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First, this question needs to be moved to the Discussion Board. I am sure you will get many different answers.
I tend to believe that stories like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is not over-rated. Instead, it is a story that allows a different perspective on life and the struggles which mankind must face. The story deals with relevant themes (the human condition, love, youth and age, and luck versus skill). Today's students certainly need an education in these themes.
But, I can see where the story may leave some readers feeling detached. While the story works for those near coasts, with fishing being generational, it is hard to relate to if one is a student from the Midwest or states which do not depend upon the trade.
While there are many novels which examine similar themes, for those who have read the text, the novel normally remains timeless.
The Old Man and the Sea, therefore, is no different from any text. Some people like it, some people do not. It really depends upon personal preferences and how one teaches it (if that is where the question is being posed from).
The Old Man and the Sea is not my favorite Hemingway novel (I love The Sun Also Rises), but it is still among the finest novels of the 20th century. Hemingway's output was so outstanding that it's easy to call some of his work overrated. I was not a big Hemingway fan when I was younger, but his genius became evident as I got older.
I can't imagine Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea being judged an over-rated book. His themes, in a story written in the 1950s, still speak to a modern audience. Santiago is a man of enduring strength and hope. Even in feeling "the big one got away" (in a sense), the sharks' damage of the marlin still leaves behind an eighteen-foot skeleton that proves to the other sailors that Santiago's skills are still strong and that he is still "seaworthy." I find that in some ways Santiago is "everyman:" thoughtful of his past, concerned about the present and hesitant regarding the future—but still as he faces what he considers failure, he does not quit. His character is admirable. In my opinion, this is not an over-rated novel.
One way, perhaps, to appreciate the story more fully (in both senses of the word "appreciate") might be to take a look at what can be said about just some specific paragraphs of the book. If I may put in a plug for a recent work of mine, I do this in a new two-volume set called The American Novel: Understanding Literature through Close Reading. I talk about several different passages in this novel in considerable detail (it's one of 150 novels discussed). If you send me a message through eNotes, I will be glad to pass along those discussions to you.
Alternatively, you may also want to pick a brief passage of your own choosing and post it here in the discussion forum and see how people here respond to the passage.
My first inclination is to say that it isn't. The beauty and genius of this novel is the way in which Hemingway presents us in an allegorical form the struggles of being human in an indifferent world, and how he manages to touch on the dignity of being human in such a world. Whilst it certainly may not be the most developed of his novels in terms of theme etc, it is clear that simplicity itself can be a virtue, and this novel certainly is far more accessible than his various other works.
Maybe the surprising thing about this little novel is that it won Hemingway the Pulitzer where The Sun Also Risesdid not and A Farewell to Arms did not. Hemingway also won that award with For Whom the Bell Tolls, which means that his longest and his shortest novels were, by this standard, his best.
In my opinion, The Old Man and the Sea is a great book. It's very readable and charged with meaning. Not all the meaning exists on the surface level of the novel and that is a testament to Hemingway's skill (and it makes the book very re-readable).
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