his thoughts.  And, every time he changes the subject, he usually starts a new chapter.

The narrator himself is really annoying.  I mean REALLY annoying.  Why is it that, with all his self-righteousness of being fair and unbiased, he would still seem to be prejudiced towards certain kinds of people?  I especially disliked his attempted ironic comparison of the Quakers’ pacifism and their whale-hunting.  I think it goes without saying that there’s a big difference between killing a person and killing a whale. 

As far as Captain Ahab goes, the book brings out his sanity more than the movie version does.  There was, for example, an interesting subplot that shows how scheming he could be; I also get the impression that, before he lost his leg, he seemed to be a pretty normal person.  I’m going to have to watch the film again, but these seem to be a couple of the differences between the book and the film.

In any case, Starbuck is my favourite character. He is a rational character amidst “the madness of crowds”. 

“‘Vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!'”

Now, I’ve seen the 1956 version (a good movie, by the way), so I know how the story is going to end.  But the thing about Moby-Dick, is that it’s almost like a mystery.  In some ways, it’s more suspenseful than a mystery, because it’s not a story I can completely understand.  And it’s not like Lord of the Rings, either, where you can keep finding the answers to your questions–I don’t know if that’s possible with Moby-Dick.  It’s just really complex…an extraordinary book which tries to explain every little thing to the reader, and yet leaves me with nearly as many questions as before.

Something which I only learned recently is that a true-story whaling accident was part of the inspiration for writing Moby-Dick, and it just so happened that I had already read a book about it.  The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is an eyewitness narrative written in 1821 by Owen Chase, who was the second in command.  It’s a must-read in my opinion, an amazing survival story.  Even if I hadn’t ended up reading Moby-Dick later on, I was glad to have read Chase’s book first. I always prefer reading a book written by somebody who was actually there; and these days, whaling stories may not be as glamorous as pirates and Royal Navy books, but they’re nonetheless a fascinating part of American history.