The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
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
Hemingway's African Stories: The Stories, Their Sources, Their Critics 1969
The Nick Adams Stories 1972
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway 1987
Other Major Works
The Sun Also Rises (novel) 1926
The Torrents of Spring: A Romantic Novel in Honor of the Passing of a Great Race (novel) 1926
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
Death in the Afternoon (nonfiction) 1932
Green Hills of Africa (nonfiction) 1935
To Have and Have Not (novel) 1937
For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel) 1940
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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 reminded on every page that Hemingway once defined this favorite word, in its metaphorical use, as "grace under pressure." Grace, in the fullest sense, is the possession of this old man, just as grace was precisely what Colonel Cantwell, in Across the River and Into the Trees, was totally without. But here it is, complete and absolute, the very breath of this old man, so thoroughly his in his essence as in his ambiente, that it can only be there under pressure as at all other times, and indeed, even under the greatest pressure, he hardly alters. Grace, by which one means now not the old stuff [sic] upper lip (this old man's upper lip is not so very stiff) which came to some of the older heroes a little easily sometimes,...
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SOURCE: "The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway's Tragic Vision of Man," in American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, January, 1960, pp. 446-55.
[In the following essay, Burhans asserts that in his novella Hemingway uses "perfectly realized symbolism and irony" to affirm the values of courage, love, humility, solidarity, and interdependence.]
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway uses an effective metaphor to describe the kind of prose he is trying to write: he explains that "if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."1
Among all the works of Hemingway which illustrate this metaphor, none, I think, does so more consistently or more thoroughly than the saga of Santiago. Indeed, the critical reception of the novel has emphasized this aspect of it: in particular, Philip Young, Leo Gurko, and Carlos Baker have stressed the qualities of The Old Man and the Sea as allegory and parable.2 Each of these critics is especially concerned with two qualities in Santiago—his epic individualism and the love he feels for the creatures who share with him a...
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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. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows."1 The sea novel in respect to style fits the theory, Hemingway pointed out, in that he knew many fishing stories never explicitly incorporated in the tale; knowing them gave him authority for the tale he did write. But Hemingway suggested more strongly the applicability of the iceberg image for understanding theme when he noted, "You can be sure that there is much more than will be read at any first reading. . . ." This comment is especially meaningful when used as a way of viewing a theme in his work that emerges like the crest of an iceberg in this novel.
That theme is the vision of man as animal trying to transcend his animal nature. In...
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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 holding itself steady against the cold current of the Big Two-Hearted River, Francis Macomber's gut-shot lion standing off death in the tall grass, the huge, filthy vultures keeping a deathwatch on Harry on the plains at the foot of Kilimanjaro—objectively and precisely epitomize the crisis confronting the protagonist in each of these stories.
Yet these animals, and the others Hemingway uses to perform the same function, are nonetheless marvelously real. They possess in abundance what James called solidity of specification: they move, sound, and look like real animals.
The difference, however, in the effectiveness with which Hemingway employs this characteristic device in his best work and in The...
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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.]
I. TRUTH AND POETRY
Goethe called his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit, Poetry and Truth. The reverse of Goethe's title, as a strategy of emphasis, admirably fits the collected works of Hemingway. From the first he has been dedicated as a writer to the rendering of Wahrheit, the precise and at least partly naturalistic presentation of things as they are and were. Yet under all his brilliant surfaces lies the controlling Dichtung, the symbolic underpainting which gives so remarkable a sense of depth and vitality to what otherwise might seem flat and two-dimensional.
The literary histories commonly credit Hemingway with being the "archpriest of naturalists." This is...
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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, occasionally, a genetic point of view, as if he were a real person, endeavoring to enrich one's understanding of the character and thus of human nature in much the same way as in a case presentation. The critic may study the composition as a psychic production of its author, endeavoring to shed light on the personality of the latter. Finally the critic may endeavor to study the impact of the composition on himself and/or upon readers in general.
Of the three approaches, the last is the least often used. It is probably the most open to adverse criticism, since another reader may always say with complete honesty that he is not affected in the way described. On the other hand, it can be of particular value in the study of the...
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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 fear of complex motivation and the insistence upon the absolute necessity for initiative as a definition of manhood—was seriously threatened in the years preceding and following World War II.
The period before the war was a time of political ambiguities, a time which more than ever before represented the triumph of machines over men. And World War II itself was a difficult matter for Hemingway to shape into art: for one thing, it was a gigantic organization in which the politician became more important than the soldier, and the mechanic became more important than both. As for the post-World War II era of "Cold War" and continuing crisis—there was simply nothing in it for Hemingway to use; the swamp of...
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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 his art. Out of his inner conflicts as a man and artist he had achieved a harmony which makes this, in a classical sense, the sweetest and most serene of his works. Whatever its shortcomings, The Old Man and the Sea will stand in relation to the body of Hemingway's writings as Billy Budd does to Melville's.
Both authors explored the power of blackness. In each of these books they tried, near the end of their careers, to say yea to life. Whether or not Hemingway wins us over to an affirmation, we have here his most philosophical story. A tale of adventure, The Old Man and the Sea is also one of those fictions where the thought and the action are one. We might label it Hemingway's...
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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 likens Hemingway's book to a fish he had hooked as his great prize and that was later devoured by the critics.]
This book has many roots in the rest of Hemingway's work. Much of it goes back to an essay, "On the Blue Water (A Gulf Stream Letter)," which the author published in Esquire, in April of 1936. In this piece he tried to explain what there is about deep-sea fishing in the Stream that makes it exciting—the mysteries of that largely unexplored place, the indescribable strangeness, wildness, speed, power and beauty of the enormous marlin which inhabit it, and the struggle while their strength is bound to a man's, his thick line "taut as a banjo string and little drops coming from...
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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 Across the River and Into the Trees: the Colonel "well knows that the necessary thing to retain, after the loss of any illusion, is the capacity for belief which made the original illusion possible."1 Mr. Baker then notices that in The Old Man and the Sea Santiago "loses the [physical] battle he has won," but wins the "moral victory of having lasted without permanent impairment of his belief in the worth of what he has been doing."2 In his discussion of the story, however, Mr. Baker never defines Santiago's belief in the precise way he does Colonel Cantwell's. But for evidence that the fisherman's faith, like the soldier's, depends upon "informed illusion," I want to direct critical attention to the...
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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 very old, he has the physical strength of a young man and a spirit that is absolutely indomitable. Everything about him is outsized: his age, strength, his cheerful disposition, even the run of extraordinary bad luck he has at the start of the book—he has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. When on the eighty-fifth day he does catch one, it is record-breaking, a sixteen-hundred-pound marlin, so large, powerful, and symbolic as to complete a cosmic trilogy with Jonah's whale and Moby Dick.
On several occasions Santiago is compared with Christ. His raw bleeding hands during the ordeal with the marlin recall Christ's mutilated hands. His last trip up the hill to his hut, carrying the mast on his back, is a...
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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 least in the opinions of Carlos Baker and Philip Young, who have examined the writer's unpublished papers. If this is indeed the case, The Old Man and the Sea will probably solidify its position as the final boundary of Hemingway's career, just as In Our Time marks its beginning. The judgment of the Nobel Committee, which singled out The Old Man and the Sea for special praise in its award of the 1954 Literature prize to Hemingway, has proved to be unusually percipient.
Nor have critics neglected the work. Soon after its publication it became the subject for serious and generally sympathetic commentary, continuing to this moment. Some have hailed The Old Man and the Sea as...
(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 meanings radiate. The idea of the fish as an organic symbol has validity for Hemingway not only historically but intellectually, his anti-intellectual pose to the contrary notwithstanding. This interpretation of the novel is supported by Hemingway's religious stance both in statement and practice, and is consistent with his established artistic method and his order of apprehension of experience as revealed in his fiction: experience first, and second, understanding.
This reading, with the fish as the organic, symbolic center, reveals the meaning of the novel in several important ways. First, one can see implicit in the novel an ironic paradox in both Hemingway's and Christian thought: the inseprability of suffering and Grace....
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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 that Hemingway appears to have used with great deliberation in The Old Man. Attention to one of these is useful for resolving a controversy about the protagonist; attention to both helps to clarify Hemingway's theme.
One critical disagreement over the work surrounds the question of whether Santiago went "too far out" and thus sinned.2 Several references to going far out sandwich the central story of the fishing episode. Early in the story, Santiago informs the boy, Manolin, that he is going "far out," where most of the fishermen do not like to go. Hemingway repeats the phrase with some variation, creating a certain biblical cadence thereby. After the devastation of his great fish by the sharks,...
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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 something strange and felt something in my chest was broken" (p. 138), that he will live to keep his promise.2 In a sense, however, Hemingway kept it for him, donating his Nobel Medal to the Shrine of our Lady of Charity of Cobre, Patron Saint of Cuba,3 a pilgrimage, it would seem, not necessarily in recognition of a Christian victory, but of a literary victory—the fictional achievement he had ambiguously formulated in Green Hills of Africa. "The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if anyone is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten."4
What Hemingway may have meant by this statement, and indeed whether he had a...
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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 annotation. This is especially true of his references to the world of sport, where the names of yesterday's heroes may evoke only bewilderment. For foreign readers and for Americans whose minds are uncluttered with old earned-run and batting averages, Hemingway's many baseball references, in particular, warrant explanation.1 This is certainly true of The Old Man and the Sea where baseball forms the inner stitching of the story. As Philip Young notes, "Baseball stars are the heroes of this simple man [Santiago]; their exploits are the incidents, and the pennant races the plots of his mythologies."2 But the old man's heroes are now obscure: Sisler, Luque, Gonzales, and perhaps even McGraw have faded from...
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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 interpreted. In addition to the well annotated references to the crucifixion itself and to the other events of Passion Week, the author has, however, provided some helpful clues quite early in the book—clues that previous commentators seem to have overlooked and that may contribute to some clarification of this critical problem.
As the novella opens, we are told that Santiago "had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish," and, in the second sentence, we learn that during "the first forty days a boy had been with him."1 If we add to this eighty-four day period the three days covered by the book's action, we get a total of eighty-seven days. Shortly thereafter, the boy recalls, "'But remember how you went...
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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 his adventure from Hemingway's earlier heroes. Many have noted the positive character of Santiago's struggle, its natural context in direct contrast to the forced, artificial violence of bullfights and safaris. Santiago is also the only hero who, as Melvin Backman says, ". . . is not left alone, at the end of the story, with death or despair."1 The life of Santiago is closer to the one most of us live; we can see ourselves in him and thus find encouragement for our own struggles.
When we turn to the commentators we find additional agreement. The Old Man and the Sea is seen as Hemingway's tragic vision, attention is paid to its essentially Christian morality. Such interpretations make much sense....
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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 Christian symbols.1 That was the impression of most readers then and probably is still today. However, in 1956 Carlos Baker gave a new twist to the critical discussion of the story, one which had far-reaching consequences. He stated that the religious associations attest to a Christian mentality which in the course of the story's development supplants the fighter ethos of the old man.2 This encouraged several critics to point out Santiago's insight into the tragic limitations of humanity and the consequent victory for a democratic and interpersonal way of thinking.3
The basis for and main thrust of such interpretations were religious argumentation, arriving at the non plus ultra that...
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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 there but is neither spoken nor visible? In my attempt to define it I will focus on three categories: (1) what Hemingway consciously put into the text; (2) what the reader puts into it in order to generate meaning; and (3) Hemingway's unconscious (desire) which escapes his cognition but which is unveiled by a Lacanian reading.
The first level corresponds to Santiago's unconscious (desire) which dreams of Africa and the lions, and daydreams of DiMaggio, bone spurs, and cocks; the second is the Christological tradition that Hemingway embeds in the narrative; the third is that the text taken as a whole—the displaced symptom and manifestation of Hemingway's desire —is his unconscious. In focusing first on...
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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 overlooked.1 One pattern of neglected detail refers to workaday practicalities peculiar to the locale, and very often to local customs and habits of mind—to a general Cuban cultural consciousness. Here, as in many of his other works, Hemingway unobtrusively relies on such detail to account for his characters' motivation and to reveal what is actually being referred to in much of the dialogue. In other words, he requires his readers around the world to notice the specific cultural context of his narrative and to familiarize themselves with that context in order to follow what is literally happening in the plot.
This is an approach we accept as a matter of course in reading the works of other modernists—Joyce, Pound, or Eliot, for...
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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.
Backman, Melvin. "The Matador and the Crucified." In Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Novels, pp. 135-143. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
Examines two major motifs in Hemingway's work—the matador, who releases force, and the crucified, who accepts pain—that are perfectly blended in The Old Man and the Sea.
Baskett, Sam S. "The Great Santiago: Opium, Vocation, and Dream in The Old Man and the Sea." Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1976): 230-42.
Examination of baseball allusions in The Old Man and the Sea.
Bennett, Fordyce Richard....
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