How can Ernest Hemingway's short novel The Old Man and the Sea be considered a "fable"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Can Ernest Hemingway’s short novel The Old Man and the Sea be classified as a “fable”?  Everything depends, of course, on how the word “fable” is defined.  For present purposes, the definition of that word provided by Wikipedia will suffice:

A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a "moral"), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.

Hemingway’s novel resembles a “fable” in this sense in a number of ways, including the following:

  • It is relatively brief and “succinct.” Given its rather simple, straightforward “story,” the novel would not seem nearly as much like a “fable” if it were two or three times its present length.  Instead it would seem too complex and too long to be a fable in the sense defined above.
  • It features an animal – the marlin Santiago fights – that seems mythical in its significance and symbolism.  If Santiago had caught an especially resistant tuna on the end of his line, the symbolic, mythical significance of the contest would not seem as great. (He in fact catches a tune and simply eats it.)
  • The marlin, the sharks, and the sea itself all seem to symbolize the forces of nature in powerful, memorable ways. All test the strength, resilience, and determination of the old man.  If he were not alone in the boat, his struggle would not seem nearly as mythic, grand, or significant.
  • Both the marlin and the sharks are anthropomorphized – that is, treated and described as if they were human. Indeed, Santiago tends to look at big fish in general as if they are humans and worthy of respect, as when the narrator reports that he

remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair or marlin.  The male fish always let the female fish feed first and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic-stricken, despairing flight that soon exhausted her, and all the time the male stayed with her, crossing the line and circling with her on the surface.

Here the behavior of the two fish seems completely understandable in human terms, however accurate it may also be (or not be) as a description of the “real” behavior of marlins.

  • The novel can be said to exemplify a number of “morals,” such as the importance of never giving up, the fact that life is unfair, the need to display one’s strength of character even or especially in old age, the value of old people as models of behavior, etc.
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The Old Man and the Sea

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