Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Ernest Hemingway carries theme

Let's face it, Ernest Hemingway does everything right, so I could focus on a variety of qualities in his writing and gain insight.  But for the purpose of this post, I am giving my attention to his use of theme, so I am turning to the high school standard read The Old Man and the Sea.

Loyalty, respect, not giving up, creating one's own luck, appreciation for life: these are all themes that apply to this book. 

These themes appear in the relationship between the boy and old Santiago.  Their reliance on each other is exemplified in the way they play out the fiction of their hopes versus the conditions of their reality.

"What do you have to eat?" the boy asked.
"A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?"
"No.  I will eat at home.  Do you want me to make the fire?"
"No.  I will make it later on.  Or I may eat the rice cold."
"May I take the cast net?"
"Of course."
There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it. But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too.

There is loyalty and respect in this exchange, but it also is imbued with not giving up.  The boy does not see the man as not facing the truth.  He sees that the old man will not approach life with a view that there is only poverty to discuss.  He will act as if all is as it should be because it will soon be so even if it does not appear to be likely.

The boy brings the old man food and wakes him up to eat.  And the old man questions him about where the food comes from.  He then asks the boy if they should eat.

"I have been asking you to," the boy told him gently.  "I have not wished to open the container until  you were ready."
"I am ready now," the old man said.  "I only needed time to wash."
Where did you wash? the boy thought.  The village water supply was two streets down the road.  I must have water here for him, the boy thought, and soap and a good towel.  Why am I so thoughtless?  I must get him another shirt and a jacket for the winter and some sort of shoes and another blanket.

In these two examples, the love the boy has for the old man is clear, and the depth of his loyalty to him is shown in the boy's effort to see that he eats and the remorse the boy feels for not providing better for him.  The fisherman was his teacher and mentor, and though now he cannot fish with him because the old man's luck is not good, the boy has not let go of the respect he feels for him and the obligation that comes with having received training that will allow him to make his own luck in the harsh fishing life the two lead.

Hemingway followed a natural path of behavior for these two characters and by staying tight to the simplicity of their honest relationship, he cast hope in what was hopeless.  It had been 84 days since the old man had caught a fish.  Strength, the help of the boy, respect from many of the villagers and the chance of catching any fish were falling away.  There was no great hope that he would break his streak of bad luck, and over the run of the story that lack of chance follows the arc from bad to worse because in the moment of triumph there is also a longer run of defeat.  Yet by the end of the story, the reader is still left with the hope the old man and boy have sustained.

Santiago loses his great fish, but he never loses the boy, the boy's respect nor his loyalty.  In the village, there is more respect for him though he returns with little to show for all his effort.  Hemingway built a deep, reliable underpinning through the relationship between the boy and the old man.  Through characterization he supported multiple themes and left the reader somber but hopeful in the way the old man was always hopeful because it may not appear that all will be well but it will soon be.  That is the only view the boy will allow: "You must get well fast for there is much that I can learn and you can teach me everything."


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