Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
The Old Man and the Sea, although usually called a novel, is not divided into chapters; yet, at 27,500 words it is too long to be called a short story. Efforts to split it into recognizably separate parts are haphazard at best, because its simple action moves along a time line of morning, noon, sunset, midnight, and dawn, which is then repeated, and with little reminiscing by the protagonist and no interpolations by the author.
The action may be arbitrarily, but perhaps helpfully, divided into introduction, three dramatic sections, denouement, and coda. In this introduction, the reader learns that for forty days Santiago fished off Havana in the Gulf Stream, aided by his friend and admirer Manolin, and then for forty-four more days alone, all without success. In part 1, the action begins. On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago rows his skiff “far out” and at noon hooks an enormous male marlin. In part 2, the fish is so strong that it tows Santiago’s skiff northwest into the night and beyond. The following afternoon, the old man first sees his quarry when it suddenly surfaces. All through the second night, it tows the old man, whose hands are cut and whose back is strained. It circles at dawn, and Santiago harpoons it at noon and lashes it alongside the skiff. In part 3, a mako shark attacks and devours part of the marlin. Santiago kills the shark, but his fear that more sharks will follow the bloody wake is soon confirmed by their awesome...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Caribbean Sea. Branch of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Cuba. The sea contributes to the sense of fatalism in the primary character. Alone on the vast expanses of the sea, Santiago, the “old man” of the title, suggests a symbolic understanding of human alienation amid an indifferent world. The sea functions as a backdrop for his reflections of his interior being, thus reinforcing themes of loneliness, struggle, and courage. Ernest Hemingway says of Santiago, “He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now.” His loneliness, however, is also comforted by the sea, as he knows that no man is ever completely alone on the sea.
The desolation of the open sea overwhelms the character, suggesting man’s relative insignificance, yet in this vast space, a courageous man finds beauty and solace by understanding his relationship to the environment. For Santiago, this relationship is like that of a man and woman (again reinforcing the man’s solitary existence). He understands the sea as la mar, a feminine noun in Spanish, something to be loved, something that gives or withholds great favors. In contrast, others understand the sea to be masculine, el mar, a rival or even an enemy.
Despite Santiago’s understanding of the aesthetic nature of his relationship to the sea, the sea itself is ultimately a violent, dangerous place on which survival becomes a primary goal and the...
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Cuba and the United States in the Early 1950s
Relations between Cuba and the United States were generally friendly during most of the 1950s, as they had been since 1934. That year marked the end of the Platt Amendment, which had given the United States the right to intervene in Cuba’s affairs. United States’ ownership of many Cuban sugar mills, however, was a continuing source of dispute. In 1952, President Prio Socarras was overthrown in a military coup by General Fulgencio Batista y Zalvidar. Batista had previously ruled as dictator from 1933 to 1940, and would rule again until 1959, when he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Despite Hemingway’s move to Ketchum, Idaho, soon after Castro and his supporters overthrew the Batista regime, Hemingway had supported both the overthrow and what he called the “historical necessity” of the Castro revolution.
Cuban culture during the first half of the twentieth century was marked perhaps foremost by an ambivalent view toward the Catholic Church. Unlike other Latin American countries, church and state in Cuba...
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The narrative takes place in the 1940s. Although the opening and closing scenes take place on land in a small Cuban fishing village, the dominant setting is the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway believes the sea to be the last great unexplored territory on earth, and this work travels deeply into the nature of this mysterious setting.
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Point of View
All novels use at least one point of view, or angle of vision, from which to tell the story. The point of view may be that of a single character, or of several characters in turn. The Old Man and the Sea uses the omniscient, or “all-knowing,” point of view of the author, who acts as a hidden narrator. The omniscient point of view enables the author to stand outside and above the story itself, and thus to provide a wider perspective from which to present the thoughts of the old man and the other characters. Thus at the beginning of the tale, the omniscient narrator tells us not only what Santiago and the boy said to each other, but what the other fishermen thought of the old man. “The older fishermen . . . looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it. . . .”
The Old Man and the Sea takes place entirely in a small fishing village near Havana, Cuba, and in the waters of the Gulf Stream, a current of warm water that runs north, then east of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. Hemingway visited Cuba as early as 1928, and later lived on the coast near Havana for nineteen years, beginning in 1940, so he knew the area very well. The references to Joe Dimaggio and a series of games between the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers in which Dimaggio came back from a slump have enabled scholars to pinpoint the time during which the novel takes place as mid-September 1950. As Manolin also...
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The Old Man and the Sea employs straightforward prose and conventional narrative form and technique. Technically speaking, it is perhaps Hemingway's most conventional fiction. None of the modernist techniques — indirection, implication, allusion, omission, unexplained juxtaposition — that Hemingway so elaborately deploys in In Our Time (1925; see separate entry) and other works are used in this parable-like tale, which helps to explain why it reaches the widest audience of any Hemingway work.
Consider, for example, his use of symbolism to suggest that Santiago is a Christ-figure or, at the very least, that Santiago's suffering is analogous to Christ's suffering. After the sharks attack his marlin, Santiago cries out "Ay"; then Hemingway writes that "there is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood." The many Christological associations in the novel are obvious, and spelled out, in a way that they would never be in Hemingway's earlier modernist fiction.
Another technical aspect of the book worthy of attention is the manner in which the novel functions as one long sustained exploration of the old man's character and consciousness, somewhat in the fashion that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue serves to reveal character. Overall the plot, action, and story line are remarkably simple and direct;...
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Hemingway focuses on Santiago's consciousness in this quest story. Very much in the way that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue serves to reveal character, this novella functions as one long exploration of the old man's character.
Hemingway's symbolism suggests that Santiago is a Christ-figure. After the sharks attack his fish, for example, Santiago says, "Ay"; Hemingway writes that "there is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood." At the end of the book, Santiago struggles up the hill with the mast on his shoulder, a symbolic echo of Christ carrying the cross. Many "religious" images contribute to this symbolic pattern, while other patterns of symbolism center on baseball and dreams of youth.
The book's simple plot contains some element of suspense, but above all, the book lives in its beautiful imagery, the poetic evocation of the sea, and the admirable character of the old man.
The moon hod been up for a long time but he slept on and the fish pulled on steadily and the boat moved into the tunnel of clouds.
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The Old Man and the Sea is a profound exploration of humankind's relationship with nature, and the human place in nature. Santiago's role as a fisherman who must catch fish in order to live in no way diminishes his deep love of nature and his extraordinary sensitivity to his environment. In fact his natural piety is in large part a function of his identity as fisherman (outsiders, touristically concerned with the "beauty of nature," have no access to the depth of Santiago's hard-earned vision of nature.)
Another important social concern deals with the importance of exemplars for the young, and the role of an exemplar outside the family in a young man's maturation process, as seen in the Santiago-Manolin relationship. Their relationship points to another social concern, the notion of respect and concern for the aged, and the loneliness of old age. More importantly, perhaps, a paramount social concern here is Hemingway's timeless portrayal of the ways in which the simplest and poorest of human beings may possess the greatest human dignity and richness of character.
Few writers have been more sensitive to nature, to the depths and the strengths of human character, and to the tragedy and the glory of human experience than Hemingway. All of his work is grounded in basic timeless values: courage, precision, skill, honor, honesty, and dignity. Much of his writing is profoundly religious, deeply...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
In general, group discussions of The Old Man and the Sea seem to work best when they focus on the exact details of Santiago's character, his relationship with nature, and his relationship with Manolin. Precise attention to the text is important to prevent such discussion from dwindling into sentimentalities and platitudinous generalities. Adventurous discussion groups may wish to venture into the mine field of revisionist, "politically correct" assertions and denigrations of Santiago (and Hemingway) found in Brenner's controversial recent study of The Old Man and the Sea (see under "Resources" in biographical entry). Good readers, with a firm grasp of the actualities and details of Hemingway's narrative, will have no trouble dismissing most or all of Brenner's largely unsubstantiated arguments.
1. What is the difference, according to Santiago, between those who think of the sea as "lamar" and those who speak of it as "el mar"?
2. Why does Santiago dream about the "lions on the beaches"? What do these lions symbolize?
3. Discuss the things Santiago knows about nature, about the behavior of birds and fish. How did he learn these things?
4. Why is "no one worthy of eating" the great marlin?
5. Discuss Santiago as a Christ-figure, noting the specific details of the Christian imagery. The pattern of Santiago's experience is suffering and endurance; is it also redemptive?
6. Who is...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the baseball imagery in the book. What does the "great Dimaggio" symbolize? What does the "bone spur" symbolize?
2. When Santiago was a boy, he saw "lions on the beaches" in Africa. What do these lions symbolize? Why does he dream about Africa and the lions every night?
3. What is the difference, according to Santiago, between those who think of the sea as "la mar" and those who speak of it as "el mar"?
4. Discuss some of the things Santiago knows about nature, and the details he reads in the behavior of the birds and fish. How did he learn these things?
5. When Santiago catches the albacore, he "hit him on the head for kindness." Discuss this scene and Santiago's "kindness" in general.
6. Santiago says he is "not religious," but he says his prayers regularly and promises to make a pilgrimage if he catches the fish. Discuss Santiago's religious feeling, both his natural piety and his Catholic piety.
7. Why is "no one worthy of eating" the great marlin?
8. In one of the book's most important passages, Santiago thinks, "But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers." How do you interpret this statement?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Analyze in detail the relationship between Santiago and Manolin.
2. The main theme of the book is summed up in the single sentence: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." Discuss in detail the meaning of this theme and the ways in which the book develops and illustrates the idea.
3. Compare Santiago's feeling about the sharks with his feeling about all the other creatures in the book.
4. Analyze in detail the old man's relationship with the marlin. Discuss his love, respect, and pity for it, and his determination to kill it. In how many ways are the man and fish "joined together"?
5. Discuss Santiago as a Christ-figure. Be sure to note the specific details that link Santiago with Christian imagery. The pattern of Santiago's experience is suffering and endurance; is it also somehow redemptive?
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Topics for Further Study
- Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago expresses his feelings about nature. Today, the protection of our natural environment is often in the news. Do some research on environmental issues and write an essay comparing Santiago’s attitude about nature to modern theories of environmentalism. Would Santiago be considered an environmentalist today?
- Manolin undergoes a change between the beginning and the end of the novel. What do you think causes this change? Find specific examples from the story to support your opinion. Then write an essay comparing the “old” Manolin from the beginning of the story to the “new” Manolin who has emerged by the end.
- Most of Ernest Hemingway’s heroes are young men, but Santiago, as the title reveals, is an old man. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story from an older person’s perspective? How might the story have been different if the hero had been a young man? Present your ideas in an essay and use examples from the text to support your conclusions.
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If the reader accepts the apparent critical consensus, there are very few literary precedents for The Old Man and the Sea. Moby Dick (1851), another great sea-centered novel involving a quest for a great creature, is sometimes cited as a precedent, but the resemblances are superficial. Others have noted the Biblical qualities of Hemingway's story. Also, for the evocation of the sea and the human place in the design of nature, Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (1898) provides a certain resonance, and we know that Hemingway admired Crane's work. Perhaps more directly to the point would be precedents which involve characters of great simplicity and dignity who interact reverently with nature. The most compelling instance here — and Hemingway may well have had it in mind when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea — may be William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses (1942). In particular, consider the portions of that novel which deal with Sam Fathers — who is a direct analogue of Santiago — and hunting. Faulkner's "The Old People" (1942) and "The Bear" (1942) depict an exemplar-apprentice relationship between a wise and simple, humble and proud old man (Sam Fathers) and a young boy (Ike McCaslin), a quest for a noble creature (the bear), and a rich and reverential evocation of nature.
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In a general sense, all of Hemingway's work is related to The Old Man and the Sea because as his last important work it represents a kind of final credo, a culmination and crystallization of the major themes that inform all his work. More specifically, Hemingway's very early work "Big Two-Hearted River: Part I & II," written some three decades before The Old Man and the Sea, explores related material and themes: in the course of the story about a young man alone in the north woods of Michigan fishing for trout in a small wilderness stream, Hemingway examines the important themes of humankind's relationship with nature and the question of human suffering and endurance. But strictly speaking, "Big Two-Hearted River" should be seen as the final chapter in the story-cycle In Our Time, which deals primarily with the growth of Nick Adams. Many other Hemingway stories and novels examine related subject matter and themes: nature and people's place in nature; fishing and hunting; relationships between a young protagonist and an older, wiser character. Examples of these works include "Indian Camp," "The Battler," "My Old Man," and "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
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- The Old Man and the Sea was adapted as a feature film starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago and Felipe Pazos as The Boy, Warner Brothers, 1958. This film has been praised for some of its visual effects, and the score won an Academy Award.
- It was also the source of a made-for-TV production in 1990 starring Anthony Quinn, Gary Cole, Alexis Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, and Francesco Quinn.
- The novel is also available on a two-cassette sound recording narrated by Charlton Heston.
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What Do I Read Next?
- Youth (1903) and Typhoon (1902), both by Joseph Conrad are sea stories with intriguing parallels to Hemingway’s work. It is believed that Hemingway, who read all of Conrad in Paris and Toronto during the twenties, may have consciously or unconsciously used the “central strategy” of Youth when writing The Old Man and the Sea.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) was Hemingway’s last successfully received novel before The Old Man and the Sea, and the only previous Hemingway novel in which a Hispanic background plays a major part. It depicts the struggle of Robert Jordan, an American fighting against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War to live up to his political and personal ideals without becoming narrowly partisan.
- Islands in the Stream, published posthumously in 1970, is the book, as edited, of which The Old Man and the Sea was originally envisaged by Hemingway as the fourth part. The first three sections were originally called “The Sea When Young,” “The Sea When Absent,” and “The Sea in Being.”
- The Nick Adams Stories (1972) are all Hemingway’s short...
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For Further Reference
Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. One of the earliest and still one of the best critical studies of Hemingway's works.
Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner's, 1969. The first full-length biography of Hemingway, this volume remains the best and most reliable resource for a balanced portrait of the man and his career.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Conversations with Ernest Hemingway. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. A useful and convenient compilation of Hemingway interviews and statements.
The Hemingway Review. Most of the important new scholarly and critical work on Hemingway appears in this journal.
Moore, Gene M. "Ernest Hemingway." In Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, edited by Walton Beacham. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Contains a useful overview of Hemingway criticism and biography.
Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986. The first volume in a multivolume biography of Hemingway, this judicious work is one of the most significant and substantive of the many biographies that have appeared since Baker's landmark study.
Wagner, Linda W., ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1987. Contains some of the best critical essays on Hemingway's work. See especially...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker,Carlos, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels. Scribner’s, 1962, pp. 132-72.
Beegel, Susan F. “Conclusion: The Critical Reputation of Ernest Hemingway.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 276.
Brenner, Gerry, and Earl Rovit. “The Structure of the Fiction.” In Ernest Hemingway, Revised Edition. Twayne, 1986, pp. 62-89.
Brenner, Gerry, ed. The Old Man and the Sea: The Story of a Common Man. Twayne, 1991.
Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966, p. 274.
For Further Study
Burhans, Clifford. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man.” In American Literature, January, 1960, p. 447. Burhans relates The Old Man and the Sea to Hemingway’s earlier work and finds it a mature statement of the author’s philosophy.
Burhans, Clinton S., Jr. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man." In Hemingway and His Critics: An International Anthology, edited by Carlos Baker. Hill and Wang, 1961, pp. 259-68. The critic describes the novel as Hemingway’s “mature view of the tragic irony of man's fate.”...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.
Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.
Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s...
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