“Old school wisdom says that adversity may not shape, but definitely reveals your character. This story Hemingway tells us is such a great manifestation of that wisdom, both in how adversities can show up in life and also how your character would enable you to respond to that.”
The first time I heard about this book was when I was in the Middle School. An older cousin of mine had narrated it with a lot of excitement – scene by scene. The first impression I had was an intrigue as to why such a simple story had won so much of acclaim.
I would have read this book about a dozen times since – at various places and stages in my life. It has never failed to fascinate me on each of those reads.
Old school wisdom says that adversity may not shape, but definitely reveals your character. This story Hemingway tells us is a great manifestation of that wisdom, both in how adversities can show up in life and also how your character would enable you to respond to that.
The story is of the old man (Santiago), his apprentice boy, a magnificent fish and of course, the sea. The old man, a master fisherman, out of luck for several days in a row, ventures out into the sea looking for something to break his losing streak. In the process, he hooks the greatest catch of his life – a marlin fish. The fish was so big that Santiago is not able to pull it, and the fish begins to haul his boat instead. He endures a heroic duel for three days and eventually when the fish tires, he masterly harpoons and kills it. When he started returning home with the catch, groups of sharks get attracted by the fish’s blood trail and approaches the boat. Santiago valiantly fights the sharks using all the tools he could get his hands on and kills many of them. But when finally he lost his strength and also all the makeshift weapons, sharks devour the precious meat of the great fish – leaving behind only its skeleton. The old man reaches home exhausted and promises his apprentice boy to go for fishing again the next day. He sleeps, dreaming his favorite dream of ‘lions at play on the beaches of Africa’.
Every time I have read this book, I couldn’t help thinking how perfectly Santiago embodies the right mix of qualities for anyone to succeed in today’s world. This includes everything like knowledge, skills, understanding, mindset, values and attitudes. Though the world has changed so much since this book was first published (seven decades ago), the qualities he represents have become even more important. Educational systems around the world are also increasingly focusing on developing these competencies in the children.
The old man remained unfortunate throughout the course of his saga. In the midst of it, he still holds his ground and demonstrates mastery of his knowledge, skills and understanding of the ways of the sea, in hooking, tackling, taming and finally killing the great fish. Later when the sharks appear, he gathers his entire experience and resourcefulness to deploy all the tools at hand to fight them – though eventually proving futile.
Santiago is an embodiment of resilience and grit, even when an unending string of adversities strike him. Neither the physical and mental fatigue nor the series of failures would erode his resolve and focus. It is also remarkable that this resolve is driven by a sense of pride, honor and confidence, rather than fear or greed. This is a great mindset that should be nurtured in children, ideally from early on.
All through his saga, Santiago is fully grounded, honorable, empathetic and even respectful towards his adversary – the great fish! His head is clear and his ethos and values are intact, all through the ups and downs of his adventure. Finally when he knows that he has lost his best ever catch, the only regret was that he had to sacrifice his worthy adversary (the marlin) to the mean sharks.
The old man is also a hallmark of optimism, sagacity and coolness. After he had lost the great fish, along with all the profits, esteem and glory it would have brought, he does not despair. He does not lose his cool and even the humor. Once back home, he goes back to his routine and sleeps, dreaming his most beloved dream – of lions playing on the beaches. The readers are reassured that the old man would wake up and go fishing again – with his mastery and mindset fully intact.
Personally, Hemingway’s Santiago has continued to inspire me as the benchmark of the qualities needed for tackling adversities. But it is just that one occasionally needs to reinvent one’s own versions of the lions to dream.
PS: This book also bears an uncanny similarity to the themes of Mahabharata – mastery, values, valor, honor, war and the emptiness as well as the optimism of post-war. I don’t know if Hemingway was familiar with Mahabharata, but given the significance of war as a theme in his works, I would like to think he was.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. Arrow Books, 2004.
Sankar is the founder and CEO of Silver Pi.
He had worked in Banking and Technology for about three decades before switching to Education. He is an Electrical Engineer by training, with a career in Technology and Banking across Japan, USA, Singapore and India.