‘The Old Man and the Sea’ Trigger Warning: Is This the End of Literature?


I have a bit of Scottish blood in me. It is a fact I like to bring up at Scottish Festivals or while watching “Braveheart.” It also provides a good excuse for running around the backyard in my kilt and blue faceprint chasing after the gophers with my sword (They may take our lives, but they will never take… our zucchini!).

Scotland used to be cool. On our honeymoon, my wife and I visited Scotland. The sword I’m referring to was purchased in a small store made entirely of stone, on the shores of Loch Ness. It was the most manly thing that ever happened to me. A man of any self-respect would not be able to stand on the shores of Loch Ness without buying a sword. We also visited the ancestral castle of my family — or, at least what was left.

My wife asked me, “Does your family build this castle by hand?” I replied, “Actually sweetheart, this historical sign says that my ancestors beat up the living crap out the lord, and stole this Castle.” I also ate some haggis. I even fished Loch Ness. C’mon, I mean. You have to wet your line at Loch Ness. When will I be back at Loch Ness?

No, I did not catch anything.

Scotland, which was once cool for fishing, is now a mere shadow of what it used to be. The University of the Highlands and Islands added a trigger warning to Hemingway’s “The Old Man And The Sea.” The reasons? The classic story has…wait for it…” graphic fishing scenes”. The university defends the decision on the basis that “informed” students are needed.

Dear Lord.

The story contains “graphic scenes of fishing” because, to put it as gently as possible, IT IS ABOUT FISHING. The story does contain “graphic fishing scenes” because, and let me put this as delicately as I can, IT’S ABOUT FISHING. Ever. The story of Santiago and the fight he had to win a huge marlin might be too much for the fragile flowers that are poncing about the University of the Highlands and Islands. These poor scholars can have a wonderful life if they just demand it.

The Old Man And The Sea is more than fishing. It is about pride, pity, and defeat. But it also deals with faith, friendship, and resilience. The story is about man’s struggle with nature. It is also a snapshot of human experience and an allegory, which the students find too much to bear. No matter if one believes not in a transcendent God. Nature is often ruthless and unfair, and the world is very unjust. These are things that current college students cannot imagine. I don’t think it is necessary to call them students.

This trigger warning has been criticized by many, including your humble correspondent. The Daily Mail ran the original article and asked actual scholars to weigh in. Mary Dearborn, Hemingway’s biographer, commented that “This is nonsense.” I can’t believe that students would be encouraged to avoid the book. It is counterproductive to pretend otherwise. The world is violent. The natural world is responsible for much of the violence. It is the law.

Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of History at the University of Exeter told the newspaper: “This is especially stupid given that the Highlands & Islands economy depends on industries like fishing and farming. Many of the greatest works of literature include references to farming or fishing. “Is the university really suggesting that all of this literature is surrounded by warnings?”

I’m guessing “Moby Dick” is not in the university library’s stacks.

It’s possible that a trigger warning for “The Old Man And The Sea”, is the result of faculty and administration who simply can’t stop themselves from sanitizing all things for students. It could be that today’s youth is simply not equipped to deal with the realities of life, and the challenges that come along with them. In this case, we need to be extremely cautious about what might happen when they finally have to face reality.