The Old Man and The Sea
Discuss Hemingway’s use of imagery in Old Man and the Sea. What impact does it have on the reader and what purpose does it serve?
Earnest Hemingway is very concise and selective about what he writes in The Old Man and the Sea. He does not describe any emotions in great depth, and he elaborates thoroughly on scenery and small details to create captivating imagery.
Hemingway’s brief descriptions of emotion act as more of a guidance of imagination than a specific analysis. As a result, the reader learns to make his own analysis about what the characters feel. Another reason for Hemingway’s simplistic use of imagery is the simplistic nature of his characters, their setting, and their story. The book is written this way so it will be easily accessed by the readers, and take on meanings that transcend the simple story. The old man in particular is very simple and often tries “to think of nothing” when his mind starts to wander.
In the beginning of the book, Hemingway candidly writes, “The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.”
Such brief descriptions of such powerful emotions are repeated throughout the book. Hemingway doesn’t say why, or to what level the boy loves the old man, and as a result the reader fills in those details as he reads. This allows the readers to relate to the book on a direct level, because they can fill in gaps with personal emotions.
This is especially true for myself, a runner, when the emotions are specific to determination and endurance. For example, the old man badly cuts his hand, and says, “It is not bad, and pain does not matter to a man.”
I consider the old man’s pain, but I also think about the pain of running, and I am inspired by the old man’s ability to dismiss his pain.
For me, one of the most inspirational passages was right after the fish jumped for the first time.
“The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it,” Hemingway wrote.
This passage speaks to me very profoundly because it makes me think about racing. While racing, the same mentality about proving yourself is needed in order to run the best you can.
It is easy to draw parallels between the emotions in this story and the emotions we feel everyday because Hemingway conveys them so simplistically.
The brief descriptions of emotions also give insight to the way the characters think and feel. The old man knew his purpose in life and did not try to be something he was not.
“You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish,” he thought to himself while at sea. After several days of exhausting fishing he knew that he needed to stay focused on his purpose in order to get home safely. And he said aloud to himself, “You think too much, old man.”
Understanding the clarity and simplicity of the old mans emotions is fundamental in understanding the old man. Hemingway’s concise descriptions of emotions result in a concise understanding of the old man.
Hemingway takes a different approach while describing small details and scenery. Hemingway draws attention to the small details that matter most to the old man, using powerful words and interesting devices to entrance the reader. Because Hemingway is so brief in describing emotions, and offers little analysis, his imagery is more enticing and attractive.
The tastefulness of Hemingway’s style helps to keep the book appealing. He doesn’t overuse any devices. Instead, he uses them only when they will enhance the imagery. While describing a Marko shark’s mouth, Hemingway uses several devices including simile and metaphor.
“Inside the closed double lip of his jaws all of his eight rows of teeth were slanted inwards. They were not the ordinary pyramid-shaped teeth of most sharks. They were shaped like a man’s fingers when they are crisped like claws. They were nearly as long as the finger of the old man and they had razor-sharp cutting edges on both sides.”
Hemingway paints a picture not only of the shark’s mouth, but also of how evil it is. He describes the teeth not only as fingers, but as fingers that are “crisped like claws.” This gives the reader an image of how gnarled and ridged the shark’s teeth are. He also gives insight to how the old man might perceive the shark. He said the teeth “were nearly as long as the fingers of the old man and they had razor-sharp cutting edges on both sides.”
This shows the reader how helpless and unevenly matched the old man felt against the shark that was coming to take his fish. The old man knew his hands were no match for the sharks mouth, he knew the shark would take some of his fish before the he could kill him.
Hemingway’s imagery also helps to give the story setting and context. He is able to show small details of the old man’s life to give the reader an understanding of his poverty, rather than plainly say, “He was poor.” This is a stylistic technique that makes the story interesting. When describing the old man’s house, he uses powerful imagery to give the reader an understanding of what the old man’s life is like.
“They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went through the open door… The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough budshields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal,” Hemingway wrote.
From the passage, the reader understands that the old man is poor, but Hemingway never said that. Throughout the passage Hemingway uses small details to show the reader what the old man’s life looks like. When they walked through the “open door” Hemingway shows the house was not locked. This offers the impression that there was nothing to steal from inside the house. He shows the size of the shack by saying it is not much bigger that the mast. This lets the reader see the shack is very small. He draws attention to the amount of furniture in the shack to show how little the old man owned. The fact that the floors were dirt and the shack was made of palm also adds to the feeling of poverty in the house.
Another purpose for Hemmingway’s vivid imagery is to show how observant the old man is of his surroundings. This aspect of the old man serves to contrast his simplicity, and make him more dynamic. Hemmingway achieves making the old man seem observant by interchanging the old man’s thoughts with the narration of the story; as if both Hemmingway and the old man were telling the tale. He shows how observant the old man is early in the book, before he hooks the fish.
“The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with gray and blue hills behind it. The water was a dark blue now, so dark that it was almost purple. As he looked into it he saw the red sifting of the plankton in the dark water and the strange light the sun made now,” he wrote.
From this passage, the reader is able to perceive the sea as the old man does, and is therefore able to understand the types of things the old man notices. The old man seems to study the clouds, the mountains, the shoreline, the water, the sunlight, and even the plankton all at once. This gives the sense that he is indeed very observant.
The impact of the vivid imagery is that the readers feel drawn into the book. The in depth descriptions make it easy for the readers to imagine themselves in the story.
The transcending meaning of the story, achieved through simplistic emotions and a simple plot, combined with the inviting imagery, gives this book its’ ability to entrance and inspire readers. While most readers probably can’t relate to working on a fishing boat in the early 1900’s, the universal themes of endurance and determination, seen in the book, are still accessible and relatable because of the way the book is written.