Teachers at Work

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The Teenagers, the Teacher, The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway's Classic in Your Classroom

True confession time: I'd never read Ernest Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea until a couple of weeks ago, for this column. Yeesh, I know, I know, and I'm sorry. Walk away from this column if you must, convinced I'm not qualified to give you any advice for your ELA classroom. I wouldn't blame you. All I can say is that the high school I went to didn't have a cracker-jack curriculum, and, um, I hate fish. I really do. I have a phobia about all creatures of the sea, actually, and fish aren't even my most dreaded. Let's put it this way: if the book was titled The Old Man and the Squid, this column would be about a Jane Austen book.

So, it shows my love for you readers that I trundled through this volume (only very occasionally skipping a few sentences when the sea creaturedness got to be too much), and it shows the skill of Hemingway's powerful narrative that I actually enjoyed it. It's easy to read, and fairly short (I'm sure that's the main reason for its continued inclusion in the HS curriculum, as there are many other books that are more relatable for the majority of American teens). It manages to end both tragically and triumphantly. Its language is vivid. And there aren't any squid in it at all.

There are a couple of things I want to focus our attention on in considering how to "sell" this book to teenagers. The first is the way Hemingway writes and uses dialogue in the book. The second is the character of the old man, and how his thoughts are captured. And the final is a theme I feel would be mighty powerful in sharing with kids.

Maybe There was a Tax on Apostrophes: Hemingway's Language

Now, when I started reading up on this novel (including Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a compendium edited by Harold Bloom, which includes Bloom's hilarious utter dismissal of the work he's introducing criticism about), I realized that The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's last works, indeed his last novel published in his lifetime (and short enough to really be a novella, at that). Thus, critics tend to compare his use of language in this book to his other works. I'm ignoring the majority of this criticism because I feel it's a safe assumption that a group of 9th graders aren't going to have read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. However, if you are teaching a survey class in Hemingway at a high school, more power to you. Get your Bloom on.

For the rest of us, I do want to encourage you to look at — and get your kids to look at — how Hemingway writes dialogue. When I began reading the novel, I was so taken aback by the quality of the dialogue that I wondered if Hemingway had written in another language and I happened to be reading a poorly done English translation. Consider this between the Old Man (Santiago), and the boy (Manolin):

"The Yankees cannot lose."
"But I fear the Indians of Cleveland."
"Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio."
"I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland."

Eventually I realized that, yes, this highly formalized, slightly italicized language is deliberate. And, at least in the passage above, it's kind of funny! I mean, in just a few sentences, they talk about "The Sox of Chicago." It reminded me that Hemingway's writing is the subject of many, many parodies.

His style works here. Setting his book in Cuba, Hemingway captures the formality of relationships there in the 1950's, particular between the generations. Thus, the young boy says, "Can I offer you a beer...?" to the Old Man, and the Old Man shirks contractions when responding. 

I think it's worth discussing with your class how the language works on them. I found myself feeling a rhythm akin to reading a children's book. That lack of contractions really reminds me of how a young child speaks. This adds to the magical quality of the Old Man (more on this in a bit). He's about to go off and do a momentous, heroic thing. It makes sense that he wouldn't express himself as I just have, with my use of four contractions in this paragraph. After all, I'm not going in a fishing boat in this lifetime.

Dialogue in this book also reveals relationship. Hemingway didn't spend much time describing how the characters feel about each other. After all, this book has only two human characters. Hemingway said that it "could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it..." but he chose to focus only on this relationship (as well as Santiago's relationship with the sea). This focus means that he has the luxury of showing us their relationship, instead of sketching it quickly before moving on to someone else.

The little bit of dialogue above all shows us their care for each other, the simpleness of their pleasures and their pleasing seriousness. The two of them have so much they could say to each other: "Please don't take the boat out anymore, I'm scared for your life." "Please come back to me and take care of me in my old age." They don't say these things. They talk baseball. And they do it in a weird, but delightful, formal way.

Stoically Santiago Struggled: The Old Man's Character

The reason why I enjoyed the novel is the character of the Old Man. I advise you to move your class fairly swiftly through the opening and let them get out on the open sea with Santiago. I'd also advise you not to let on what's going to happen (I didn't know exactly how the book ended, except that it was tragic... and I was muy relieved that he doesn't die!) and just let them experience it with him. It's really an amazing exercise in real-time writing. You might point out the similarity to the TV show, 24, which similarly uses a "You are here" realism to get the audience (or readers) involved.

You could also point out how the point of view moves around. Within the span of a few paragraphs, the audience is in Santiago's head, then watching Santiago, then watching both Santiago and the fish, then back in Santiago's head, hearing his thoughts. Purity of point of view clearly wasn't a concern for Hemingway. He just wants us to relate to his main character.

There are, approximately, 8 million theories on who Santiago represents, the majority of which focus on the idea that he's either Hemingway's idealized stand-in, or a Christ-like figure. I buy the first, but the second is a little too forced for me. (I do not recall the Biblical passage wherein Jesus killed a large animal and then saw it eaten to death. And if the fish is Christ, then that makes Santiago, um, like completely evil? Right? Ok, yes, I am being dismissive of a perfectly sound literary theory. I just don't think it will particularly help your students' enjoyment of the novel.)

Perhaps we can gain some insight from the knowledge that Hemingway probably based the character on a real man. In an article published early in his career, Hemingway wrote about Cuban fishermen, particularly one man who had landed an enormous fish, but lost it all to sharks. Hemingway saw the man's boat sail in the Havana harbor, and found the man weeping in utter despair.

It's interesting, then, that Hemingway's fictionalized version of that man came back from his journey battered, but not broken. He says to the fish that he's "ruined us both," but he gets home safely. Hemingway tells us he had to sit down five times on his walk back to his shack but he makes it on his own. No weeping in the harbor for this guy.

Perhaps your students could consider the likelihood that Santiago is an idealized vision of a man. As the book went on, I thought him less as a common man and more of a hero in the line of Beowulf and Hercules. Nothing about his journey seems very probable, but all of it is believable, in a way, if one includes a bit of magic. I mean, the guy spends three days and nights in mortal combat with a big fish.

And through it all, you get to read Santiago's thoughts. This is my favorite part of the book, when he talks to himself.  Here's a typical passage: "I have no luck anymore," he thinks as he heads out to sea. "But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready."

It surprised me to see how well Hemingway has captured the back and forth of the thought process. It's more realistic than an average bit of captured thought in a novel. Writers often use a character's thoughts only to move action forward. Hemingway is, instead, showing the thought process Santiago goes through. Here, and later on in the book, we are privy to how Santiago intends to stay alive and fishing. He is not a one-dimensional character, lacking worry or fear. But he works his anger and fear out internally and moves forward in his thoughts, which lead to his actions. I particularly like how he gives himself time; there are several instances when the character tells himself he doesn't have to do something now, but he will eventually have to take action. Who knew Hemingway was a life coach?!

I'd ask my students to try to capture their own thought processes in a writing assignment, perhaps focusing on a decision they had to make (I might even give them a decision, such as deciding what sticker they'd like to have). I think this is a challenge for them, and shows them what Hemingway was up to. A comparison between how Santiago thinks and how characters in other, less thoughtful books think might help too. There's nothing like a little bad writing to help students' pick up on why the good writing is richer.

In Which I Suddenly Sound Like an AARP Ad: The Old Man and the Boy

The relationship between these two characters is not the most important part of the book, perhaps, but I think it might be the key to involving your students in the novel. (At least your fish-hating female students!) I think it's a safe bet that the majority of your kids are not going to identify with the aging process that the Old Man is going through. He speaks of it, he feels it, he accepts it even as it compromises his livelihood (although again, three day battle! Big fish! He's not doing that badly for an old guy!). While I can relate at 34, as I feel myself becoming a bit slower to stand up, your spry young'uns probably won't get it.

However, what they should be able to relate to, very deeply, is the boy's watchfulness as he regards his adored mentor. Your students might have an aging relative or friend who requires the same gentle, unobtrusive care that the boy provides for the old man. Many teenagers know that moment of worry: "Will he be able to get up on his own? Are these steps too much for him?"

In turn, the old man loves the boy very deeply. Time and again, when alone on the boat, he motivates himself with the thought, "I wish the boy was here." I actually wept when, after the old man has returned home to the boy, Hemingway writes, "He noticed how pleasant it was to have someone to talk to instead of speaking only to himself and to the sea. 'I missed you,' he said." This, again, is simple but not simplistic, which is good because your class will understand. The ability to communicate with another person, especially someone who loves you and missed you, is deeply human. We would all do well to think about older folks who might need this need fulfilled.

Of course, the man goes on to say, "What did you catch?" and the boy responds to that instead of the "I missed you." We're right back at that "show, don't tell" stuff that I mentioned early. And so it goes in Hemingway. Men are men, boys are boys, and crying is something you do all by yourself in a boat.

Please, Not 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

It was a good experience to read something outside of my comfort zone. I mean, Cuba? Old Men? Fish? Not what I'd turn to, normally. Getting your kids to read it might not be as easy as getting me to do so, but I think it's worth your time to try. In a book where a variety of plot is not the point, the writing has to do the work of intriguing readers, which is very different from many books kids (and adults) read. This book is, thus, a challenge for your class, but not because of difficulty in vocabulary or comprehension (however, I did pull about 20 vocab words for you in this list). Rather, it's a story about a man who travels far away after what he thinks he needs, and then comes to home to find that what he wanted is right there. This is difficult for any of us to learn, so be gentle with your kids as they make their way to the end of the novel to do so.

And as for me, I'm congratulating myself on making it through this sea-set novel, and vowing not to pick up Master and Commander, Moby Dick or The Perfect Storm (which I watched in abject terror once) any time soon. Next month, what are you interested in reading up on? Let me know!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday November 24th 2008, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was young and reading anything I could get my hands on. I found the work difficult to appreciate, much more so than A Farewell to Arms, for example. Probably if I had had a lesson like the one here I would have come to appreciate it.

One thing stands out.... I've read countless books, many of which I've completely forgotten, but the details of this one have remained clear in my mind for more than four decades.
Monday November 24th 2008, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
I was going to apologize for making you read The Old Man and The Sea, but your assessment of it makes me want to read it again! It was my most-loathed book memory from high school, but I'm ready to try it again. Thanks, Shannon!

Ah, Harold Bloom...
Monday November 24th 2008, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Eliza M.
I admit "suffering" through Hemingway as an American Lit major.

Now, while tutoring undergrads (especially ESL students), I offer "Old Man and the Sea" both as a respite from "academic" writing and as an introduction to the power of carefully crafted plain English.

Monday November 24th 2008, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Penny M.
Holy toledo - how is it possible that anyone is not inspired by Hemingway's old man pushing forward in spite of such odds? And the beauty of the language? I was as a teenager, and every time I think of it.
Monday November 24th 2008, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You make a great point, Don. The book is unusual in so many ways -- plot, characterization, brevity, subject matter -- that it is sure to remain with many readers who may have enjoyed reading other books in a more immediate way.
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 7:08 AM
Comment by: K
It was a little jolting to find this here, because I just finished a rant on a high school acquaintance's facebook page about how literature is taught, using THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA as a representative example.

It's my opinion that for the most part, books intended for adults can't be understood by children. Hemingway's simple words don't mean he's writing childlike thoughts. But somehow it's assumed that small words and a slim book are suitable for high schoolers. My own assumption is that this conclusion derives from the mistaken belief that adult literature must be taught in the first place.

I'd rather see a love of reading encouraged. Make them read, but let them read something that interests them. (And for the love of all that's holy, don't mention the Christ stuff if you don't thoroughly understand it, which, in my less-than-humble opinion, no one did, probably including Hemingway.)

American men barely read fiction anymore, and I think the way it's taught in school is one of the main reasons. Having been forced to read books they weren't ready for, taught by teachers who didn't even understand plot and character, let alone the shadings of symbolism or word senses and sounds, and who may never have intended to teach anything but English, they think fiction isn't fun.

And if that's how they're taught to approach it, it's not.

I hesitated to post this comment. I come from an education family (my mother holds the second gifted teaching credential ever awarded in California, and education is valued in my family.) I also know a teacher's hands are tied sometimes regarding choice of curriculum. But it was such synchronicity to post my thoughts elsewhere--and then come here and see the same topic. Please don't think I'm mad at teachers. I'm mad about the entire system.

My own full disclosure: I refused on principle to read anything I was assigned in AP English. I found it offensive that something as personal and important as reading choice could be dictated by the state, and I got through the class by listening to the in-class discussion and relying on my ability to BS. I got a 3 on the AP Exam by following the same plan.

In my twenties, I started picking up classics on my own (because I was ready for them).

Now I'm a novelist. Go figure.
Monday January 19th 2009, 10:02 PM
Comment by: Jill S.
When I taught the book my class got involved in discussing whether it followed the pattern of Campbell's Hero Quest. The other topic that came up was existentialism- was the Old Man like the doctor in Camus' The Plague- doing what he chooses to do well, because that is who he is-not because there is hope of a good outcome.
Monday March 15th 2010, 3:50 AM
Comment by: Michele E. (Poway, CA)
In response to K's comment, I appreciate your courage in posting it, and I understand what you mean. I was trained to be an English teacher myself, although I became so disillusioned with the system by the time I finished my student teaching experience that I never actually chose to make my living at it.

Now, at the age of 56, I am convinced that all the literature I read in HS and College was in many ways wasted on me (as in the adage, "Youth is wasted on the young."). Yes, I enjoyed reading some of it when it was assigned, and remember feeling that sense of accomplishment from being able to understand the teacher's analysis, hold my own in intellectual discussions, and pass exams with flying colors. But now I know that I never really "got it" on a human level that resonated with me as a teenager and young adult. I have thought so many times since then that I really ought to go back and read it all again (who has time?!) so I could really understand, from the point of view of a woman who has lived through so many experiences and developed a far richer appreciation of life, the greatness of those works.

And I share your sense of discouragement about the state of reading in this country--that so few seem to actually do it anymore. Perhaps changing the literature curriculum to one that is easier for kids to relate to is the answer, but I don't know.

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