The Haunting Waters of A River Runs Through It

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing”
opening lines

Anyone who has ever gone fly fishing knows it to be a complex art -almost spiritual in nature. Fly fishing forces a man to slow down, find rhythm, and discover patience and harmony with nature. In Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, which was mysteriously denied the Pulitzer Prize in 1977, Maclean offers a short story that mines the depths of this delicate art. In the story, fly fishing serves as a kind of metaphor for the imperfect nature of human beings (a theological notion propounded by Maclean’s father).

The novella is less about the panoramic “big sky country” and more of a meditation on Maclean’s upbringing and his family, especially his relationship with his brother. Maclean works for a newspaper in Helena where he hones his writing craft. We meet his Presbyterian minister father who teaches his boys how to fly fish, and his brother Paul who is often-drunk and gambling while maintaining a strict fishing regimen. A significant portion of the story is an extended recollection of a fishing misadventure with Maclean’s frivolous brother-in-law who winds up laying drunk, sunburned, and naked with a prostitute beside the river. The story highlights both Norman’s and Paul’s sacred connection to the river and its fish, in contrast to an outsider who disgraces and disrespects it. The river serves as the one constant in Norman’s life -it continues flowing while he continues fishing.

The tearful book ends in sorrow. Maclean, his father, and his brother all go fishing one last time together, and they observe Paul’s superior skills as he catches his “limit” (his biggest fish) in the river. Maclean reflects on the enthusiasm of the trio in one glimmering moment of nostalgia. Little did the trio know it was the last time they would ever fish together. The final words of Paul echo in Maclean’s mind: “just give me three more years before I can learn to think like a fish… just give me three more years…” Shortly thereafter Paul is found dead, the result of an apparent bar room fight. Paul’s death leaves Maclean and his father burdened and fatigued. Norman’s father suggests writing fiction because “only then will you understand what happened and why. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (104).

The concluding paragraphs are the most darkly beautiful in the whole novella:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and the memories of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters”
(104).


There are many other deep and penetrating passages in A River Runs Through It. Here are a few that have stuck with me:

“‘Remember,’ as my father kept saying, ‘it is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock'” (4).

“Fishing is a world created apart from all others, and inside it are special worlds of their own -one is fishing for big fish in small water where there is not enough world and water to accomadate a fish and a fisherman” (40).

“The cast is so soft and slow that it can be followed like an ash settling from a fireplace chimney. One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful, even if it is only floating ash” (43).

“…part of the way to know a thing is through its death” (62).


The 1977 Pulitzer Prize Controversy
A River Runs Through It was widely praised it upon its release. According to several news publications at the time, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction jury’s primary recommendation was for A River Runs Through It. The second choice was October Light by John Gardner. However, the Pulitzer Advisory Board denied the jury’s recommendation and no official Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded in 1977.

There was speculation that the prize was not awarded due to a health emergency. One of the three fiction jurists, Jean Stafford, a novelist who won the Pulitzer herself in 1970, suffered a stroke while the jury was studying entries.

Richard T. Baker, a long-time journalism professor at Columbia University who succeeded John Hohenberg as Secretary of the Pulitzer Advisory Board, administered the prizes on behalf of Columbia University and said that no prize was given in the Fiction category because no recommendation “was clearly leading the pack.” He described 1977 as a “thin year, not a banner year” for both fiction as well as international reporting (a second category for which no award was given in 1977).

However, a special Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1977 to Alex Haley in recognition of his best-seller, Roots, which traces seven generations of a black family in America.


Who Is Norman Maclean?
While A River Runs Through It offers the best insight into the life of Norman Maclean, I offer a terse overview of the author’s life below. Norman Maclean (1902-1990) was considered by some to be the patron writer of the state of Montana. He was born in Iowa and grew up in Missoula. In his early years he worked for the U.S. Forest Department, an experience he later wrote about in two of the stories featured in the A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.

Maclean graduated from Dartmouth College in 1924 and married Jess Burns in 1931. He enrolled in graduate school to study English at The University of Chicago, earning a doctorate in 1940. He taught courses on the Romantic poets and Shakespeare, before earning to a full professorship and becoming Dean of Students in Chicago. Many prominent Americans took classes with ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and his classes were often highly sought-after (some have grouped him among the neo-Aristotelians of the 20th century at The University of Chicago). U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens once credited professor Maclean as “the teacher to whom I am most indebted.”

Upon his retirement in 1974, Maclean’s two children encouraged him to write down the stories he often told them. In 1976, he published A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, a collection of three short stories, but the most prominent of the three is his memoir novella, “A River Runs Through It.” The book was the first work of fiction published by the University of Chicago Press.

Maclean spent his later years attempting to complete a book about the 1949 Mann Gulch Forest Fire, a wildfire that destroyed thousands of acres in Helena National Forest along the upper Missouri River. The book was published posthumously as Young Men and Fire (1992). Norman Maclean died in Chicago in 1990. In 1992, following Maclean’s death, the film rights to A River Runs Through It were purchased by Robert Redford and it was made into a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt. The film version is entertaining and nostalgic, but it takes significant departures from the novella in order to expand the narrative.


Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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The Meaning of Innocence in To Kill A Mockingbird

“‘…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience'” (105).

I have always loved To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a gentle and compassionate novel confronting a difficult subject matter -the issue of racism in America. As I re-read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the first time in my adult life, the national press was once again afire with the issue of racism. Several widely publicized incidents of police violence against black Americans spawned widespread protests, the scale of which was unparalleled since the 1960s. This has been a time of reflection for a great many people. Similarly, To Kill A Mockingbird was published on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement in 1960: it was published not long after the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts (1955-1956), among other instances of civil disobedience. Like other great books of the Western tradition, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia or Plato’s Apology of Socrates, To Kill A Mockingbird uses a courtroom drama to explore the question of justice.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a novel told in two parts. Part I patiently sets the scene. While reading, I imagined hearing the story from the novel’s protagonist, Scout. I pictured her reminiscing about the old days while gently rocking back and forth on her Alabama porch, perhaps sipping a mint julep. Harper Lee’s beautiful cadence invites us into the fictional small town of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression years of the early ’30s. It is a dusty, rural town in Southern Alabama based on Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The first half of the book offers a series of vignettes spanning several years in the life of six-year old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. She amusingly offers reflections on misadventures with her brother, Jeremy “Jem” (based on Harper Lee’s older brother, Edwin) and family friend, Dill, who visits Maycomb during the summers (Dill is loosely based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend and fellow author, Truman Capote).

The three children: Scout, Jem, and Dill play games in the neighborhood, especially at the end of the street where the dilapidated Radley house stands. The Radley’s son, colloquially called “Boo Radley,” lives inside the house in isolation from the world. The children find him fascinating and mysterious. One night, the children narrowly escape from the Radley home in a dangerous effort to catch a glimpse of Boo Radley, and in another case the children find toys and bubblegum hidden inside the knot of a nearby tree. Along the way we meet the neighborhood ladies: Miss Maudie, Miss Stephanie Crawford, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose -an aging widow who has a morphine addiction, but her addiction is unwittingly overcome shortly before her death by Jem and Scout. In another vignette, the children travel with their black housemaid, Calpurnia, to her church and learn about the differences between white and black people in Alabama. Dill and Scout promise to get married one day, while Jem rapidly matures hoping to earn the respect of his father, Atticus.

As the novel progresses we become aware of a controversy that has struck Maycomb. The Ewells, a poor white family led by drunken patriarch, Bob Ewell, accuse a black man named Tom Robinson of raping their daughter, Mayella Ewell. The controversy is explicitly racial in nature. The local magistrate, Judge Taylor, appoints Atticus Finch to defend Tom Robinson in the criminal case -an indication of the judge’s sympathy for the defendant. Many in town begin to publicly scorn Atticus and his children for defending a black man. At one point a lynch mob visits Tom Robinson’s prison to kill him, but they are stopped when Jem and Scout intervene. The innocence of children has a pacifying effect on people. It saves Tom Robinson (and also Atticus) from a potentially violent scenario.

“Scout… every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change” (76).

Part II of To Kill A Mockingbird focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson. It takes place on a hot summer day. The children sit in the upper balcony with the black citizens and they watch Atticus cross-examine the witnesses. They are impressed with their father’s demeanor and temperament. Atticus is a good man who always does the right thing. Despite no evidence to convict Tom Robinson, and in fact evidence to the contrary (namely Tom Robinson’s defective left arm), the jury still unanimously finds Tom guilty. The trial ends in tragedy -a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the end, Bob Ewell vows vengeance on Atticus. He dramatically attacks Scout and Jem in a particularly terrifying scene on Halloween night. During the course of their tussle, an unknown assailant comes to their rescue. Bob Ewell winds up dead with a knife stuck in him, and Jem is carried away with a broken arm. We soon discover the anonymous man to be Arthur “Boo” Radley, a pale-faced and child-like man. It was he who left those gifts for the children in a tree-hole many years ago. At the Finch house, a small crowd gathers at Jem’s bedside until Boo Radley gently whispers to Scout to walk him home. When they get back to his home he quickly enters, shuts the door, and Scout never sees him again. She reflects on the life of Boo Radley in contrast to the life of the children playing outside in her neighborhood. She remembers the words Atticus once said:

“…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (279).


In To Kill A Mockingbird the serious subjects of racism, rape, and injustice are contrasted with the light-hearted and innocent perspective of the children. All three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, are not fully aware of the gravity of the situation unfolding around them. By bringing readers into the eyes of children the novel asks us to look beyond our prejudices and recall our own childhood, and in doing so, to seek out the better angels of our nature. Youthful innocence and adult severity are brought together in the character of Arthur “Boo” Radley, who is an adult yet child-like recluse. At first, he is frightening and mysterious, but by the end of the story he is a hero. The difference is that we come to understand him, rather than fear him. The notion of childlike innocence is further alluded to in the novel’s title. Mockingbirds are referenced perhaps only once or twice in the novel, but they are shown to be respected creatures because they are harmless. They merely offer songs for other people to enjoy. According to Atticus it is a sin to kill a mockingbird, in other words, it is a sin to destroy innocence in the world:

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird'” (90).

The dedication at the outset of the novel reads to “Mr. Lee and Alice in consideration of Love & Affection” and an epigraph from English essayist and poet, Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”


To Kill A Mockingbird Controversies
As with many other Pulitzer-Prize winning novels, like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (read my reflections on the novel here) or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (read my reflections on the novel here), Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was ensconced in controversy upon its release. It was criticized by many as immoral or obscene for its colorful use of racial epithets and its controversial content. Many schools boards, particularly in the American South, attempted to ban the book -most notoriously in Hanover County, VA, until public outcry reversed the decision. Harper Lee, herself, wrote a letter to the school board expressing disappointment at their decision (she questioned whether or not any of the board members could, in fact, read). Over the years since its publication there have been numerous attempts to ban the book from American libraries. In 2016, To Kill A Mockingbird, along with Huckleberry Finn, was removed from a school library in Virginia, and in 2017 a school board in Mississippi removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its longstanding position in the elementary school’s curriculum. Thankfully, free speech and free inquiry advocates continue to push back against censorship at American schools and libraries. Recently, To Kill A Mockingbird won PBS’s “Great American Read” for favorite American novel by the general public.

The 1961 Pulitzer Prize Decision
For the Pulitzer Prize decision in 1961 there were only two members of the Fiction Jury: John Barkham, a South African by birth who became an American book reviewer at publications including TIME, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Post and others. John Barkham served on many Pulitzer juries in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, and Biography over a period of approximately 20 years. The other Fiction Juror in 1961 was Irita Van Doren, a former editor of The Nation and a book reviewer at The New York Herald Tribune Books. She was formerly married to Carl van Doren, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Ben Franklin in 1939. In her later years she ran in many literary circles while developing a deep fascination with Southern literature. She led a storied life that included a secret romantic affair with Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential nominee in 1940.


About Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) published only two novels during her lifetime: To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) and Go Set A Watchman (2015). She chose “Harper Lee” as her nom de plume because she was afraid of being misidentified as “Nellie.”

She was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children. Growing up, she became close friends with Truman Capote (he was actually the basis for the character “Dill” in To Kill A Mockingbird, and in return Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper Lee). She studied law at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, but much to her father’s chagrin, she dropped out one semester before graduating. Harper Lee was generally considered the bohemian of the family while her older sister, Alice, pursued a legal career.

In 1949, Harper Lee moved to New York City to become a writer while working various odd-jobs, such as an airline reservation agent or a bookstore clerk. In her spare time she wrote stories. She moved into a townhouse at 50th East Street and her friends offered a years worth of wages to free up her time to write. She lived near her old friend Truman Capote, and traveled with him to Kansas while researching the story of a small town murder that eventually turned into his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Eventually, Harper Lee grew apart from Truman Capote as his lifestyle became more flamboyant and hers drew further inward. By 1957, Harper Lee submitted a manuscript for publication entitled Go Set A Watchman, but it was not entirely ready so she re-worked it for several years and eventually retitled it To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a long and grueling process of editing and re-editing (at one point a tearful Lee apparently tossed her manuscript out a second story window into the snow before her editor phoned her up and calmly reassured her of the process). Harper Lee’s editor was Therese “Tay” von Hohoff of the publishing house, J. B. Lippincott (later acquired by HarperCollins).

When To Kill A Mockingbird was finally published it was an extraordinary success. Lee’s celebrity rapidly grew out of control and she worked hard to protect her anonymity. Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, became her attorney. They lived together, both unmarried, and filed for an unlisted telephone number to prevent the growing requests for interviews (Harper Lee denied nearly every interview). She preferred to live a private life. However, it is not fair to call her a recluse. Lee merely enjoyed her quiet and frugal existence far away from the spotlight. She was content to view herself as the Jane Austen of the American South, as well as a documentarian of the American small town -a vanishing way of life in contemporary society.

When Universal Pictures purchased the movie rights to her novel, Harper Lee helped with the script and casting for the film. During the process she grew particularly close with Gregory Peck, whose granddaughter was later named in honor of Harper Lee. The film was released in 1962 to great acclaim.

Harper Lee lived a lengthy and mostly anonymous life, all while collecting numerous awards over the decades for To Kill A Mockingbird, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, and numerous literary and collegiate merits. She spent a few months every year in New York, but most of her life was happily spent in Monroeville. She lived with her sister, Alice, and together they made weekly trips to David’s Catfish Cabin for seafood. Harper Lee had many friends and was apparently a delightfully funny person.

A sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird was controversially published in 2015 entitled Go Set a Watchman. Apparently the novel tells the story of Scout twenty years later as she returns to Maycomb from New York only to find Atticus an older man who has grown more bigoted and disappointing (he expresses certain sympathies for the Ku Klux Klan). Much of the novel was an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that was mysteriously discovered by publishers. Upon its publication there was a media firestorm. HarperCollins was criticized for allegedly taking advantage of Harper Lee, an 89 year-old woman with impaired eyesight and hearing loss. The decision to publish went against her many decades of resistance. To make matters worse, Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who was her sole caregiver and attorney, died shortly before HarperCollins was granted permission to publish the book.

Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama at age 89. She never married and she never had any children.


Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. Warner Books, December, 1982.

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The Writer’s Endurance: The Old Man and the Sea

“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” (opening line).

The Old Man and the Sea is a rich and deep novella about an old fisherman named Santiago and his Herculean effort to overcome a fishing dry-spell. Much like the book’s protagonist, Ernest Hemingway was also going through a dry-spell at the time. The Old Man and the Sea was written at a time when Hemingway was widely considered to be a writer in decline. His last critically praised work was more than a decade old: For Whom The Bell Tolls in 1940 – read my reflections on For Whom The Bell Tolls and its Pulitzer controversy here. Hemingway had published Across The River And Into The Trees in 1950, the first book he had published post-World War II, and it was panned by critics. In a word, The Old Man and the Sea was like a great fish captured by an old fisherman only to be torn apart by sharks.

Hemingway dedicated The Old Man and the Sea “To Charlie Scribner And To Max Perkins.” Both men were Hemingway’s old friends – Charlie Scribner was the President of the famous New York publishing house Charlie Scribner & Sons, and Max Perkins was Hemingway’s editor at Scribner. Max Perkins was also the editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among other famous writers. Both Scribner and Perkins had passed away before The Old Man and the Sea was published. Hemingway’s new editor at Scribner was Wallace Meyer. Hemingway wrote to Meyer with the hope that a new book would finally put an end to the rumors that Hemingway was finished as a writer. He said the story was “The best I can write ever for all of my life” and critics and audiences largely agreed. The Old Man and the Sea elevated Hemingway’s literary reputation to new unparalleled heights. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and in 1954 Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his acceptance speech, which was delivered by John M. Cabot, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Hemingway offered a terse assessment of the life of a writer – a solitary experience that stretches out beyond known horizons. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to the Cuban people, but instead of giving his medal to the Batista government (a military dictatorship of Cuba) Hemingway donated his medal to the Catholic Church to be placed on display at the El Cobre Basilica, a small town outside Santiago de Cuba.

Hemingway first mentioned the idea for The Old Man and the Sea as early as 1936 in an interview with Esquire Magazine. The inspiration for the story was likely based, in part, on Hemingways fishing boat captain, Gregorio Fuentes, a blue-eyed Cuban fisherman with a storied history on the ocean. A portion of The Old Man and the Sea was initially published in Life Magazine and it was wildly popular. After it was officially published, Hemingway won a string of accolades. The Old Man and the Sea was made into a 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy (click here to read my review of the film). In later years, a miniseries was aired in the 1990s and a stop-action animation version was also made in the 1990s. It won an Oscar in 1999. I recently watched the animated film. It is a beautiful, impressionistic re-telling of the story.


The short novella reads like a fable. Unlike the fiendish and maddeningly obsessive quest of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, is a sympathetic character. He is hopeful but down on his luck. He is a staunch fan of baseball, and regularly compares himself to the ‘Great Dimaggio,’ or Joe Dimaggio, the famous center fielder for the New York Yankees (1936-1951). Santiago is undeterred and steadfast in his support of the Yankees even if they lose a game. He believes in the power and mythos of the ‘Great Dimaggio.’

The other fishermen of Cuba generally do not respect Santiago. He befriends a young boy named Manolin, but Manolin’s parents prevent him from fishing with Santiago because of his bad luck. Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, so he is branded unlucky (or a salao, the worst form of unluckiness). Santiago is “thin” and “gaunt” with speckled brown skin and deep blue eyes:

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated” (10).

He is a reader of newspapers (there are many references to newspapers and baseball throughout the story). In the story, we are offered little glimpses into his upbringing. As a young man, Santiago spent time along the “long golden beaches” of Africa. In his old age, Santiago now dreams of lions along those beaches -a memory of his early years growing up along the Canary Islands.

He awakens early in the morning on the eighty-fifth day without a fish and he takes his little skiff out to sea. He loves the sea. He follows a circling bird out until a huge fish catches on his line. Santiago wrestles with the fish (a marlin) for two days and nights as it drags him eastward out to sea. He watches it through the water and cannot believe how big of a fish it is (we later learn the fish is 18-feet long). However, unlike Ahab, Santiago has no antipathy toward his catch. In fact, he respects the marlin and refers to him as a brother. Exhausted, he finally catches the marlin by piercing the fish with a harpoon. As he tows the marlin back into the harbor, he battles and kills several sharks who eat some of the best meat of the fish. One shark takes Santiago’s harpoon with him down to his death, while the other sharks are struck by Santiago’s knife and oar. When he finally arrives back in the harbor, the marlin has been mostly eaten except for his head and tail.

Santiago, sore and fatigued, trudges back to his shack and collapses. The boy, Manolin, awakens Santiago in the morning with coffee and the newspaper. The boy cries at the sight of his injured hands. He describes how the townsfolk searched for Santiago when he did not return after two days. Santiago decides to donate the head of the marlin to Pedrico, another fisherman, and he gives the skeleton to Manolin so he can fashion a spear. Nearby, a group of tourists at a cafe gaze upon the great marlin still attached to Santiago’s skiff and they mistake it for a shark. At the end, Santiago goes to sleep again and he dreams of the lions on the beaches of Africa.

Here are some memorable passages from The Old Man and the Sea:

“The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with the gray blue hills behind it” (35).

“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy” (39).

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea” (60-61).


William Faulkner, at the time Hemingway’s greatest literary rival, praised the work in the following single paragraph review published in Shenandoah Magazine (a major literary magazine of Washington and Lee University):

“His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.”


And here is a copy of the text of Hemingway’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1954 (delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden on account of Hemingway’s poor health):

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

To read my notes on reading The Paris Review’s famous interview with Hemingway (1958) click here.


The 1953 Pulitzer Prize Decision
The Fiction Jury For the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 consisted of Roy W. Cowden, an English and Creative Writing Professor from the University of Michigan; and Eric P. Kelly, a Dartmouth English professor and author of children’s books -most notably The Trumpeter of Krakow (1929), winner of the Newbury Medal.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York, Scribner’s and Simon & Schuster, 2003.

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The Sicilian Expedition: Alcibiades and Nicias in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War (Books VI-VII)

Thucydides claims the Peloponnesian War is the greatest event or movement in human history, and the most important part of this great war takes place in Books VI-VII: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition.

The Sicilian Expedition represents the turning point in the war. Thucydides begins to explain the expedition by offering a history of the origins of Sicily and its people. He continues by discussing the current zeitgeist in Athens. A rising and powerful love of Athens or a fervent patriotism arises among the Athenians. The old, middle-aged, and young citizens all see an easy occupation of Sicily that will yield great riches and power (i.e. the old and young, rich and poor are all united in support of the expedition as is necessary for an empire), while the skeptics are forced into silence for fear of being unpatriotic.

Thucydides offers two contrasting views on the Sicilian proposition: Nicias, the sober-minded Athenian general (or strategos) who is fervently opposed to interventionism. Nicias was the voice for moderation in Athens. Nicias had negotiated the aptly-named Peace of Nicias previously in 421 BC which paused the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta until the Athenian Sicilian Expedition 421 BC.

In contrast to Nicias’s moderation, Thucydides also shows us Alcibiades, the demagogic follower of Socrates and bombastic son of the old Athenian aristocracy, who successfully takes up the mantel of Pericles. Alcibiades rouses the passions of the Athenian public by claiming an either/or situation with regard to Sicily. The choice is between conquering or being conquered, though the idea that Athens is facing imminent conquest is absurd. Alcibiades is a proponent of aggressive expansionism and, in the end, he wins the day and leads the expedition to Sicily. Consider the way Thucydides describes the general mood of the Athenians regarding the invasion of Sicily:

“Everyone fell in love with the enterprise. The older men thought that they would either subdue the places against which they were to sail, or at all events, with so large a force, meet with no disaster; those in the prime of life felt a longing for foreign sights and spectacles, and had no doubt that they should come safe home again; while the idea of the common people and the soldiery was to earn wages at the moment, and make conquests that would supply a never-ending fund to pay for the future. With this enthusiasm of the majority, the few that did not like it feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet” (6.24).

According to Thucydides, there is a kind of erotic love for conquest that grips the people of Athens, and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as Madison would have called it, takes hold. However, this eroticism takes different forms depending upon age and station: the older men thought their army was so powerful it could not possibly be defeated, those in the prime of their lives were longing for adventure (new things, ‘foreign sights and spectacles’), and the common people and soldiery were hungry for riches and security. In war, each group sees their own deprivation as an opportunity: strength, adventure, and riches, respectively.

At any rate, as happens with the superstitions of crowds, on the eve of the Sicilian Expedition all the stone statues of Hermes, the “Hermae,” are mutilated throughout the city of Athens. And rumors surface about drunken parties in private homes where the Mysteries of profaned (for reference see Socrates in Plato’s Symposium). Immediately, Alcibiades is blamed and it bears a foreboding sign for the expedition, while the enemies of Alcibiades hope to elevate the rule of the People, rather than leaders like Pericles and Alcibiades. These leaders win the moment and Alcibiades is brought to trial but he flees in exile to Sparta -his allegiances now in question, Alcibiades defects to the enemy. Meanwhile, the Sicilian Expedition ends in disaster as the Athenian invasion fails to claim ground, and all the retreating Athenians are slaughtered in Syracuse.

Later, Thucydides makes note of the foremost cause of ruin for the Athenian army:

“Indeed the first and foremost cause of the ruin of the Athenian army was the capture of Plemmyrium [a harbor port near Syracuse where the Athenians retreated], even the entrance of the harbor being now no longer safe for carrying in provisions, as the Syracusan vessels were stationed there to prevent it, and nothing could be brought in without fighting; besides the general impression of dismay and discouragement produced upon the army” (7.24).

In response, Athens votes to send a massive force of reinforcements led by the general Demosthenes, not be confused with the great Athenian orator and speechwriter, but the Athenian armies become separated, decimated, enslaved, starved, and both Demosthenes and Nicias are executed. A few Athenian prisoners escape to deliver the dismal news back home in Athens.

Timeline of Events in the Peloponnesian War:

  • 6th-5th Centuries BC: The Peloponnesian League is created and led by Sparta over the surrounding Peloponnesus: Corinth, Elis, Tegea, and others. Also the Delian League was created under the leadership of Athens.

  • 435 BC: The city of Epidamnus, a colony of Corcyra located right at the entrance to the Ionic Gulf, undergoes an internal revolt and requests help from Corcyra which is denied so they request help from soft rival to Corcyra, Corinth. It causes a proxy war between Corinth and Corcyra, with Corcyra winning back its colony. In response Corinth begins building up a vast navy.

  • 433 BC: Both Corinth and Corcyra call upon Athens, a fellow member of the Delian League, for aid. After both making their cases, Athens votes with an eye toward war with the Peloponnesus by siding with Corcyra. However, when both sides do battle, Corinth wins the day so they send reinforcements and the escalation calls upon the Peloponnesian League to break the standing peace treaty.

  • 432 BC: Athens fortifies its new ally Corcyra against Corinthian forces at Potidaea, as well. The Siege of Potidaea brings an end to Sparta’s inaction, with many denouncing Athens. Athens sent a fleet to Potidaea after Sparta and allies encouraged a revolt on the island in response to Athenian support for Corcyra against Corinth. Sparta declares Athens to be the aggressor and declares war on Athens.

    The powerful orator Pericles rises in Athens who is vehemently opposed to any conciliation with Sparta, in contrast to Archidamus King of Sparta, who urges caution, tact, and discipline. Sparta peddles a rumor that Athens is cursed by the goddess (thus subtly implicating Pericles as accursed). Athens, under Pericles, rejects offers to allow the Hellenes to remain free.

  • 431 BC: War begins. Thebes attacks and defeats Plataea, with Athenian help for Plataea arriving too late. Sparta invades Attica. Athens sends a fleet to attack the Pelopponesus and draw troops off their country farms. Pericles delivers his famous “Funeral Oration Speech” in Winter 431 BC.

  • 430 BC: Again Sparta invades Athens and shortly thereafter a great plague falls upon the land “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” It began perhaps in Egypt or Ethiopia and infected Athens through the Piraeus. A rumor spreads that Sparta poisons the water of Athens. The plague brings lawlessness and mass death.

    Pericles “The First Citizen” of Athens delivers a more tempered speech in Summer defending himself and wishing the Athenians had heeded all of his advice and not capitulated in any way to Sparta.

    Athens conquers Potidaea. Sparta attacks Plataea.

  • 428 BC: Sparta invades Athens again, Lesbos revolts from Athens. Mytilene turns to Sparta for help but Athens votes to spare Mytilene against the advice of Cleon a zealot and war hawk.

  • 425 BC: The Athenians outmaneuver the Spartans at Pylos under the generalship of Demosthenes (not be confused with the great Athenian orator).

  • 422 BC: War hawks Cleon (Athens) and Brasidas (Sparta) battle to the death at the Athenian colony of Amphipolis.

  • 421 BC: After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias is able to negotiate a peace – the Peace of Nicias which lasted six years.

  • 415 BC: The ill-fated Sicilian Expedition is undertaken initially by Alcibiades who takes up the expansionist agenda from Pericles and Cleon, but the expedition ends in 413 BC in spectacular failure. Both leaders Nicias and Demosthenes are executed in the surrender at Syracuse.

  • 413 BC: In order to escape punishment in Athens, Alcibiades defects to Sparta and advises them on how to attack Athens. From here, Athens was beset by revolts, both internal and external by allies, as well as a troubling alliance between Persia and Sparta.

  • 407 BC: Alcibiades returns to Athens only to be exiled once again over questions of his loyalty.

  • 404 BC: Athens finally surrenders to Spartan general Lysander who defeated the Athenian navy and claimed the Dardanelles, a chief source of Athenian grain. Amidst death and starvation Athens surrenders. Sparta welcomes Athens into its network of allies but destroys Athens’s wall, navy, and riches.


For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

The Norman Kings (1066-1154)

After the death of William The Conqueror his kingdom was divided between his sons: Robert was given Dukedom of Normandy, William II was given the Kingship of England, and Henry was awarded riches. This uneasy arrangement was all but certain to cause tension.

William II was the second surviving son of William The Conqueror. He was called William “Rufus” or William “The Red” because of his ruddy complexion (long red-blond hair, piercing eyes, and a stammer). In general, history has not been kind to William Rufus. Unlike his devout father, William II was openly hostile to the Church, flaunting sacred customs, and he was almost assuredly a homosexual (he had many ‘special male friends’). He never married. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterizes William Rufus as an effeminate dandy dressed in outrageous garb, openly disparaging of Church customs, and yet he was still a ruthless tactician toward his enemies, particularly when fighting his brother Robert of Normandy and expanding the reach of his kingdom. English historian A.L. Poole, the author of From Domesday to Magna Carta (1951), called William Rufus ‘probably the worst king that has occupied the throne from a moral standpoint.’

Matthew of Paris’s depiction of William Rufus from the 12th century

William Rufus was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey in September 1087. Shortly after his coronation his brother Robert Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel with his army and attacked England. Robert roused the nobles of England who stood in opposition to William’s blatant disregard for religious tradition, but William ultimately won the battle and peace was restored between the two brothers. The great barons owned properties on both sides of the Channel (in Normandy as well as in England) and they stood to benefit from infighting between William and Duke Robert. Despite William’s victory over Robert, baronial revolts were frequent. William finally solidified his leadership only when Robert angrily departed on the First Crusade to fight the Saracens and essentially loaned Normandy to England in his absence.

William further inflamed the passions of the faithful when he struggled to assert himself over the English clerical leadership. At first he maintained a mutually tolerable relationship with Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc, but when the gentle Archbishop died in 1089, William delayed a new appointment for several years until eventually appointing the saintly Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Tensions quickly grew between the two leaders as William committed open blasphemy against the Church, and so Anselm, a fierce critic of William Rufus, was eventually forced into exile in France and he remained there until William’s death.

William Rufus’s untimely death is a fascinating tale. Like most men of the time, William was an avid hunter. One day while out in his private forest, the aptly named ‘New Forest,’ William was accidentally struck dead by an ill-fired arrow by Walter Tirel, a nobleman (one of the earliest accounts of his death comes down to us from the writings of William of Malmesbury in 1125). The loose arrow killed the king immediately, and in a panic, the group dispersed and left the body of William Rufus lying cold and alone in the forest. His corpse was not discovered until the following day by a group of peasants who carried the king’s body all the way to Winchester for burial. Conspiracy theories have abounded throughout the ages: was William Rufus murdered? Was there a plot to kill the uncouth king? The most obvious benefactor of the king’s death was William’s younger brother, Henry, who was also a member of the fateful hunting party. However, there have been other elaborate theories involving the King of France who was opposed to William’s expansionist efforts beyond Normandy. Other conspiracies involve secret dealings with the devil and witchcraft, likely stemming from William’s irreligious nature. To many of the country noblemen William’s death was a deliverance from an immoral king. Winston Churchill describes William’s death as follows: “…he was mysteriously shot through the head [or chest] by an arrow while hunting the New Forest, leaving a memory of shameless extractions and infamous morals, but also a submissive realm to his successor” (76).

An illustration of the death of William Rufus

Within three days, William’s younger brother Prince Henry had marshaled his supporters, secured the treasury, and was crowned king at Westminster Abbey. Thus Henry I began his reign in August 1100. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and he was sometimes called “beaclerc” (or “good clerk”) because of a lifelong love of learning, or “clerkship.” Orderic Vitalis wrote in his 12th century Ecclesiastical History that Henry “was well instructed in both natural philosophy and knowledge of doctrine.”

Henry I successfully repaired the crown’s relationship with the Church after it had been so disparaged during the reign of his elder brother. For example, he recalled Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury from exile and reinstated long-standing customs. Henry’s court also condemned the decadence of William II’s era by ordering new dress codes -all the men of the court were promptly ordered to cut their long hair short. He cast William’s unpopular adviser, Ranulf Flambard, to the Tower of London, and Henry elevated the country’s financial and judicial concerns into the capable hands of his trusted adviser, Roger Bishop of Salisbury. At this point sophisticated bureaucracy begins to appear in England (the word coming from the French writing desk or “bureau”).

Matthew Paris’s 13th century depiction of Henry I

Shortly after his accession to the crown, Henry’s brother Robert, newly returned from the First Crusade, attempted to lay claim to the English crown but the two settled peaceably with Henry renouncing his claim to Normandy. However, as time went by Henry made calculated moves and alliances with the Barons surrounding Normandy, eventually ending in several invasions which led to Robert’s defeat in the early 12th century. He was imprisoned until his death in 1134. Thus, Henry was successful in reuniting his father’s realms. The Chronicler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle honored Henry with the title “Lion of Justice” as the people often called him in his day, because he successfully reunited the lands of England, Normandy, and Maine (a province of France).

Henry was a strong but opportunistic monarch, yet medieval historians have disparaged him for being a licentious king. He sired more bastards than any other English monarch (over twenty illegitimate children from six different mistresses). Certain historians like William of Malmesbury tried in vain to mask his character flaws by suggesting the good king merely desired more children.

Henry married Edith in 1100 (who went by Matilda to sound more ‘Norman’). She was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and St. Margaret (sister of Edgar the Aetheling), thus she was the last link to the Anglo-Saxon bloodline to ever sit on the throne of England. Henry’s marriage was a calculated effort to connect his rulership with the House of Wessex -the praiseworthy lineage of Alfred the Great. Matilda bore Henry two children who survived past infancy: a son named William and a daughter also named Matilda. Tragically, Henry’s only male heir, William, died in a shipwreck in the English Channel while en route to England from Normandy. The incident has come to be known as the sinking of the White Ship (1120), and it caused a crisis over the succession of the crown. In response, Henry announced that his daughter Matilda (“Maud”) would succeed him, rather than his nephew Stephen (the Count of Blois) or any number of Henry’s illegitimate heirs (the principle of succession by the closest blood relative had not yet been established). The crisis of succession was a fateful occurrence that would lead to a prolonged 20 year civil war throughout the land.

Early 14th century depiction of Henry I and the sinking of the White Ship

Henry I’s daughter Matilda, or “Maud” as the English called her, was betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany. Thus she is often remembered as the “Empress Matilda.” It was a childless marriage and it did not last long. She became a widowed Empress at the age of 22 in 1122 when Henry V died, and she was later married to Geoffrey the Count of Anjou. This second marriage was a loveless partnership. Nevertheless, empress Matilda was indeed an impressive woman. She was a fierce, cynical, and proud politician who thrived in her role as monarch. It was said that she had the “nature of a man in the frame of a woman” but her successes are best remembered in her offspring. Matilda or “Maud” gave birth to one of the greatest kings of England: the future Henry II (or “Henry Plantagenet” the son of Geoffrey of Anjou). The Plantagenets became the future rulers of England for 400 years.

Stephen, on the other hand, was the son of Adela of Normandy (daughter of William The Conqueror and sister of Henry I). Upon the death of his father Stephen-Henry in 1102, Stephen inherited the Countship of Blois in central France. He was known as a well-liked, easy-going man among the baronial elite.

At any rate, Henry I spent his greying elder years securing promises of submission to Matilda’s succession in an effort to prevent a future civil war. At one point, he summoned all the barons to receive their sworn allegiances to Matilda. Up until this point, Henry had maintained thirty years of relative peace and security across the English isle. While abroad in 1135 he fell ill and died unexpectedly, perhaps due to complications from eating excessive lampreys (fish).

Immediately following the death of Henry I, the stability of the monarchy fell into disarray. The chaotic era became known to latter day historians as “The Anarchy” (when Christ and his saints all slept, per Peter Ackroyd). Matilda was away in Anjou with her husband when the elder King Henry died, and immediately Stephen (Henry’s nephew and Count of Blois, grandson of William The Conqueror) charged toward London from Normandy and claimed the crown. He had previously sworn allegiance to Matilda, but he knew well that many of the magnates had no wish to be governed by a woman. Stephen’s rulership brought deep divisions among the barons (including fierce opposition from Henry’s bastard son Robert of Gloucester who was a loyalist of Matilda) and the decisive choice to crown Stephen was made by the Church regarding Stephen. Meanwhile, King David of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded England from the north and took Northumbria, but the Archbishop of York mustered his forces and fought a ferocious battle against the invaders called the Battle of the Standard. It became the prelude to civil war.

In 1139, Matilda freed herself from entanglements in France and returned to England to claim the throne. Many of the barons, dismayed by Stephen’s weaknesses (Stephen, as it turned out, made a better soldier than a king), joined forces with Matilda along with the Church and in 1141 a general rebellion broke out against Stephen. He was imprisoned at the Battle of Lincoln, a battle which saw Stephen overwhelmed while trying to storm the castle at Lincoln. Stephen’s own brother, Henry the Bishop of Winchester, joined Matilda’s side. During this period, the barons took advantage of the lack of leadership by claiming any and all riches for themselves according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They stole themselves away into vast castles throughout the countryside to bide their time while country tore itself apart. However, thanks to the quick work of Stephen’s wife (who was also named Matilda) Stephen was released from prison and he narrowly escaped recapture.

Throughout this conflict mistakes were made on both sides. It was a war between cousins, a chess match of castles won or lost. Despite not having a coronation ceremony, Matilda was the de facto ruler of England for several months in 1141, however London rose up in open rebellion and forced Matilda out of the city. She was accustomed to ruling imperiously and the city was loyal to Stephen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler describes Matilda as haughty and intolerable -an arrogant and cold ruler. The entire region fell into a chaotic civil war for six more years, and with the death of Robert of Gloucester (Henry I’s bastard son and the one true loyalist of Matilda) all eyes fell on Matilda’s young son, Prince Henry to bring law and order back to the land. Eventually, Matilda left England and returned to Normandy where her son’s powerful kingdom was on the rise, but she never stopped advocating for Henry’s accession to the throne in England. In November 1153 it was the Church that brought the two sides together with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester, a treaty which forced Stephen to recognize Prince Henry as his heir. Within a year Stephen would be dead (perhaps due to an intestinal infection, though some suspect poison) and Henry of Anjou (son of Matilda) was set to become king.

Timeline of the Norman Monarchs:

  • William The Conqueror (December 25, 1066 – September 9, 1087)

    • Spouse: Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders
    • Bastard son of Robert Duke of Normandy (hence the moniker “William The Bastard”)
    • Duke of Normandy from the Viking bloodline. He conquered all of England following his decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings (October 14, 1066)
  • William II, William “Rufus” (September 26, 1087 – August 2, 1100)

    • Spouse: Unmarried
    • The second son of William The Conqueror, William Rufus was known as an unpleasant man who openly flaunted the sacred customs of the Church. He was likely a homosexual, never married, and was an unpopular ruler.
    • William Rufus was killed in a mysterious hunting accident in the New Forest.
  • Henry I “Henry Beauclerc” (August 5, 1100 – December 1, 1135)

    • Spouses: Edith (went by the name Matilda to sound more Norman) daughter of Edgar the Aetheling; Adela, daughter of the Count of Louvain.
    • Henry I was present at the hunting party where his brother was killed. He wasted no time in mourning and was crowned King of England three days later at Westminster Abbey.
    • Henry I repaired relationships with the Church and united his lands abroad, but he was a licentious man siring over 20 bastard children.
    • Henry’s only legitimate son William died in the tragic White Ship sinking. This caused a crisis of succession which eventually led to a prolonged civil war.
  • “The Anarchy” (1135-1153)

    • A 20 year civil war between Henry’s nephew Stephen Count of Blois, and Henry’s legitimate daughter and appointed heir Matilda (“Maud”). The period ended when Matilda’s son Henry (soon to be Henry II of the Plantagenet house) became king.
    • Stephen initially claimed the throne in 1135 despite prior promises to support Matilda. He was briefly captured and imprisoned in the mayhem and Matilda became Queen in 1141.
    • The two sides settled, thanks to the intervention of the Church, with the signing of the Treaty of Winchester in 1153 which acknowledged Henry as heir to the throne.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Matthew Paris’s chronicles, the writings of A.L. Poole, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Octopussy

Octopussy (1983) Director: John Glen

★☆☆☆☆

The thirteenth canonical Eon James Bond film, or the scandalously titled “Octopussy,” is also the sixth Bond film to star the silly and dapper Roger Moore. The film takes its title from Ian Fleming’s short story found in Octopussy and The Living Daylights -a short story collection published in 1967. The film’s plot borrows very little from the original short story.

Once again, John Glen direct’s the film (he worked on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker; and then he directed For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View To Kill, The Living Daylights, and License To Kill).

There was a background controversy underlying the release of the film. Sean Connery had signed on to reprise his role as James Bond in the non-Eon film Never Say Never Again, much to Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s chagrin. The two films locked horns in competition for revenue, and derailed Roger Moore’s plans to retire from playing James Bond (thus ending Josh Brolin’s chance to appear as Bond) and ultimately Eon’s Octopussy ($187.5M) beat out Warner Bros.’s Never Say Never Again ($160M). Nevertheless, Octopussy is another mostly forgettable Bond movie rife with campy jokes and a really ridiculous plot that takes Bond on an adventure chasing Faberge eggs dressed as a circus clown through locales like East Berlin and India.

The film opens with a slapstick-riddled action sequence with Bond undercover at a communist military establishment, perhaps in Cuba, but Bond escapes thanks to an attractive woman at his side. However, the central plot of the film is driven by the assassination of 009 while serving as an undercover clown escaping the Soviets while moving from East to West Berlin. He crashes through a window carrying a Faberge egg, a jeweled egg created by the Russian House of Faberge as a gift for the Russian Empire. However, the egg is proven to be a fake. Bond is sent by MI6 to an auction for the egg where he quickly identifies the purchaser, Kamal Khan, the former Afghan prince (played by French actor Louis Jourdan). Amidst an affair with Magda, a new Bond girl, James Bond is captured and brought to Khan’s palace where he discovers that Khan is working with Orlov, an expansionist Soviet general (played by British actor Steven Berkoff). Bond escapes and is led on an adventure through India where, in a particularly cheesy scene, Bond meets his contact, Vijay on the street who is playing the famous Bond theme while disguised as a snake-charmer. Vijay is played by Vijay Amritraj, the famous tennis player, and his scenes in the film are filled with amusing tennis jokes.

Bond tracks his way to a floating island palace occupied by an ‘Octopus cult’ led by a jewel smuggler named Octopussy (played by Maud Adams who also starred as a Bond Girl in The Man With The Golden Gun). He learns about the smuggling operation between Orlov and Khan via fraudulent circus troupe. Bond infiltrates the circus and uncovers a plot to detonate a nuclear warhead and spearhead a war between Europe and the United States. Bond trails the bomb to a train headed for West Germany, kills the assassins, including Orlov, and escapes dressed as a clown in yet another silly stunt. In the end, he persuades Octopussy to join him and disable the nuclear warhead and defeat Khan. They do so in a plane over India where Khan finds his ultimate demise.

Rita Coolidge performed the theme song for Octopussy, “All Time High.” It is a decent but melodramatic ’80s theme song for such a poor film.