This novella comes in at just under 100 pages but leaves the reader with more to think about than a novel running five or six times its length.
An old Cuban fisherman takes to sea, alone in his boat, and catches the biggest fish he has ever caught in his life. He had been having a bad run of luck and caught nothing in weeks and even though the marlin (a type of swordfishe) he has caught drags him further and further out to sea he is determined to draw it in.
Much of the novel is a dialogue the man conducts with himself and sometimes with the fish that he has hooked. While the old man is a simple fisherman he articulates the arguments as to why humans exploit nature for their own means.
“I have no understanding of [sin] and I’m not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is sin. Do not think of sin. It is much too late for that and there are people paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be fish.” P81
However, he acknowledges while man dominates nature he is not necessarily the better for that.
“…thank God, [fish] are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able”. P47
The old man has the greatest respect for nature and expresses his love for the marlin that is at the end of the line he is holding and swimming in the sea below him. He is at sea for three days, surviving on a few mouthfuls of water and raw fish that he hooks in on other lines. However, the battle with the fish is taking its toll on him, sapping his energy, the weight of the line damaging his hands and back.
“You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you are right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or more noble thing than you brother. Come on kill me. I do not care who kills who.” P71
Despite eventually managing to reel in the fish and kill it further trials await the old man as sharks begin to home in on the scent of blood from the marlin which the old man has lashed to the side of his boat.
“‘Ay’, he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” p83
Despite fighting off successive sharks, killing them with a harpoon, a knife strapped to an oar and blunt bits of wood each attacker rips off another bit of flesh from the old man’s proud catch until at night, when he is unable to do anything to fend of the sharks, not much more than the head and skeleton of the marlin remain.
The novel could be seen as a parable of life in which despite overcoming trials and tribulations to gain a goal the old man’s victory is doomed to failure and stripped away until it is meaningless. Similarly in life our gains and successes are all ultimately doomed to failure and stripped away from us by old age, infirmity and death.
Perhaps it is a grim message but it is beautifully told by Hemingway.