Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Book Notes: "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's style is a bit curious to me. In high school we read some of his Spanish Civil War articles where he was reporting from the front lines. But his reports weren't dry AP-style journalism. He was always telling a story. And for some reason he told it in second person perspective - "you see this", "you do that".

These articles were presumably true accounts but they were an odd blend of storytelling and journalism. They had an expressive, engaging narrative but at the same time were slightly detached and clinical. They reflected a talented storyteller who was probably a big stickler for rigorous, accurate details.

Upon re-reading The Old Man and the Sea I was surprised to find much the same style in this purely fictional account. Hemmingway is no doubt an excellent storyteller but he still maintains an odd, detached quality to his narrative. He lets you inside the thoughts of Santiago, his old fisherman, but you're not exactly hearing Santiago's thoughts. You're getting Hemingway's clinical documentation of those thoughts.'s editorial review for Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" describes his style as consisting of "famously plain declarative sentences".

Everything he presents is through two screens: Events and ideas are conveyed first through the character's perspective and then translated by Hemmingway as he reports them to his reader. Hemingway is always present in the story, always delivering the story to the reader. Surely this happens to some degree in all writing but Hemingway is such an odd fit with Santiago that Hemingway's presence is much more pronounced.

Overall The Old Man and the Sea offers a lot to think about and is efficiently delivered (only takes about two or two and a half hours to read). I can see why this his a high school English class mainstay.


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