Essays and Criticism
The Old Man and the Sea: An Overview
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is a study of man’s place in a world of violence and destruction. It is a story in which Hemingway seems to suggest that, at least in the natural order, man can find his own dignity and beauty in learning to understand the mystery of human power that is at the heart of so much that appears violent and cruel. As such, it is a brilliant expression of the stoicism which characterized so much of Ernest Hemingway’s work as a novelist and a short story writer.
The novel deals with the concept of courage, but courage is objectified in the narrative. The novelist never seems to have had much faith in either concepts or ideals. Hemingway and his heroes simply turn their backs on a sick society and all efforts to cure it. They will have none of the sociological, the metaphysical, the spiritual—the World War had made a ghastly farce of all such pretentious activity. They fall back on primal instincts and emotions, reducing life to its simplest elements: physical sensations.(1)
The Old Man and the Sea presents a world in which man and beast survive and are at their best only when acting courageously. For “in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage.”(2) Santiago, the old fisherman, after hunting for eighty-four days, finally lands a giant Marlin. In his staunch belief that there is a big fish waiting for him, Santiago achieves respect and dignity. It is enhanced when he struggles with the great fish: “Christ, I did not know he was so big. I'll kill him, though,” he says, “In all his greatness and his glory.”(3) In the exercise of the physicality of both man and fish, Hemingway is demonstrating a kind of nobility that exists only in this world when two creatures achieve brotherhood in a trial of endurance which demands every ounce of strength and every skill they possess.
In the novel, life is portrayed as a constant preparation for the test that proves the worth of a creature. When Santiago wakens his young friend, he apologizes for getting him up so early. “It is what a man must do,”(4) the boy replies. Every one knows the price that must “be paid for dignity, self-respect, even fulfillment. Therefore, the physical combat takes on a certain heroic tone since it is the most fitting act any creature can perform in life. Santiago’s body is covered with signs of age and wounds from the sea; but these battle scars seem to be more in the nature of medals than sources of weakness or exhaustion:
When the boy came back the old man was asleep in the chair and the sun was down. The boy took the old army blanket off the bed and spread it over the back of the chair and over the old man’s shoulders. They were strange shoulders, still powerful although very old, and the neck was still strong too and the creases did not show so much when the old man was asleep and his head fallen forward.(5)
There is dignity, too, in the manner in which the old fisherman accepts the challenge of each new day’s hunts:
He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she was wild or wicked it was because she could not help that. The moon affects her, he thought.(6)
Santiago philosophically accepts whatever the sea offers, as he would countenance favor or rejection from a lovely lady. Thus, his struggle has a grace, a sympathy that can extend itself as indeed it does to the giant creature that will give him the greatest battle of his life.
The theme of man’s need for courage to achieve his own dignity and destiny permeates The Old Man and the Sea. The actualization of this ideal can even be seen in the moments when Santiago and the boy entertain themselves. They speak of baseball and the great DiMaggio and John J. McGraw. All of life to these simple fishing people is reduced to struggle and conflict. But there is graciousness in their acceptance of the grim reality and pride in their ability to bring the best of what they are to that struggle.
In a discussion of the Hemingway style, Ray B. Vest, Jr. quotes a criticism of the novelist’s approach: “The short simple rhythms, the succession of coordinate clauses, and the general lack of subordination—all suggest a dislocated, ununified world.”(7) In the opinion of this reader, such an accusation cannot be directed at The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago’s world is a very unified one; its singlemindedness is strengthened by the simplicity of the narrative which alternates between omniscient teller and dialogue between characters. There is a scriptural clarity in the work which seems to emphasize one aspect of reality in such a way...
(The entire section is 2077 words.)