The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
The following entry represents criticism of Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea. See also, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" Criticism, "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" Criticism, and Ernest Hemingway Criticism.
This 26,500-word novella, a simple narrative fable about the struggles of a poor Cuban fisherman in his quest for a giant marlin, earned Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Award of Merit Medal for the Novel in 1953, and played a large part in his winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature. Written in spare, journalistic prose with minimal action and only two principle characters, the work is at once a realistic depiction of the events and locale described and a symbolic exploration of the human struggle with the natural world, the human capacity to transcend hardship, and personal triumph won from defeat. Although Hemingway claimed that in the novella he "tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks," the work is rich in imagery suggestive of deeper meanings than appear on the surface. As Hemingway remarked, The Old Man and the Sea is written on the "principle of the iceberg": seven-eighths of it is underwater for every part that shows.
Most critics agree that the novella was written in 1951, although there has been some speculation it was conceived much earlier. This is probably because the story has its roots in a 1936 essay that Hemingway published in Esquire, "A Gulf Stream Letter," which includes a description of an old man fishing alone in a skiff who hooked a great marlin that pulled him far out to sea. The man was picked up two days later with the giant fish, half-eaten by sharks, lashed alongside his boat. Such an event is at the center of the novella. However, it seems clear that while the main action of the story is informed by an earlier occurrence, the novella in style and execution is one of Hemingway's mature works. The focus of the story is a departure from his earlier efforts, as he turns away from the themes of love and war and the artifices of society to explore the inner consciousness of a single man as he fights against natural forces. And many of the concerns and motifs in his earlier writings—including human courage and prowess; the search for dignity amidst the harshness of the world; the stoic hero who lives by his own code of values; the ability to function with "grace under pressure"; and the images of the athlete, animals, and Christ—are given their most perfect, understated expression in this story.
Hemingway originally wrote The Old Man and the Sea as part of a tetralogy of short novels making up what he called "The Sea Book." No such multivolume work was ever published, but the other sections of this effort were eventually included in his posthumous novel, Islands in the Stream (1970). After completing the novella and receiving warm praise from friends, Hemingway agreed to let the story be published in a single issue of LIFE magazine, for which he received $40,000. Upon its release by Charles Scribner's Sons, the work was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, which earned him another $21,000. The book was an immediate bestseller and was received favorably by most reviewers, a welcome relief to Hemingway after the almost universally negative response to his previous novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950). For fifteen years after its publication The Old Man and the Sea was seen as a masterwork, confirming Hemingway's literary status and eliciting comparison with Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Few critics since the late 1960s have seen the work in such approving terms, however, and although the novella continues to be read widely, often as a required text for younger students of literature, its reputation as one of the great works of American literature is by no means secure. Like Hemingway himself, the book has virulent detractors and loyal defenders. There are those who condemn the novella's self-conscious simplicity in style, glorification of violence, sexism, crude symbolism, and sentimentality, while others continue to admire its spare beauty, symbolic complexity, and its recognition of the human capacity to endure.
Plot and Major Characters
The action of the novella takes place over four days in September in a small Cuban town, in Cuban waters, and in the Gulf Stream. It opens with an explanation that an old fisherman, Santiago, has not caught a single fish for eighty-four days. At first a young boy, Manolin, had accompanied him, but after the fortieth day of not taking fish, his father had instructed the boy to leave the luckless old man and go with another boat. So Santiago fishes alone in his skiff, returning home each evening empty-handed. In the first exchange between Santiago and Manolin, we learn that despite obeying his father out of duty, the boy still has faith in Santiago, and loves him; the old man taught him how to fish, and they once had good luck together. Manolin knows the old man is poor—he lives in a shack, has no food, fresh bait, or even a cast net, even though he says he does, and he reads yesterday's newspapers. In the evenings the boy brings supper for them to share; Santiago accepts his kindness with graceful humility. Over dinner the two talk about luckier times or about American baseball and the great Joe DiMaggio. At night, Santiago dreams of Africa and the lions on the beach he saw there as a boy; he no longer dreams of his dead wife.
On the eighty-fifth day, before dawn, Santiago rows his small boat far out to sea, setting his lines with the bait Manolin has given him. He sees sea turtles and a large man-of-war bird circling overhead, which shows him where there are dolphins and flying fish; with the bird's help, he finds and catches a tuna, which he plans to use as bait. Around noon, with his line a hundred fathoms down in the purple waters, the old man feels a bite on the line and knows he has hooked a big fish, a marlin. The fish begins to tow the boat northwest, and Santiago holds on waiting for it to grow tired, talking aloud to himself and to the sea creatures—including porpoises and a small warbler threatened by hawks—and wishing the boy were with him. After sunset Santiago feels a tug on his remaining bait and cuts that line, fearing the smaller fish he has hooked might cut off the marlin. The big fish lurches, pulling the man down on his face so he cuts himself below the eye. With his left hand stiff and cramped, Santiago talks to the marlin, vowing he will stay with it until he is dead, but explaining also that he loves and respects the fish and understands its struggle. He says he is not religious, but he will says ten "Our Fathers" and ten "Hail Marys" and make a pilgrimage if he catches the fish. The fish lurches again, cutting Santiago's right hand. Exhausted, Santiago eats the raw tuna to keep up his strength and waits for dawn.
The next morning, the marlin shows itself as it jumps out of the water. It is two feet longer than the skiff with a sword as long as a baseball bat; this was the biggest fish the man has ever seen, well over a thousand pounds. The fish pulls the boat eastward, and Santiago tries to forget his aching old body by remembering the time when he had been called El Campeón because of his prowess as a wrestler. That evening, he catches a dolphin, which he cuts into fillets, and at night he sleeps, dreaming of porpoises and of lions on the beach.
Shortly after sunrise, the marlin begins to circle and Santiago tries to bring the fish closer to the boat. He does so finally, and drives a harpoon into its side and lashes his catch to the bow and stern of the skiff. The enormous fish will make his fortune, he thinks, as never was such a catch brought into Havana harbor. He sets sail toward home. An hour later, he sees a shark, which has smelled the blood of the marlin. The shark attacks the dead fish before Santiago kills it with his harpoon, which is lost in the battle. More sharks come, tearing and devouring the marlin and Santiago kills them also, first using his oar, then his knife, and then the boat's tiller. He steers toward Havana as even more sharks tear at the body of the fish. He regrets now that he has gone too far out and the sharks have beaten him.
It is late at night when Santiago arrives back at the harbor. He beaches his boat, leaving the carcass of the fish still tied to the stern. He unsteps the mast and puts it over his shoulders as he climbs, exhausted, to his shack. He falls down five times before reaching home, and then lies down, face down on his bed with arms out straight and the palms of his hands facing up. Manolin sees him sleeping the next morning, and cries at the sight of his old friend. As the boy goes to bring the old man some coffee, he meets fishermen who have gathered around the skiff, amazed at the giant marlin, which, they tell him measures eighteen feet from nose to tail. When Manolin wakes Santiago, the old man tells him he has been beaten, and the boy understands he means not by the fish, but by the sharks. The boy asks to keep the marlin's spear and tells Santiago to rest so they can go out together and fish again.
That afternoon, a party of tourists at the bar sees the enormous carcass of the fish, and a woman asks the waiter what it is. He say in Spanish that it is a marlin, then says "shark" to explain what happened to it. The woman and her companion think it is a shark, remarking they didn't know sharks had such handsome tails. In the meantime, up the road, with Manolin watching him, Santiago sleeps and dreams about lions.
Despite the mixed critical reaction to The Old Man and the Sea, there is little disagreement about the central meaning of novella. It has been viewed by most critics on its most basic level as a story of one man's courage and, by extension, of human beings' heroic quest and attendant struggle with nature. However, it has been pointed out, nature, as symbolized in one form by the fish, is not a malignant force but one that is to be respected for its power. Santiago, through his endurance, conquers the fish while recognizing it as a worthy foe, but in the end is defeated by another natural entity, the sharks. Santiago's noble battle can also been seen as an account of humans' search for meaning in a harsh world. As with Hemingway's other heroes, the nature of Santiago's struggle—done with prowess, grace, and pride even in loss—is what ultimately confers meaning to his existence.
Much of the novella's imagery, interwoven into a tight tapestry, reinforces the central idea. The man-of-war bird that chases the flying fish, the lions in the old man's dreams, the great DiMaggio who continues to play despite the pain of injury, and the tired warbler being chased by hawks, all echo Santiago's situation. The intertwining symbols—the marlin's sword is "as long as baseball bat," the sharks' teeth are like human hands, Santiago's hand, holding the fishing line, is "as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle"—also serve to point to another theme, of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. Santiago says that "everything kills everything else," and obversely, as we see in Manolin's and Santiago's relationship and in the man-of-war aiding the fisherman, all things nourish other things and keep them alive.
As many critics have noted, the many biblical allusions underscore the novella's themes of suffering, redemption, hope, faith, love, and endurance. Santiago is at once a sinner who has "gone too far out" and a Christ-like figure who bears the burden of trying to achieve the impossible and is victorious even in defeat. Like Christ, he is a fisherman; he lives on charity; he lacerates his hands during his struggle; he carries his mast across his shoulders like a cross and falls down five times; he sleeps in cruciform position at the end of his ordeal. The boy Manolin keeps his faith in the old man, and is an embodiment of uncorrupted youth and hope, the figure to whom the fisherman finally passes the marlin's spear, a symbol of heroic vitality.
The publication of Hemingway's sea story in LIFE was met with approval by most reviewers, with the magazine selling over five million copies in two days. The Scribner's edition of The Old Man and the Sea topped bestseller lists for six months after its release. The novelist William Faulkner found the work to be Hemingway's best, venturing even that it was perhaps the best single piece of any of his contemporaries. Other critics echoed these sentiments, admiring its technical accomplishment, lyrical and rhythmic prose, and elegantly direct symbolism. However, the chant of praise was not unanimous, and the noted critics Philip Rahv and John Aldridge called the work minor, faulting its elemental emotion, colorless style, and lack of complexity because it dealt primarily with the physical and not the psychic world of the hero. Despite its detractors, the novella went on to earn Hemingway the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize the following year. A film version of the book, starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago, appeared in 1958. From 1952 to 1966, most commentaries on the novella were reverential, and humanistic critics like Philip Young, Leo Gurko, and Clinton S. Burhans admired the book's noble and tragic hero, its veneration for humanity, and notions of fraternal interdependence. Other commentators, including the well-known Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker, welcomed the elegantly presented Christian themes, including Santiago's piety and suffering, his saintly humility, and the idea of redemption from meaningless existence.
After 1966 came a shift in assessment. Young, who had earlier praised the work, withdrew his earlier adulation, objecting to its affected simplicity, and Robert P. Weeks pointed out its lack of realistic detail. By the mid-1970s few articles on the novella appeared in scholarly journals, and those that were published tended to concentrate on uncovering previously undetected biblical, baseball, or other allusions. The 1980s and 1990s saw even less critical interest in the work, with longer studies about Hemingway often dismissing the novella as using crude symbolism and lapsing repeatedly into sentimentality. Despite its fall from grace, the novella continues to enjoy a reputation as Hemingway's most distinctive fictional effort, and one in which can be found many of the ideas that informed both his work and his life.
Three Stories & Ten Poems 1923
in our time [revised edition published as In Our Time, 1925] 1924
Men without Women 1927
Winner Take Nothing 1933
Fifth Column and the First Forty-nine Stories (short stories and play) 1938
The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1938
The Old Man and the Sea (novella) 1952
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories 1961
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Other Stories 1963
(The entire section is 170 words.)
SOURCE: "With Grace Under Pressure," in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, edited by Carlos Baker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962, pp. 132-34.
[In the following early review, originally published in The New Republic in 1952, Schorer points out some flaws in The Old Man and the Sea, then goes on to call Hemingway "the greatest craftsman in the American novel in this century" and asserts that the excitement of the novella comes from its parable-like quality, as it tells of the struggle of the artist as he strives to master his subject.]
The only guts that are mentioned in this story are the veritable entrails of fish, but we are nevertheless...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway's Old Man and the Iceberg," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. VII, No. 4, Winter, 1961-62, pp. 295-304.
[In the following essay, Stephens argues that The Old Man and the Sea is the most perfect expression and "crest of the iceberg" in Hemingway's tragic vision — which pervades all of his work — of man as animal attempting to transcend his animal nature.]
When Ernest Hemingway told George Plimpton of The Paris Review about his iceberg theory of writing, he pointed to The Old Man and the Sea as a prime example of such writing. According to the theory, "I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg....
(The entire section is 4675 words.)
SOURCE: "Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1962, pp. 188-92.
[In the following essay, Weeks enumerates the errors in descriptive detail in The Old Man and the Sea, pointing out that the realism characteristic of Hemingway's "better work" is absent in the novella and taking this as an indication that Hemingway's "view of the world has gone soft"]
From the vignettes and stories of his first book, In Our Time, to his last, The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway repeatedly made skillful use of animals to epitomize the subjective state or the situation of his characters. Nick Adams' trout...
(The entire section is 3040 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway's Ancient Mariner," in Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels, edited by Carlos Baker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962, pp. 156-72.
[In the following revision of an essay that first appeared in his influential 1956 work Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, Baker argues that Hemingway's particular understanding of the notion of "Wahrheit," or "Truth, "finds its greatest expression in The Old Man and the Sea; that Santiago is a Christ-like hero in touch with his true nature; and that the boy Manolin stands for the old man's lost youth. He goes on to comment on the movement of struggle, deprivation, and triumph in the novella.]...
(The entire section is 11768 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and the Male Reader," in The American Imago, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1963, pp. 161-73.
[In the following essay, Hofling offers a psychoanalytic reading of The Old Man and the Sea, contending that for the adult male reader of the story, Santiago serves both as a father figure and someone who, because of his "victory-in-defeat" or lack of adult success, brings to mind a regressive "latency" experience of adolescence.]
In psychoanalytically-oriented literary criticism there are three principal ways in which a composition may be approached. The critic may study the protagonist from a clinical, a dynamic, and,...
(The entire section is 4675 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway and Old Age: Santiago as Priest of Time," in College English, Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 215-20.
[In the following essay, Cooperman considers The Old Man and the Sea a "poem of reconciliation to the meaning and nature of age," maintaining that Hemingway fails to view old age in any other terms but through the values of pride, sacrifice, and endurance, and as a hardening rather than a softening of the qualities found in youth.]
The preoccupation of Ernest Hemingway with individual courage, will, and endurance—the need for self-contained action, ritualized form, precision of motion (and emotion), and—perhaps most important—the...
(The entire section is 3666 words.)
SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea: A New Hemingway Hero," in Discourse: A Review of the Liberal Arts, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 283-94.
[In the following essay, Hovey rejects earlier interpretations of Santiago as a Christ-figure and Aristotelian tragic hero, seeing him rather as a more believable character than those found in Hemingway's other works; he is representative of the human race and the novella "reconciles us to our human condition."]
In 1950 Hemingway embarrassed us with his worst book, Across the River and into the Trees. Two years later, he astonished us with The Old Man and the Sea. Somehow he had regained control of...
(The entire section is 5177 words.)
SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea: Vision/Revision," in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of "The Old Man and the Sea," Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 18-26.
[In the following two-part essay, the first part of which appeared in 1952 and the second of which is a 1966 commentary on the earlier reaction, Young first praises The Old Man and the Sea's perfect construction, exciting story, and tight action, and regards the tale as one about life: that struggle against natural forces that cannot be overcome but which can be met with dignity. In the second part of the essay, Young recants some of his earlier praise of the work, pointing out its "affectation of simplicity," and...
(The entire section is 4218 words.)
SOURCE: "They Went Through This Fiction Every Day': Informed Illusion in The Old Man and the Sea" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XII, No. 4, Winter, 1966-67, pp. 473-77. [In the following essay, Sylvester rejects Robert P. Weeks's assessment that in The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway's "view of the world has gone soft," arguing that the "calculated fictions" of the exchanges between Santiago and Manolin in the opening and closing of the novella frame the action and reveal a complex Hemingway "code hero" who accepts his fate while concocting an informed illusion about his circumstances.]
Carlos Baker writes of what he calls Colonel Cantwell's "informed illusion" in...
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SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea," in Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 159-74.
[In the following chapter from a full-length book about Hemingway's notion of heroism, which is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in College English in 1955, Gurko examines The Old Man and the Sea in the context of Hemingway's other work, seeing it as a movement away from society and its artifices to the challenges of nature and the possibility for liberation of the human spirit.]
The hero of Hemingway's last story is an aged Cuban fisherman named Santiago. he is more than a hero; he is a superman. Though...
(The entire section is 3640 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway's Craft in The Old Man and the Sea," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, Inc., pp. 41-50.
[In the following essay, Grebstein analyzes Hemingway's craft in The Old Man and the Sea, commenting on the structure, symbolic patterns, language, and narrative technique in the novella.]
The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, was the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to appear in his lifetime. Although several years of creative effort remained to him before his death in 1961, the writing of those years is not likely to either enhance or materially alter his reputation—at...
(The entire section is 3900 words.)
SOURCE: "Hemingway and the Christian Paradox," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1972, pp. 141-54.
[In the following essay, Hamilton examines the central, unifying symbols in The Old Man and the Sea—in particular the image of the fish, a Christian symbol — and argues that at the heart of the novella is the Christian paradox of man's search for God and God's simultaneous search for man.]
Little of the attention given to The Old Man and the Sea has given adequate consideration to one feature: the great fish as the central, organic, symbolic center of the novel, from which hitherto unseen...
(The entire section is 6758 words.)
SOURCE: "Biblical Allusion in The Old Man and the Sea" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 143-47.
[In the following essay, Flora argues that The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway's "parable of practical Christianity," as Santiago finds his greatest reward in being humble, enduring, launching into the deep, and having faith, hope, and love.]
From the beginning of his career to the end, Ernest Hemingway made important use of the bible in his fiction. Critics of The Old Man and the Sea have long been aware of biblical cadences and parallels.1 However, no one has commented on two important biblical passages...
(The entire section is 1971 words.)
SOURCE: "Toward a 'Fifth Dimension' in The Old Man and the Sea," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 269-86.
[In the following essay, Baskett provides a detailed analysis of the symbolic detail in The Old Man and the Sea—from biblical allusions to Santiago's aura of "strangeness" — which he says contributes to Hemingway's "fifth dimensional prose," or writing that "communicates the immediate experience of the perpetual now."]
Although the protagonist of The Old Man and the Sea vows "to make a pilgrimage to the Virgen de Cobre if I catch [this fish],"1 it is unlikely, since "In the night I spat...
(The entire section is 8158 words.)
SOURCE: "Baseball and Baseball Talk in The Old Man and the Sea," in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, 1975, pp. 281-87.
[In the following essay, Barbour and Sattelmeyer argue that baseball and baseball talk in The Old Man and the Sea serve as the boy Manolin's initiation into adulthood and establish a course of heroic action in the novella, as the struggles of baseball player Joe DiMaggio and Santiago are shown to be emblematic of humanity.]
Since the education and range of reference of so many of Hemingway's characters seem to come chiefly from the newspaper, he presents us with the curious problem of a modern novelist who increasingly requires historical...
(The entire section is 2693 words.)
SOURCE: "Incarnation and Redemption in The Old Man and the Sea," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 369-73.
[In the following essay, Wilson asserts that the time spans mentioned in The Old Man and the Sea refer to the sacred Christian mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption, which reinforce the mythic dimension of the story.]
That the heroic fisherman of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea carries a heavy burden of Christ symbolism has been widely recognized, but critics have disagreed markedly about the extent to which this identification functions in the novella and about how this symbolism is finally to be...
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SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea: A Nietzschean Tragic Vision," in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 61, No. 4, Winter, 1981-82, pp. 631-43.
[In the following essay, Taylor rejects previous assessments of the novella as a parable of sin and punishment, asserting instead that the old man's struggle can be seen in terms used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — as an affirmation of life in the highest manner, as a recognition that to do what "must be done," a human being should "go far out," as Santiago has.]
In studying The Old Man and the Sea one finds a very comforting consistency. From the initial reading two elements distinguish Santiago and...
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SOURCE: "Crucified in the Ring: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea" in The Hemingway Review, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 2-17.
[In the following essay, Wittkowski contends that Santiago's struggle and suffering are patterned after that of the bullfighter and Christ on the Cross, and further that the ideal of the fighter-athlete in the novella encompasses and takes the place of the ideal of Christ.]
When The Old Man and the Sea appeared in 1952, Philip Young wrote that it was a metaphor for life as a fight and man as a fighter. It was a metaphor for which Hemingway indicated his deep respect and enlists ours through the enhancing use of...
(The entire section is 10080 words.)
SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea: A Lacanian Reading," in Hemingway: Essays of Reassessment, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 190-99.
[In the following excerpt, Stoltzfus presents a semiotic reading, based on the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, of the central words in The Old Man and the Sea, which, he contends, provide insight into Hemingway's conscious narrative as well as both Santiago's and Hemingway's unconscious desires.]
If the narrative level of The Old Man and the Sea represents the one-eighth of the iceberg above the surface of the sea, what can we find out about the seven-eighths portion of the story that is presumably...
(The entire section is 3248 words.)
SOURCE: "The Cuban Context of The Old Man and the Sea" in The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 243-68.
[In the following essay, Sylvester provides details about the Cuban cultural context of The Old Man and the Sea, as he argues that the novella is directed at readers who either know or want to know about the locale Hemingway describes, and asserts that historical specificity informs many of the novella's symbols.]
In preparing a line-by-line, word-by-word scholarly commentary on The Old Man and the Sea, I discovered many aspects of the narrative thus far...
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Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, 4th edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. 438 p.
Definitive, biographical study of Hemingway's works that includes discussions of The Old Man and the Sea.
Adair, William. "Eighty-Five as a Lucky Number: A Note on The Old Man and the Sea" Notes on Contemporary Literature 8, No. 1 (1978): 9.
Claims that when the numbers eight and five are added, subtracted, or multiplied, the result is always a significant number.
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