On Narrative Voice (3): Not Alone or Adrift

Unlike The Road, and unlike virtually any first-person narrative you might care to name, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea seems to provide a textbook example of strictly naturalist third-person omniscient narration. The narrative voice is plain and simple, lacking any obvious narratorial interjections as well as any stylistic peculiarities that would imply a narrative history for the controlling intelligence behind the narrative voice. And yet, there are moments at which it becomes clear that someone, some entity with a particular personality, narrates — or at least thinksThe Old Man and the Sea. A little under halfway into the story, it is remarked that the old man “knew no man was ever alone on the sea,” and the remark itself demonstrates the truth of what is remarked upon. Who makes the remark? Who is out there at sea with the old man, and close enough to him to know what he knows? Whose is the controlling intelligence of the narrative, of which the narrative voice is the intelligible mask?

The old man is clearly accompanied by an intelligence that is not only superior to his own intelligence but also to our intelligence as readers. This intelligence knows more than what the old man knows, and it knows more than what we know, and it knows that the old man sometimes knows more than we know, and it works here and there to bridge the gaps between our knowledge and his. It is right there, in fact, in the opening paragraph:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

In translating the word salao into English, the controlling intelligence of the narrative presumes that we do not speak Spanish and endeavours to help us make up for our shortcomings. And it continues to undertake such endeavours throughout the narrative, either translating the old man’s Spanish thoughts into English or expressing his thoughts in English via free indirect discourse and then translating them into the original Spanish. For instance, when the old man experiences a cramp in his hand, we are told that “he thought of it as a calambre,” and later, when he decides to eat the dolphin he has caught, we are told that “he called it dorado.” In a similar vein, the controlling intelligence also explains things to us that we could not know unless we, too, were fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. The old man, for instance, “rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated,” and, later: “The tuna, the fishermen called all the fish of that species tuna and only distinguished among them by their proper names when they came to sell them or to trade them for baits, were down again.”

The controlling intelligence, however, does not stop at simply translating the old man’s thoughts. Crucially, it also recognises itself as a translator and thus demonstrates the self-awareness of a sentient being. When the old man says, in despair, “Ay,” the narrative voice informs us: “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” Yet the failure of the controlling intelligence to translate certain phrases is not solely restricted to untranslatable phrases. Sometimes, it simply refuses to translate, as when we are told that the old man “thought of the Big Leagues, to him they were the Gran Ligas, and he knew that the Yankees of New York were playing the Tigres of Detroit.” Gran Ligas is translated but Tigres is not; and although Tigres may not require translation given that we can easily infer its meaning, there are other instances in which a translation is not forthcoming even when we cannot as easily infer the meaning of the Spanish words. For instance, the old man thinks to himself: “This is the second day now that I do not know the result of the juegos,” and then he thinks: “Un espuela de hueso,” without translation in either instance.

The controlling intelligence, then, discloses and withholds information at whim, which is to say, by extension, that far from being merely an external observer or recorder of events, it has a verifiable personality, and the shape of the narrative is to some extent a reflection of the rigours of that personality. Indeed, there are other instances in the novel in which its personality more clearly shines through the ostensible objectivity of the prose.

For instance, the prose contains a number of descriptive similes that seem to have come from someone other than the old man, that do not reflect what we know of his existing sentiments and his prior experiences, and that therefore raise the question of their source. We are told that the sail of the old man’s boat, furled around his mast, “looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” But who makes this comparative assessment? We are told as well that a number of enormous clouds in the sky were “white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream,” that the old man’s cramped hand “was as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle,” that “the fish’s eye looked as detached as the mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession,” and that an enormous shark “came like a pig to the trough if a pig had a mouth so wide that you could put your head in it.” Who makes these comparative assessments? Who exactly determines the simile? Who possesses an experiential familiarity with “friendly piles of ice cream,” “the gripped claws of an eagle,” “the mirrors in a periscope,” “a saint in a procession,” and “a pig [at] the trough,” sufficient to determine that the clouds, the cramp, the fish’s eye, and the shark respectively resemble these things? And to whom do we attribute the prosaic lyricism of the moment at which the old man first catches a glimpse of his enormous fish? The fish, we are told, “jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun,” and “jumped again and again in the acrobatics of its fear,” but surely those words are far too poetic and indeed self-consciously literary to have originated in the simple mind of the old man himself?

So in addition to the personality that it reveals via the selection and translation of narrative details, the controlling intelligence also positions itself in relation to both the old man at the heart of the narrative and the reader of the narrative, and makes itself known as an entity in possession of greater knowledge than either one. Sometimes, in fact, this positioning and this possession of greater knowledge is made startlingly obvious, if not quite explicit. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility,” we are told of the old man, presumably by a wiser entity that has passed judgement on him, “[b]ut he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” And, further, the controlling intelligence reveals that it knows more than the old man when it tells us, as he gazes up at the night sky, that “[h]e did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it,” and the controlling intelligence also reveals that it presumably knows better than the old man when it remarks upon his attempts to contort himself into a more tolerable sitting position in his cramped skiff. The new position, we are told, “actually was only somewhat less intolerable” than the last,” but the old man “thought of it as almost comfortable.” Thus, when we receive no clues as to the actual nature of the fish that steals the old man’s bait from his line — “It could have been a marlin or a broadbill or a shark,” he muses, entirely without interjection or clarification from the controlling intelligence via the narrative voice — we must acknowledge that we are being played, toyed with, as much as the old man toys with the fish he ultimately catches. Just as he unspools and then abruptly revokes the line with which he catches the fish, so the controlling intelligence of his narrative freely discloses and then abruptly withholds the details of the narrative itself.

The old man, we are told, “knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” By the end of the novel, we, as readers, also know as much — although, unlike the old man, we at least can ascertain the qualities of the entity in whose company he is not alone.

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