Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea” @ Leadership Develpoment Carnival, hosted by Shri Tanmay Vora, in April 2012

We take a wide angle view of April 2012 Carnival of Leadership Development: Earth Day Edition for the Leadership Lessons by Gwyn Teatro from Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Old Man and the Sea”.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, here is the Plot summary” of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”, published in 1952 to wide critical acclaim.

“The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an epic battle between an old, experienced fisherman and a large marlin. The novel opens with the explanation that the fisherman, who is named Santiago, has gone 84 days without catching a fish. Santiago is considered “salao”, the worst form of unlucky. In fact, he is so unlucky that his young apprentice, Manolin, has been forbidden by his parents to sail with the old man and been ordered to fish with more successful fishermen. Still dedicated to the old man, however, the boy visits Santiago’s shack each night, hauling back his fishing gear, getting him food and discussing American baseball and his favorite player Joe DiMaggio. Santiago tells Manolin that on the next day, he will venture far out into the Gulf to fish, confident that his unlucky streak is near its end.

Thus on the eighty-fifth day, Santiago sets out alone, taking his skiff far onto the Gulf. He sets his lines and, by noon of the first day, a big fish that he is sure is a marlin takes his bait. Unable to pull in the great marlin, Santiago instead finds the fish pulling his skiff. Two days and two nights pass in this manner, during which the old man bears the tension of the line with his body. Though he is wounded by the struggle and in pain, Santiago expresses a compassionate appreciation for his adversary, often referring to him as a brother. He also determines that because of the fish’s great dignity, no one will be worthy of eating the marlin.

On the third day of the ordeal, the fish begins to circle the skiff, indicating his tiredness to the old man. Santiago, now completely worn out and almost in delirium, uses all the strength he has left in him to pull the fish onto its side and stab the marlin with a harpoon, ending the long battle between the old man and the tenacious fish. Santiago straps the marlin to the side of his skiff and heads home, thinking about the high price the fish will bring him at the market and how many people he will feed.

While Santiago continues his journey back to the shore, sharks are attracted to the trail of blood left by the marlin in the water. The first, a great mako shark, Santiago kills with his harpoon, losing that weapon in the process. He makes a new harpoon by strapping his knife to the end of an oar to help ward off the next line of sharks; in total, five sharks are slain and many others are driven away. But the sharks keep coming, and by nightfall the sharks have almost devoured the marlin’s entire carcass, leaving a skeleton consisting mostly of its backbone, its tail and its head. Finally reaching the shore before dawn on the next day, Santiago struggles on the way to his shack, carrying the heavy mast on his shoulder. Once home, he slumps onto his bed and falls into a deep sleep.

A group of fishermen gather the next day around the boat where the fish’s skeleton is still attached. One of the fishermen measures it to be 18 feet (5.5 m) from nose to tail. Tourists at the nearby café mistakenly take it for a shark. Manolin, worried during the old man’s endeavor, cries upon finding him safe asleep. The boy brings him newspapers and coffee. When the old man wakes, they promise to fish together once again. Upon his return to sleep, Santiago dreams of his youth—of lions on an African beach.”

[The full text can be seen here or a pdf version can be downloaded from here.]

Literary Value:

It had been twelve years since Ernest Hemingway’s previous critical success, For Whom the Bell Tolls. A year later, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel committee singled out the story’s “natural admiration for every individual who fights the good fight in a world of reality overshadowed by violence and death,” (noted Susan F. Beegel in “Conclusion: The Critical Reputation of Ernest Hemingway”). Although Hemingway’s writing continued to be published, much of it posthumously after the author’s suicide in 1961, The Old Man and the Sea is generally considered by many to be his crowning achievement. The work was especially praised for its depiction of a new dimension to the typical Hemingway hero, less macho and more respectful of life. In Santiago, Hemingway had finally achieved a character who could face the human condition and survive without cynically dismissing it or dying while attempting to better it. In Santiago’s relationship with the world and those around him, Hemingway had discovered a way to proclaim the power of love in a wider and deeper way than in his previous works. [Courtsey: http://www.enotes.com/old-man-and-the-sea ]

Themes, Motifs & Symbols  [http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/oldman/themes.html ]

Themes   (Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.)

The Honor in Struggle, Defeat & Death

From the very first paragraph, Santiago is characterized as someone struggling against defeat. He has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish—he will soon pass his own record of eighty-seven days. Almost as a reminder of Santiago’s struggle, the sail of his skiff resembles “the flag of permanent defeat.” But the old man refuses defeat at every turn: he resolves to sail out beyond the other fishermen to where the biggest fish promise to be. He lands the marlin, tying his record of eighty-seven days after a brutal three-day fight, and he continues to ward off sharks from stealing his prey, even though he knows the battle is useless.

Because Santiago is pitted against the creatures of the sea, some readers choose to view the tale as a chronicle of man’s battle against the natural world, but the novella is, more accurately, the story of man’s place within nature. Both Santiago and the marlin display qualities of pride, honor, and bravery, and both are subject to the same eternal law: they must kill or be killed. As Santiago reflects when he watches the weary warbler fly toward shore, where it will inevitably meet the hawk, the world is filled with predators, and no living thing can escape the inevitable struggle that will lead to its death. Santiago lives according to his own observation: “man is not made for defeat . . .  man can be destroyed but not defeated.” In Hemingway’s portrait of the world, death is inevitable, but the best men (and animals) will nonetheless refuse to give in to its power. Accordingly, man and fish will struggle to the death, just as hungry sharks will lay waste to an old man’s trophy catch.

The novel suggests that it is possible to transcend this natural law. In fact, the very inevitability of destruction creates the terms that allow a worthy man or beast to transcend it. It is precisely through the effort to battle the inevitable that a man can prove himself. Indeed, a man can prove this determination over and over through the worthiness of the opponents he chooses to face. Santiago finds the marlin worthy of a fight, just as he once found“the great negro of Cienfuegos” worthy. His admiration for these opponents brings love and respect into an equation with death, as their destruction becomes a point of honor and bravery that confirms Santiago’s heroic qualities. One might characterize the equation as the working out of the statement “Because I love you, I have to kill you.” Alternately, one might draw a parallel to the poet John Keats and his insistence that beauty can only be comprehended in the moment before death, as beauty bows to destruction. Santiago, though destroyed at the end of the novella, is never defeated. Instead, he emerges as a hero. Santiago’s struggle does not enable him to change man’s place in the world. Rather, it enables him to meet his most dignified destiny.

Pride as the Source of Greatness & Determination

Many parallels exist between Santiago and the classic heroes of the ancient world. In addition to exhibiting terrific strength, bravery, and moral certainty, those heroes usually possess a tragic flaw—a quality that, though admirable, leads to their eventual downfall. If pride is Santiago’s fatal flaw, he is keenly aware of it. After sharks have destroyed the marlin, the old man apologizes again and again to his worthy opponent. He has ruined them both, he concedes, by sailing beyond the usual boundaries of fishermen. Indeed, his last word on the subject comes when he asks himself the reason for his undoing and decides, “Nothing . . . I went out too far.”

While it is certainly true that Santiago’s eighty-four-day run of bad luck is an affront to his pride as a masterful fisherman, and that his attempt to bear out his skills by sailing far into the gulf waters leads to disaster, Hemingway does not condemn his protagonist for being full of pride. On the contrary, Santiago stands as proof that pride motivates men to greatness. Because the old man acknowledges that he killed the mighty marlin largely out of pride, and because his capture of the marlin leads in turn to his heroic transcendence of defeat, pride becomes the source of Santiago’s greatest strength. Without a ferocious sense of pride, that battle would never have been fought, or more likely, it would have been abandoned before the end.

Santiago’s pride also motivates his desire to transcend the destructive forces of nature. Throughout the novel, no matter how baleful his circumstances become, the old man exhibits an unflagging determination to catch the marlin and bring it to shore. When the first shark arrives, Santiago’s resolve is mentioned twice in the space of just a few paragraphs. First we are told that the old man “was full of resolution but he had little hope.” Then, sentences later, the narrator says, “He hit [the shark] without hope but with resolution.”The old man meets every challenge with the same unwavering determination: he is willing to die in order to bring in the marlin, and he is willing to die in order to battle the feeding sharks. It is this conscious decision to act, to fight, to never give up that enables Santiago to avoid defeat. Although he returns to Havana without the trophy of his long battle, he returns with the knowledge that he has acquitted himself proudly and manfully. Hemingway seems to suggest that victory is not a prerequisite for honor. Instead, glory depends upon one having the pride to see a struggle through to its end, regardless of the outcome. Even if the old man had returned with the marlin intact, his moment of glory, like the marlin’s meat, would have been short-lived. The glory and honor Santiago accrues comes not from his battle itself but from his pride and determination to fight.

Motifs (Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.)

Crucifixion Imagery

In order to suggest the profundity of the old man’s sacrifice and the glory that derives from it, Hemingway purposefully likens Santiago to Christ, who, according to Christian theology, gave his life for the greater glory of humankind. Crucifixion imagery is the most noticeable way in which Hemingway creates the symbolic parallel between Santiago and Christ. When Santiago’s palms are first cut by his fishing line, the reader cannot help but think of Christ suffering his stigmata. Later, when the sharks arrive, Hemingway portrays the old man as a crucified martyr, saying that he makes a noise similar to that of a man having nails driven through his hands. Furthermore, the image of the old man struggling up the hill with his mast across his shoulders recalls Christ’s march toward Calvary. Even the position in which Santiago collapses on his bed—face down with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up—brings to mind the image of Christ suffering on the cross. Hemingway employs these images in the final pages of the novella in order to link Santiago to Christ, who exemplified transcendence by turning loss into gain, defeat into triumph, and even death into renewed life.

Life from Death

Death is the unavoidable force in the novella, the one fact that no living creature can escape. But death, Hemingway suggests, is never an end in itself: in death there is always the possibility of the most vigorous life. The reader notes that as Santiago slays the marlin, not only is the old man reinvigorated by the battle, but the fish also comes alive “with his death in him.” Life, the possibility of renewal, necessarily follows on the heels of death.

Whereas the marlin’s death hints at a type of physical reanimation, death leads to life in less literal ways at other points in the novella. The book’s crucifixion imagery emphasizes the cyclical connection between life and death, as does Santiago’s battle with the marlin. His success at bringing the marlin in earns him the awed respect of the fishermen who once mocked him, and secures him the companionship of Manolin, the apprentice who will carry on Santiago’s teachings long after the old man has died.

The Lions on the Beach

Santiago dreams his pleasant dream of the lions at play on the beaches of Africa three times. The first time is the night before he departs on his three-day fishing expedition, the second occurs when he sleeps on the boat for a few hours in the middle of his struggle with the marlin, and the third takes place at the very end of the book. In fact, the sober promise of the triumph and regeneration with which the novella closes is supported by the final image of the lions. Because Santiago associates the lions with his youth, the dream suggests the circular nature of life. Additionally, because Santiago imagines the lions, fierce predators, playing, his dream suggests a harmony between the opposing forces—life and death, love and hate, destruction and regeneration—of nature.

Symbols (Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.)

The Marlin

Magnificent and glorious, the marlin symbolizes the ideal opponent. In a world in which “everything kills everything else in some way,” Santiago feels genuinely lucky to find himself matched against a creature that brings out the best in him: his strength, courage, love, and respect.

The Shovel-Nosed Sharks

The shovel-nosed sharks are little more than moving appetites that thoughtlessly and gracelessly attack the marlin. As opponents of the old man, they stand in bold contrast to the marlin, which is worthy of Santiago’s effort and strength. They symbolize and embody the destructive laws of the universe and attest to the fact that those laws can be transcended only when equals fight to the death. Because they are base predators, Santiago wins no glory from battling them.

Interestingly, Alexander Petrov’s created in the year 1999 paint-on-glass-animated short film , The film won many awards, including the Academy Award for Animated Short Film. Work on the film took place in Montreal over a period of two and a half years Work on the film began on March 1997. It took Aleksandr Petrov and his son Dmitri Petrov (who helped his father) until April 1999 to paint each of the 29,000+ frames. The film’s technique, pastel oil paintings on glass, is mastered by only a handful of animators in the world. Petrov used his fingertips in addition to various paintbrushes to paint on different glass sheets positioned on multiple levels, each covered with slow-drying oil paints. After photographing each frame painted on the glass sheets, which was four times larger than the usual A4-sized canvas, he had to slightly modify the painting for the next frame and so on. For the shooting of the frames a special adapted motion-control camera system was built, probably the most precise computerized animation stand ever made. On this an IMAX camera was mounted, and a video-assist camera was then attached to the IMAX camera. It is possible to enjoy this short film on You Tube –

The movie version of “The Old Man and the Sea” seems to have been released in 1958, Directed by: John Sturges and starring Spencer Tracy, Felipe Pazos and Harry Bellaver and in 1990 starring Anthony Quinn, Gary Cole

Gwyn Teatro presents Leadership Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Old Man and the Sea”.

Have a clear goal

Spend some time envisioning the goal. In your vision, where are you fishing? How much and what kind of fish are you catching? How big is your boat? What equipment do you have? Who is giving you support? What have you learned that you don’t know now? How did you learn it?

Build a plan to support the goal.

Being able to clearly imagine the goal is important but you must also have a realistic plan for achieving it. This includes ensuring you have sufficient resources and capability to execute the plan. And, by the way, a good plan is only good when it is acted upon. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in wasting your time.

Consider the potential risks and rewards

Before venturing into uncharted waters, it’s a good idea to first reflect on what you stand to gain and lose by doing so. If the risk seems greater than the potential reward, you might want to re-think the strategy.

Develop Solid Relationships with others

John Donne once said, “No man is an island entire of itself”. With that in mind, consider inviting others to share the goal and be part of the venture. Protect your interests from becoming shark bait by offering other, like-minded people of your choosing to participate and share in the rewards.

Think Beyond the Achievement of the Goal

To consider achievement of the goal as the end would be a mistake. You also have to anticipate what might happen in the event of a huge success. What then? How will you manage it? What more will you need? How will it change you? How will it change your company?

Know When to Cut the Line

There is of course a point of no return on just about everything. In the case of Santiago in the original story, going further and further out to sea after he had caught the fish ensured that by the time he made it back to shore, there would be nothing left of it. In business we also have to know when to stop.

The bottom line is that striking out to explore new territory is an essential part of leadership. However, the success of such exploration and the achievement of goals rely on one’s ability to marry leadership skill with management ability. Perhaps if Santiago had understood this, the outcome of his story might have been more positive.

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Author: ASHOK M VAISHNAV

In July 2011, I opted to retire from my active career as a practicing management professional. In the 38 years that I pursued this career, I had opportunity to work in diverse capacities, in small-to-medium-to-large engineering companies. Whether I was setting up Greenfield projects or Brownfield projects, nurturing the new start-ups or accelerating the stabilized unit to a next phase growth, I had many more occasions to take the paths uncharted. The life then was so challenging! One of the biggest casualty in that phase was my disregards towards my hobbies - Be with The Family, Enjoy Music form Films of 1940s to mid-1970s period, write on whatever I liked to read, pursue amateur photography and indulge in solving the chess problems. So I commenced my Second Innings to focus on this area of my life as the primary occupation. At the end of four years, I am now quite a regular blogger. I have been able to build a few very strong pen-relationships. I maintain contact with 38-years of my First Innings as freelance trainer and process facilitator. And yet, The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

6 thoughts on “Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea” @ Leadership Develpoment Carnival, hosted by Shri Tanmay Vora, in April 2012”

  1. The part about thinking beyond the achievement of the goal is very critical if one is to fully benefit from one’s achievements and keep them alive, no death necessary. Also, know when to cut the line on a fight that is costing more than it is worth is always a very wise practice.

  2. Indeed, drawing a line beyond which efforts ouweigh the benefits is one of the greatest trait of wise persons.
    Unfortunately, this wisdom comes in only after having paid quie a cost. Most of th etime, vicarios experinces do not come handy.

  3. have heard of Hemingway a LOT BUT NEVER HAD THE CHANCE TO READ HIM. tHIS book review is marvelous and the message is great. Only yesterday I read (in Ladyromps blog, as part of a comment) the saying of Churchill,”when your are going through hell, keep going”. It sums up in a few words the message of this great novel, but the novel depicts many more traits of MAN, Nature Laws etc. you have dealt with these superbly.

    1. In fact, I had read a few of Hemingway’s Works in my young days. Obviously, the understanding of the context was limited to what a young inexperienced mind can perceive. So it was more of enjoying the fiction. Now when we read the articles on such Works, in far larger context, our own experiences do lend a ‘meaningful’ perspective as well.

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