Wondering if it had improved any with age in the forty-five years since I garnered my gentleman’s “C” on a book report from an English teacher likely being generous, I again cracked open The Old Man and the Sea. While my first reading of a fish story about the one that got away bored me to tears, or maybe only to Bonanza that evening, my second left me unsettled for Old Man I see now is Hemingway’s brooding meditation on approaching death.
Like Santiago who catches the biggest fish of his life only to lose it to sharks and in that moment knows his best days as a fisherman are forever behind him, so too Hemingway saw his best days as a writer slipping fast as fish line through his fingers. Old Man proved to be his last novel, and he wrote little thereafter that did not require heavy editing. In its pages he foreshadows his own suicide ten years later on an Idaho mountaintop where, ever the showoff, he unloaded both shotgun barrels into the back of his mouth. A not surprising death for a man whose is father took his own life as did two siblings and at least one grandchild. A death foreshadowed even earlier in The Sun Also Rises, set almost 30 years to the day before his suicide, and later in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Hemingway leaves us with the question of how should one meet death? Santiago’s answer is by struggling on come what may: A man, he insists over and over, can be destroyed but should never allow himself to be defeated. Old Santiago fought the good fight until he had nothing but a skeleton of a great fish left to defend and sailed home to die dreaming of the lions he once saw in his youth as they played on a beach in Africa.
So what to make of Hemingway in the end giving in to the despair of defeat? His failing in the fight he wanted most to make, feared his whole life he would not make, and in the end did not. Perhaps this final tragedy, of not going down with both fists swinging, is a fate awaiting us all unless we have lived without ideals, which, Hemingway says, would for us be the greater tragedy. Hemingway’s Dilemma tells us that life gives us a choice between two tragedies: Living a life absent of ideals or living one with ideals but in the end failing to live up to them.