Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

The gills of the dolphin and Hemingway’s reputation

The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Yesterday afternoon I started to read The old man and the sea. I couldn’t remember if I had read it before, but as it is a short book it couldn’t do any harm to read it again. I think before I started but did not finish it. It’s about an old fisherman who has been unlucky for 84 days, and really needs to catch something. So he goes out to catch a big fish.

But it struck me as weird. I have this image of Hemingway as the grand macho hunting’, shootin’ and fishing type, who knows all there is to know about game animals and game fish, and yet here he is describing dolphins as having gills. It sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m reading a school edition, with notes. Surely there must be a note on that. But no, there isn’t. Is it just that the people who wrote the notes are equally ignorant, or that they don’t want to suggest any weakness in the great master?

And it strikes me that if Hemigway is so ignorant of such an elementary fact of marine biology as that, does the rest of what he writes count for anything at all? How can he write about an old man and the sea and its creatures when he is that ignorant?

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7 thoughts on “The gills of the dolphin and Hemingway’s reputation

  1. Pip on said:

    Thought you might be interested to know that colloquially in Florida and elsewhere, mahi-mahi were often referred to as “dolphins”. Hemingway’s description of the dolphin’s colour also supports this explanation.

    He definitely knew enough about fishing to know that true dolphins don’t have gills!

  2. Nate on said:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who noticed that. It bothered me a bit, but I just took it as the fisherman being ignorant or not having the necessary vocabulary to explain it.

  3. Dude on said:

    The dolphins in the Story are not real dolphins, but another species called dolphinfish, aka mahi-mahi.

  4. I still think he made a fool of himself for not putting the footnote explaining that for him dolphin is mahi-mahi or whatever. Also, translators are stupid for not changing this, so I read ”delfin” in Serbian instead of ”mahi-mahi” or ”delfin-riba” (dolphin fish) or even ”riba” (fish). This book is short, but I almost died of boredom while reading it. Boring books don’t deserve a prize, but a writer to be left on a deserted island for a year as a punishment.

    • I agree.

      Even if Hemingway himself was ignorant of marine biology, a good editor should have spotted the error and pointed it out to him, or, now that he is dead, the publisher could have added a footnote. As I said, I was reading a school edition, so there were already lots of notes about other things in the book, so surely they could have added a note about that.

      And yes, I also agree that the book was rather boring, which was why I didn’t manage to finish it the first time. Why do people insist on inflicting boring books ion school kids? It probably kills any interest in reading.

      • I had to read it on the 3rd year in gymnasium (type of high school that should prepare students for BA studies) when I was 18, but nothing killed me like Anna Karenina year before that. I understand that people have different experience of literature, but certain books that are too boring to the most of school kids should be replaced. Here in Serbia we have outdated list of obligatory books and everyone talks how it should be refreshed, but the ministry of education still sleeps (natural consequence of their own questionable education).

  5. Nick on said:

    First, fishermen and whalers often refer to everything that swims as fish.

    Second, his “dolphins” are dolphin fish not the mammals you may be thinking of.

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