He was an old man who fished
alone in a skiff in the Gulf
Stream and he had gone
eighty-four days now without
taking a fish.
The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
And I like them, too.
But I didn't really choose them. They sort of found me.
I'm at a new school this year with a new book room that happened to have a box full of Ernest Hemingway's, The Old Man and the Sea. I'm always trying to up the ante with my class, I teach two sections of GATE level English/history this year. My new school has a college focus, so I've been thinking we should be reading more college prep books. I've no plans to excise S.E. Hinton from the reading list, but I would like to add a title or two that would better prepare my students for both high school and college.
Enter 26 battered copies of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.
By the time I finished my Bacherlor of Arts Degree I'd read The Old Man and the Sea upwards of five times. It was a favorite of mine even before college, certainly a favorite after I took the infamous five unit Hemingway class that read his complete works in a single semester. Loved the book, loved the class, but I haven't read much of Hemingway afterwards. It would all be re-reading for me.
I had a few reasons to hesitate before using The Old Man and the Sea with my 7th graders. Just how sad is the book. We stopped using John Steinbeck's The Pearl a few years ago because it just left us all so depressed. How would Santiago's story compare? We've had a long run of novels with male lead characters this year, Santiago will make four in a row. Because my students do so much free reading and read so many books with their small book clubs, that's not a big problem, but it's a problem. Is the writing something the kids will be able to access and to enjoy? Just how much of a fish story is it?
So, I re-read the book the Saturday before mid-winter break, and I loved it. It's a marvel of economy, rich with imagery and with possibilty. The story of Santiago's struggle to bring in one last big catch can be interpreted to fit the bill for any particular reader. I tend to read Santiago as Hemingway describing what it's like for him to try and create his art, but it could be anyone who ever tried to do something great. Almost 30 years since the last time I read it, The Old Man and the Sea still moves me. And the writing still knocks my socks off. But what will my students make of the fish?
I'd really like to find out. I've a few ideas. They will probably pick up on how the fish represents Santiago's dreams. They may find it represents Santiago's own life. I think both of those are correct interpretations, so I won't push my own on them. They're likely to encounter this book again at some point. When they do, they'll find more in it, just like I did.
I would have sworn that Santiago died in the end. I was sure of it. But it's not so. He does lose the fish, which is depressing, but he ends up in the care of Manalito who defies his own father to take care of the old man. Sounds to me like a decent finish for a decent man. There is no hint of impending death at the end of the novel at all. My students are likely to create a happy future for Santiago, and there's nothing in the text to imply this is an incorrect interpretation.
There are no girls in the story, there's no way around that. But we do have Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night's Dream still to go and there are lots of books in my book club library with female protagonists. However, I will probably skip The Call of the Wild this year.
As for the writing--there is a lot about fishing, no way around it. My plan is to read the book to the class, a chunk at a time. I think we can do the whole thing in two weeks; it's just over 100 very quick pages. Then we can write some parodies. Hemingway has one of the most identifiable writing styles in the English language. Even his detractors recognize his handiwork immediately. This is precisely the sort of background knowledge I'd like to build up in my students. It's also one that can be lots of fun to make fun of. You're probably thinking of something right now and that is good and you are doing it in the good place where things are good and you are good.
I know that there is enough in a book like The Old Man and the Sea to occupy a semester, but I'm always a bit afraid of overkill. I'm sure some students will hate the book. Even a sure fire hit like The Outsiders has an occasionaly detractor. We can read it in two weeks, figure out what the fish really is, write a parody and then move on. When they next encounter the story, they'll have a leg-up on their classmates, and if it all falls flat, I can tell them that this unit we just finished was my own personal 18 foot fish and they were a bunch of sharks who picked it apart until nothing was left.
We start reading it today.
Wish me luck.