Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Absurdity and Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published June 12, 2020

“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 sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.”

That is from the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s last work published in his lifetime, the magnificent novella “The Old Man and the Sea,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and led to the award the author had wanted for so long, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

84 days. I went into quarantine on March 12. I’m writing this exactly 84 days later, after having watched John Sturges’ 1958 film adaptation of Hemingway’s novel last night with my son.  

84 days. I like synchronicities like that.

84 days without going anywhere in public.

84 days without a haircut.

84 days (almost) without any restaurants, or take-out, or pizza. I finally caved in last week and ordered three magnificent pies from Baby Tommy’s Taste of New York. It was worth the wait.

84 days at home with my family. 

84 days with the cats Pancake and Waffles, and Mr. Hitchcock, the West Highland Terrier. The sleeping and eating and other habits of all three are now known to me in vivid detail.

84 days in which I have had difficulty focusing, teaching, reading, painting, writing.

84 days.  

84 days without the Eucharist, which is especially difficult. It’s like a hole in the soul.

A lot has happened in our world in 84 days.  

More than 100,000 Americans have died at the hands of this mysterious virus, and millions more now behave as if it’s all over.

Breonna Taylor, an emergency room worker, was shot eight times and killed.

We learned the truth about how Ahmaud Arbery died—hunted, humiliated, and slain while jogging.

George Floyd was murdered in the streets, while America watched in horror, and then erupted in justifiable rage and grief.

Some 40 million people lost jobs.

We got into vile arguments about masks: to wear or not to wear.

For Catholics, we finally were able to return to public celebration of Masses with planning and protocols so meticulous they must be exhausting to those in charge of oversight.

And all of this is horrible, and unbelievable and absurd.

Where are we going?

Absurdity is a hallmark of modern literature. It’s in modern drama from Beckett to Pinter to Albee, and all over the novels of Joyce and Faulkner. It’s especially evident in Hemingway’s work, for Hemingway struggled all his life to find meaning through art and existentialism, art and journalism, and even art and Catholicism. Hemingway had a battlefield conversion to Catholicism in World War I, and throughout his life he had an interest in—if not a devout practice of—the Catholic faith. He even offered his Nobel Prize medal to the Marian Shrine of The Virgin of Cobre in Cuba, a pilgrimage destination alluded to in The Old Man and the Sea.

The Old Man and the Sea is full of religious and uniquely Catholic symbols and motifs, from numerology to the recitation of familiar Catholic prayers such as the Hail Mary and the Our Father. The Old Man, Santiago, keeps relics of both the Virgin of Cobre and the Sacred Heart of Jesus in his shack.

But these are mere trappings when one considers the larger themes of the novel.

Santiago finally hooks a fish. It’s not just any fish; it’s a giant blue marlin, and the fish fights for three days until he is finally caught. Then come the sharks. And before the old man can get the fish home, the sharks devour it completely. Santiago floats into the fishing village with only a skeletal carcass tied to his boat. If you think I’ve spoiled the plot for you, don’t worry. Plot is not Hemingway’s primary concern, and readers who criticize the novel for its narrative arc miss the point.

The Old Man and the Sea begins in despair. Santiago hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days; he is about to give up. Yet the novel moves toward hope; the old man gets up, he goes to sea, he keeps trying. From this hope comes triumph—a great fish is hooked, fought, captured, and killed.  It’s a fish destined to deliver Santiago from all his misery. Then come the sharks, and everything is ruined, all is lost. And it makes no sense at all. It is absurd.

The painter Paul Gauguin (who had much in common with Hemingway) remembered a lesson from his Catholic childhood. A priest and teacher had posed to the class these questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Gauguin even used those questions for a painting. They are fundamental questions that all of us ask; certainly, they are at the heart of Hemingway’s story, and for many of us the answers lie only in faith.

I wrote several columns for this month related to the tragedies of Taylor, Arbery, Floyd, the virus, and the economic crisis. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to publish them. Kurt Cobain once posed the question in a song, “What else should I write? I don’t have the right.”  

As horrified, and grieved, and sickened as I am because of three highly publicized killings, perhaps now is not the right time for me to pontificate publicly, no matter how sincere and sad I may be. But I can pray for Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I can pray for all who have suffered injustice and racism. I can pray for their families and a suffering nation and world.

As terrified as I am by the virus, and as carefully as I have observed the guidelines regarding its prevention, neither I nor my family are working in hospitals, or alone and frightened in nursing homes, or standing for hours at a grocery store cashier station. These people, too, I can pray for.

While I’m worried about my finances as much as anyone, and while I’m facing certain multiple days of furlough next academic year, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, and though I can’t yet receive the Eucharist, its virtual reality has been made present to me every one of these 84 days.

The absurd.  

It is absurd that one can fall ill and die while ringing up groceries.

It is absurd that one can be murdered jogging.

It is absurd that an unseen bacterium can collapse a global economy.

We can look at the sea, a metaphor for life and its meaning, with Santiago and say that the universe is a vast waste, an empty void. Or, we can look at the sea as a brooding and suffering God, who knows the depths of our tragedies and our hopes. Even Santiago has empathy for the fish, his “brother” in suffering.

Santiago gets an 85th day. And then he gets a few more. And at the end of the novel, the old man is sleeping and dreaming of lions, a wonderful ambiguity—not absurdity—for a troubled world.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.