I read this book a long time ago, so I decided to read it again. Since I had originally read it as a kid, I suspected it would take on a different meaning reading it as an adult.
To start with, I really related to the old man. That’s not surprising, especially since I am not young anymore. Like the old man, I find myself waking early every day, usually around 4:30 or 5:00 am. I enjoy the quiet time, which I use to read, to write in my journal, or to meditate. But maybe, on some deeper level, it is my subconscious attempt at prolonging my days.
“Age is my alarm clock,” the old man said. “Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?”
After 84 days without catching a fish, the old man sets out alone in search of the “big fish,” which for me is a symbol of one’s elusive life-long dream. We all have our big fish, that one thing we long to achieve before we die, and as we get older and closer to death, catching that fish becomes more urgent.
That school had gotten away from me, he thought. They are moving too fast and too far. But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. My big fish must be somewhere.
In addition to the fish symbolizing the old man’s dream, the fish also symbolizes Christ. There is a strange paragraph where the old man is praying to the Virgin Mary for the death of the fish, which I found to be very ironic.
“Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Then he added, “Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.”
Later on in the book, there is another interesting passage where the old man contemplates how many people the fish will feed and whether those people are worthy to eat of his flesh. It made me think of the eating of the great fish as communion, but that those who are stained with sin are not worthy to eat the body of Christ.
How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.
As the old man tries to bring the great fish back to shore, the sharks begin their attack, tearing away at the old man’s dream as he tries desperately to fight them off, but to no avail. His dream is torn from him and all that remains are the bones of what was his greatest achievement. He then lies down, alone in his shack, and one gets the impression that he is ready to let go and die, that he had his opportunity to attain his dream but it was ripped from him at the very end. And now he must face the inevitable, alone.
No one should be alone in their old age. But it is unavoidable.
I have to say that reading this book at this stage in my life made me feel a little sad, but not overly so. I feel that most of my dreams have been fulfilled, and for that I am grateful. And while there are still things I would like to do before I die, they are things that would be nice and not things which would cause me regret at not having done them. I guess I am pretty fortunate. I can’t help but wonder about Hemingway, though. This was the last book he published before taking his own life. I suspect there was a big fish in his life that was torn from him by sharks.