The Old Man and the Sea Essay - Critical Context

Ernest Hemingway

Critical Context

Ernest Hemingway published “On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter” in Esquire magazine in April, 1936. It is an essay about marlin fishing and mentions an old sailor who hooked a marlin that towed him for days, was too big to get aboard, and was gnawed by sharks. In 1950, Hemingway published Across the River and into the Trees, which was so poor that many reviewers wrote him off as finished. Two years later, however, he rebounded with The Old Man and the Sea, a brilliant expansion of “On the Blue Water.” It was first published in Life magazine on September 1, 1952, which sold more than 5,300,000 copies in two days. When the story was published in book form, it became a runaway best-seller in the United States and England. It made its author a fortune, augmented by rights paid for the rather poor 1958 film based on it and starring Spencer Tracy. It is more significant that the book earned for its author the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1952 and contributed to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Although The Old Man and the Sea may tease would-be explicators, it is a perennial favorite of young readers. It is a rousing quest narrative. It has a hero whose virtues are worth remembering and emulating. It teaches readers to guard against pride, to set workable limits to laudable goals, and—above all else—to love and respect God’s beautiful creatures even as one must struggle daily to survive in a world red in tooth and claw.