The Old Man and the Spinning Top: A Reflection on the Theme of The Old Man and the Sea

The final scene of Inception is one that’s hard to forget. The main character, Cobb, finding himself back at his home spins the top to discover if he’s in a dream or not. Then, he leaves it behind, going to see his children. The camera pans back to the top, and we see it spinning perfectly, indicating that he’s in a dream. We see the top waver–and then the screen cuts to black.

What does Inception have to do with The Old Man and the Sea? At first glance, a film about stealing dreams and a novella about fishing seem to have little in common. However, I suggest that there is a resemblance the two have, and that by examining them in conjunction we can understand The Old Man and the Sea’s theme better. What is the similarity between the two? I believe it has to do with the shared theme of perception.

Inception presents this theme in a more overt, less-subtle way. The Old Man and the Sea is, first and foremost, a story. But underlying that story is an examination of the power of perception, and the place perception has in determining what we believe to be reality.

The specific example I’d like to bring up from Inception is the character of  Mal. Mal has the idea that her world isn’t real planted in her head. From that point on, she becomes obsessed with that idea, and begins to construct her own reality. Everything becomes an illusion–she is convinced that herself and Cobb are still stuck in a dream. This reality becomes her life, until finally she commits suicide to try to get out of the dream.

The concept of perception is obvious in that example. Mal perceives reality to be one way, and decides that her perception is reality. In The Old Man and the Sea, the idea is more subtle, but still present. The theme does, however, become more obvious as the story progresses.

The Old Man is, at the start of the book, down on his luck. Yet, despite that, he continues to go fishing, expressing certainty that his luck will change. When he starts on the voyage that brings him the Fish, there is an interesting section where he contemplates how he refers to the sea as opposed to how others refer to it. The difference is that he refers to her as female, while others act as if the sea were male. Why is this important? The importance isn’t so much the difference in referential terms, but in what happens next.

The Old Man reflects on the power of the sea; it is uncontrollable and prone to seemingly random storms. The Man cannot control them, and acknowledges this fact. An interesting tension emerges, and that is the tension between the man’s perception and reality.

There are several examples of this. Early in the book, the Old Man and the Boy speak of food the Old Man doesn’t have. They know he doesn’t have it, but every day we are told they act as if he does. Why? Why waste time doing that? Later in the same section, they speak of buying a lottery ticket, acting assured that they will win. Yet even there they recognize that they cannot control it. But they still, even with that knowledge, act as if they can.

I could go one, pointing out various examples throughout the book of how the man acts as if his perception determines the world around him. But, I think that a more fruitful question to ask would be, “why does he act this way?”

In Inception, the answer is obvious–Mal is, in essence, coerced into thinking that way. The Old Man, on the other hand, is not being coerced. He chooses to deceive himself–to act as if he has control over that which he does not. Why?

Perhaps the answer is found at the parts in the book where the theme shows most clearly. When he is still trying to reel in the fish we read an interesting passage: “The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.” Then again, later in the book we find something interesting: “I wish I could show [the fish] what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so.”

What do we see from these two examples? We see that in both situations he deceives himself–lets his perception determine reality for himself–so that it will be easier for him. His perception of reality is a perception where he is stronger, where life is easier. And thus, he lies to himself, believing that those things are true.

Somehow, even though we understand that ultimately it does not actually help his position, he still believes it. He refuses to acknowledge truth because he knows the truth is dangerous. G.K. Chesterton said it best when he said, “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”

It seems the Old Man created a fiction, just as Mal created a fiction. They believed what they wanted to in order to make life easier.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is what happens to them both at the end. Mal dies. Her fiction destroys her. The Old Man loses the fish, and has little to show for his efforts. He is exhausted, sick, and hungry. His fiction, his deliberate deception of himself seems to have brought him nothing but pain in the long run.

What is being said about this theme? Does Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Old Man and the Sea, suggest that deceiving ourselves is acceptable, since it does create momentary relief? The answer to that question is an entirely different blog post–but yet it’s an important one. I don’t want to get into the subject much, but I will say this. What is important, I think, to not forget is that the Old Man recognizes that what he is doing is refusing to accept the truth. He understands, at least at some level, that he is believing a lie.

That’s an important point. Hemingway may argue that ignoring the truth is acceptable. Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction. Perhaps lying to oneself does create momentary relief, or at least the appearance of momentary relief. But even if that’s what Hemingway is arguing, we’re still left with a very simple fact that has to be dealt with, especially if we agree with that argument. We may think that truth is dangerous enough to suppress, but we can’t ignore the fact that it’s still truth.

In other words, truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is truth nonetheless.


4 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Spinning Top: A Reflection on the Theme of The Old Man and the Sea

  1. Grеat blog! Ɗo yօu hɑve anyy hlpful hints
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    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. Regarding aspiring writers, I’d suggest, as cliched as it might be, that reading is your best option. Honestly, the thing that’s helped me the most is just absorbing both good and bad writing, and doing my best to learn to tell the difference between them.

      As to blogging, I’d suggest a free platform to start with. It’ll be your best bet, in my opinion.


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