The Old Man and Conflict

I finished rereading “The Old Man and the Sea” this past week. My first time through, I liked it, but honestly didn’t see the genius of it until this time. This time, I took a pencil with me. I underlined and wrote notes in the margins, speculated about seemingly random sentences, and tried to break down how Hemingway was able to write such a powerful book in such a short time.

I’m here to tell you–I still don’t know. But, I do have a guess about why his writing in “Old Man” was so evocative. I think it has to do with conflict, and not in the way you might think.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been told “conflict drives a plot.” Of all the storytelling elements, that’s the one I’ve spent the least time thinking about. When I write short stories or novels, the conflict just seems to come naturally to the story. So, when I say that the thing that stood out to me about the writing in “Old Man” was the conflict, I mean something very specific.

The conflict was in the description. Let me give an example, and then I’ll explain.

“The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” (Pg. 1-2, emphasis mine)

A bit of a long passage, but if you took the time to read it you’ll probably have noticed what I meant. Several times in that section alone, Hemingway uses conflict to describe. For example, “benevolent skin cancer.” Cancer is not something we consider benevolent–in fact we think of it as the exact opposite. Cancer destroys, harms, and hurts. Hemingway contradicts that notion, including the qualifier “benevolent.” Benevolence and harm are now, in that simple phrase alone, in conflict. And from that conflict comes a vivid image.

Another example is the phrase in the second sentence: “the old man was thin and gaunt.” Yet later, it goes on to describe the man as “undefeated.” Here, the descriptions are in conflict. Thinness and gauntness are not often associated with resolve, or someone who is undefeated. In fact, those things are usually attached to someone or something that is exactly the opposite. Yet, we again get a strong image of who the man is on more than one level.

This is perhaps even clearer in the sections that I italicized. Here, we see boat vs. man.

The boat is described as defeated. The man is described as undefeated. Clear, strong conflict is found in this description. Two things are in complete contradiction. Yet, it still works. And, we know more about the old man and his boat for it. We can imagine them better, see the picture more clearly.

Now, I don’t know if I can link the clarity of the images conjured up by the description in this book to the conflict in the description. To do so simply because contradiction is present would be a classic post hoc fallacy. Nevertheless, as I read the book and this trend continued, I couldn’t help but think that there must be some relation. Somehow, setting conflict up in more than just the plot, but in the description itself, must help.

Maybe conflict drives more than the plot. Maybe it drives the images as well.