After enjoying Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, I decided to read the book that won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1956 – The Old Man and the Sea. The library had it, not in English, but in Danish as a sound book. A number of cardinal sins already committed right there – a book should be read in the language in which it was written and listening clearly is a different experience from reading.
Santiago is the old man living in Cuba as a fisherman, but he is out of luck. For 85 days he has not caught anything and the boy, Manolin, is no longer allowed to go to sea with him. Santiago goes out on his own and catches a large marlin. He is dragged further out to sea by the large animal and it takes three days before it dies and Santiago can return to Cuba. He ties the fish to the skiff and raises his sail for the passat winds to blow him home, victorious. However, the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks and Santiago fights a brave fight firstly to protect his catch and secondly to protect his own life. He returns to the shore in one piece, but the marlin is reduced to its skeleton.
Much has been written about this story’s meaning – it is a much studied and analysed novella. Hemingway is quoted as saying:
No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. … I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
I was mesmerised by the rhythm of Hemingway’s writing (or perhaps the reader’s voice?) The writing has a certain calm and patient quality. The story is a slow and patient battle between two proud creatures – Santiago and the marlin. While Santiago wins through his perseverance, they are both beaten by the sharks. Santiago’s time waiting on the sea brings with it lots of monologue, reflection and introspection as well as description of the natural environment in almost spiritual tones.
With my friend’s warning that Hemingway was a male chauvinist ringing in my ears, I was struck by a particular view of the sea that Santiago explains. Though others might refer to the sea in male terms, especially when it shows its unrepentant fury, Santiago considers the sea a woman because like a woman the sea cannot help what happens, it just happens. No women – aside from the sea – feature in this novel. However, this way of equating the nature of the sea with the purported helplessness of a woman to determine her own destiny is an inexcusable infantalisation of women.
Perhaps this view is Hemingway’s response to the gradual liberation of women through his lifetime, which may have made his philandering and womanising more difficult. Juxtapose this with my other reading, Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, based on a series of lectures on Women and Literature she gave in 1928 at Cambridge University. Her basic tenet is that for women to write literature she must have her own money and her own room, quite literally. And that women need access to education. This is at a time when women still largely were property of men, first their fathers, then their husbands and a time when the Oxbridge universities were entirely male dominated and largely closed to women, expect for select faculties. Yet, Woolf reflects, if one only knew women as described by men in literature, one would imagine them to be even greater than men.
At the time when Hemingway was developing a writing career in the cafés of Paris, Woolf stood up for women in the halls of Cambridge and called out the reasons why only few women were able to do what he was was.
If through the 20th century all men retained Hemingway’s ossified view of women as helpless creatures unable to determine their own destiny, then gender equality would still be a major battle in the Western world. It still is in some places – even in the Western world – but when girls are given access to education, they excel at traditional male subjects and in 70% of countries exceed the performance of boys. It is only a matter of time before this excellence and excess will show in the centres of power.
In Denmark, it seems the first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Smith, is much maligned for being a woman, just as Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was. Gillard famously admonished the leader of the opposition in her Misogyny speech – reflecting perhaps that we have some way to go still before women are judged for what they do, rather than their gender.
For the first time, in my home state of Queensland, a woman has taken a party from opposition to victory in a state election. She has also included a record majority of women in the Cabinet room with eight out of 14 ministers being women. Time will tell whether people will judge her on her performance or on her gender. I hope for the first, perhaps against hope?