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Literature of the Sea: Upper School English Elective Explores Uncharted Waters

By Andrew Scibilia, Upper School English Faculty
This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the Tower Hill Bulletin

In WaldenHenry David Thoreau called his famous experiment of living in the Massachusetts woods a chance to learn what nature “had to teach.” He recounts planting beans, measuring the dimensions of a frozen pond, talking whimsically with woodchucks and listening to the rain while standing in his doorway. What the woods were for Thoreau, the sea has been for the sailor, the explorer, the pilgrim. Hemingway understood this when writing The Old Man and the Sea, the story of a Cuban fisherman named Santiago who spends three days trying to catch a marlin that is larger than his boat. The short novel is a kind of confessional, of the fisherman’s suffering, and the strength of his faith in the divine and in himself, of the beauty and terror of the natural world, of the smallness and enormity of the human. Reading, we can’t help but think of ourselves in that boat, wrestling with our own desires. It is in our exploration of the sea as a landscape that we explore the nature of existence, the self, identity and truths of the human condition. In Hemingway’s mind, paradoxes abound. The sea destroys, and it creates. It evokes fear and disdain, but at the same time, love, humility, courage.
But Hemingway was not exploring uncharted waters. Hundreds of years before we read about Santiago, the Greek poet Homer saw the sea as the place in which we discovered our best and worst selves. The Odyssey is one of the oldest tales of the marine, spoken as poetry throughout the Mediterranean before it was ever written down; you could call it Homer’s love song to the sea. If some stories of the sea explore the individual’s place in the natural world, others explore personal relationships and ethical questions. Odysseus is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, but his actions are not always virtuous; he is a cunning warrior, a magnanimous host, a grateful visitor, a lover of his country and fellow man; but he is also vain and hedonistic. Is Odysseus a good father? A good husband? A good leader? Is he just, or more often needlessly violent and vindictive? And what about his wife, Penelope, who never takes another lover or doubts Odysseus’s return? Is her fidelity noble, or foolish? Consider also the bravery of Calypso, the sea nymph holding Odysseus hostage for years on the island of Ogygia, who berates the gods for their hypocrisy, knowing that they could smite her at any moment. Or Telemachus’s unwavering love for a father he knows only through rumor. Sometimes we readers pity Odysseus because he reminds us of ourselves, or someone dear to us. Or we curse him as much as the gods do.
Writers of the sea like Hemingway and Homer have given us characters that live forever in our culture. We see them everywhere. Who is Portia in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar if not an Elizabethan Penelope? Homer’s epic even parallels a film as modern as Moana. Books read in my Literature of the Sea course also provide many unanswered questions to real problems of identity. It seems then these stories ebb and flow in the hearts and minds of readers, and each new story written or old story rewritten is just another pull of the tide, until the stories are as everlasting as the sea itself, which Melville says at the end of Moby Dick “[rolls] on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”