Books to give you hope: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The story of an elderly Cuban fisherman, with little but hope to sustain him through a punishing life, tells a fundamental truth about life

Dreamers, they never see the riptide coming. But then who can really blame them? Better to sail an ocean of hope than a sea of despair. Never mind what lies beneath: a world without dreamers would be a nightmare.

Santiago, the old man in Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 novella, is a dreamer. But with age, his dreams have changed, scuffed and sanded down by decades of fishing the Gulf Stream: no longer does his sleeping mind drift to the great events throughout his life but instead just to a place, a childhood memory: lions playing on an African beach. And he wonders: “Why are the lions the main thing that is left?”

Santiago is a simple man. Fishing is his life, while baseball, the Gran Ligas, is his religion. A New York Yankee, “the great DiMaggio”, is his earthly god. But lately the sea has been cruel, and the old man has endured 84 days without a catch. He thinks and speaks of luck but is not prone to superstition. He is reverent but not pious, wary of devotion, although he could waver. When it suits, when hope takes the bait under the deep blue sea, Santiago offers to pray should he require not only strength but fortitude to land his prize: “I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise.”

With his village status of saleo, “the worst form of unlucky”, his body racked and gnarled by years of labour but with blue eyes “cheerful and undefeated”, he sets out on the 85th day since his last catch and rows the skiff far, away from the deep wells that have offered no reward, towards “the schools of bonita and albacore” where he might fare better: “My big fish must be somewhere.”

He is not wrong. But it is then, with his quarry hooked, that the true test begins. Day becomes night becomes day, and with little or no sleep the old man loses track of time and islands of Sargasso weed drift by. Eating raw bonito and dorado to maintain strength, while slowly sapping the marlin’s will, Santiago regrets his poor planning: “I will never go in a boat again without salt or limes.” But his words are laced with hope that he will return to the sea.

He will win the battle but lose the prize, and rue the desperation that carried him beyond practical bounds. He laments the ruins of his lionheart dream, and yet he remains unbowed: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

I was revisiting this fable when news broke that an elderly priest had been slain at the Normandy altar where he was presiding over mass. After the horror had ebbed, I returned to Hemingway and found solace. Words have a power no violence can breach. Whispered in a church or shouted in a storm, words are a lifelong friend. And Hemingway’s words, in this slim volume, are consistently affecting, as steady a comfort as a lighthouse beam.

The Old Man and the Sea is a beautiful tale, awash in the seasalt and sweat, bait and beer of the Havana coast. It tells a fundamental human truth: in a volatile world, from our first breath to our last wish, through triumphs and pitfalls both trivial and profound, what sustains us, ultimately, is hope.


Russell Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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