Santiago was alone. He had no radio. He had no fishing partner. The old man closed his eyes and dreamt. He saw visions of his youth: lions on African beaches glowing in the setting sun, an arm wrestling victory over a giant of a man.
Then, the old man opened his eyes to reality. Santiago was still alone. He was alone in a tiny boat, being towed by a monstrous fish on a September day in the Gulf of Mexico.
And if this old man is beginning to sound familiar, he should. Santiago is the main character in Earnest Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea. But this isn’t a book review—it’s a lesson about a radio, or a lack thereof.
I don’t know what The Old Man and the Sea is about, but I know what it’s not about. It is not about a fish.
Even though over half of the story in some way directly describes or relates to the massive marlin that Santiago battles off the coast of Havana, the fish isn’t what sticks with me. What sticks with me is the old man: the vision of a lifelong angler calmly fighting for his life as he grapples with a fish that’s larger than his boat. What sticks with me is that his only company rests in his own thoughts, some of which he speaks out loud to himself.
I don’t know what it’s like to battle an 18-foot marlin in a 16-foot “skiff.”
But I do know what it’s like to sail the kind of vessel that Santiago battles that fish in. It’s hanging on my ceiling—a small, 16-foot dingy with a mast, a tiller (handy for fighting sharks, apparently), and enough room for two oars. On calm water with calm winds and no 1,500 pound fish attached, operating that dingy is no easy task. Even still, launching it inevitably leads me into a dance with the wind, the waves and a smartphone trying to take pictures.
A smartphone. The modern day radio.
Hemingway never dreamed of the pocket-sized computers that most people carry on a daily basis, but he did dream of constant communication, of a link that connects us to the world and separates us from the present. Santiago faces a constant struggle against the idea of entertainment; he dreams persistently of the radio, of being able to hear “the baseball” while he’s fighting the fish of his life.
Though he pines for that link back to civilization, Santiago is often glad that it’s gone. He’s glad to have to focus on the task at hand—a task, landing the fish, that might never have been possible had his mind been elsewhere.
But he does land the fish. It takes days. It nearly kills him. But Santiago lands the fish. In the process, he defeats a nagging self doubt. He learns exactly what he’s made of.
Scholars will tell you that The Old Man in the Sea is a story about determination, persistence and victory against all odds. Maybe they are right.
But I will tell you that it is not.
It is a story about constant communication, and it’s a cautionary tale that serves to remind us that—sometimes—being in touch means you’re actually completely out of touch.
The old man had no radio. Santiago was alone.