Written by Alyssa Jingling
In one of my classes last semester, I read a novel called Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In the literary world, it received mixed reviews; many readers disliked how slow the novel felt. The novel is written in epistolary form: a father is writing to his son, and all of the points of action in the novel are sprinkled in through flashbacks outside of the letter.The class had mixed opinions on it, but despite its odd slowness, I absolutely loved it.. While I will admit that I agree with critics on the pace of the book, I surprised myself by still enjoying it.
The main character, Ames, is an elderly preacher in a small town. He has acknowledged the fact that his time left on Earth is limited, and he’s doing his best to enjoy it with his friends and family. The ambling pace of the book actively forces the reader to slow down while reading. On his walks through town, Ames often stops to observe and appreciate the little things he notices, like “the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” Ames also notes that the “moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light…It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within that great general light of existence.” These observations help the reader slow down as well—you don’t want to skip ahead to find action, you learn to appreciate the imagery.
Reading this novel allowed me to foster a habit similar to Ames’s: I’ve used Ames as a reminder to be more mindful in my own life and to notice the little blessings I can see. And yet, as I pondered Gilead and just how much I enjoyed it, I realized that I was a sort of hypocrite. There I was, praising the slowness of a novel, yet for years I had fumed about how slow and boring Hemingway’s writing is.
The worst offender: The Old Man and The Sea.
I may not be the brightest English major in Parlin, but I just can’t be fooled into finding significance in toiling over a big fish. Does the fishing trip represent life? Is the big fish love? Why does the old man dream of Africa? What do you want from me, Ernest?
One hundred pages of an old man who sits in a little boat in the sea, trying to catch one fish. That’s it, that’s the plot! Or so I thought in seventh grade. I figured, since I first read the novel in seventh grade, I would pick it up again to see if my tastes have changed. After all, I liked Gilead, so maybe I could take my newfound appreciation for slowness and poetic detail and apply it to Hemingway.
Since The Old Man and The Sea is just over 100 pages, it didn’t take me long to read. I’ll admit, I had to read it in two sittings—I actually began falling asleep about halfway through. As I was reading, I felt the pace move quicker than I had remembered. I think I attribute this change not only to age, but also to the fact that now, I was reading with a purpose—I was trying to find notable things to write about. And though I did dog-ear (gasp!) about every other page with a detail I found interesting, it was difficult to maintain this interest when the pace slowed down drastically every time Hemingway described fishing techniques in detail. It’s easier to read about Portuguese men-of-war described as beautiful “iridescent bubbles” and “the falsest thing in the sea,” even though I used to avoid them on the beaches back in Florida. Perhaps the reason why these oceanic descriptions interest me is because they invoke a sense of nostalgia for the sticky air and sand I frequented as a child. On the other hand, reading about “a small line” that “had a wire leader and a medium-sized hook” that fastened “to a ring bolt in the stern” made me stop and calculate how many pages I had left to read.
Despite rereading the book at an older age and with a purpose greater than “I had to for a class,” I still couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the plot. I may not be the brightest English major in Parlin, but I just can’t be fooled into finding significance in toiling over a big fish. Does the fishing trip represent life? Is the big fish love? Why does the old man dream of Africa? What do you want from me, Ernest?
I embarked on this writing journey foolishly thinking it would turn out one of two ways: I would either be set in my seventh grade ways and still hate Hemingway, or I would pull a full 180 and fall in love with him. As many things in life tend to do, the actual outcome fell somewhere in between. Just as I fell in love with Robinson’s writing style against my expectations, I developed a newfound appreciation for Hemingway’s use of language. I love his explanation about calling the sea la mar–he notes that people use the feminine form to express love for the sea, but they use the masculine el mar when they’re upset. The images are often extremely detailed, and I could imagine myself laying on a beach with nothing better to do than to reread this novel (I imagine the smell of the salty air would only add to the seaside poetry of it all). However, I still don’t get the hype about Hemingway. Action in a plot can be enjoyed by nearly all readers, but details and descriptions are subjective. They’re nice, but for a novel (which is typically longer than a poem), it can be tiring to just read images instead of following a plot.
Perhaps the reason why I liked Gilead’s lack of plot but not The Old Man’s is because I was able to take more away from Gilead. Amid the poetic descriptions, Hemingway’s old man gives little pieces of advice, sometimes about fishing, sometimes about life. But even the life advice, like being exact instead of lucky so that “when the luck comes you are ready,” doesn’t speak to me as deeply as Ames’ musings. If I was talking to the old man, I imagine I’d just smile and nod at him, just thinking of him as a lonely old guy.
So, I’m sorry Hemingway, I still don’t get you. But it certainly was a beautiful ride.