Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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How did Hemingway reflect modernism? What are some modernist themes in The Old Man and the Sea?

Hemingway reflected modernism in that he presented the modern themes of nihilism and meaninglessness in an arbitrary universe which neither punishes vice nor rewards virtue.

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Ernest Hemingway was both a modernist and a realist and was a leading figure in both movements. His laconic style presents the reader with minimal description and dialogue, eschewing commentary, moral judgment, or psychological explanation. Although Hemingway exhibits a preference for locations and situations far from the Middle America of his birth, often setting his work in Europe or Africa, he tends nonetheless to depict ordinary people struggling with the vicissitudes of everyday life. These modern subjects are depicted in the harsh and arbitrary atmosphere of modernity, in which there is no higher power to reward virtue or punish vice but only a pitiless struggle for survival which his protagonists may very well lose.

In The Old Man and The Sea, Hemingway presents these themes with his characteristic hard-edged style, which emphasizes the harshness of Santiago’s existence. He has had no luck for months, and when he finally does catch a fish, his epic struggle in landing the monster still results in his losing it to the sharks before he reaches the shore. This might be a tragedy in the literature of previous eras, but, as Hemingway presents it, Santiago’s misfortune is not inflicted by any malign power and has no cosmic significance—it is simply an unvarnished presentation of the way life is. Hemingway therefore presents the modernist themes of nihilism and lack of meaning or purpose in an arbitrary universe.

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Modernism emphasized a sense of disillusionment about life. Modernist writers such as Hemingway had seen the horrors of war, and their works reflected a sense that life was not going to live up to its promise and that the promises of the past—such as the idea that faith would be rewarded—were no longer true.

The Old Man and the Sea reflects these modernist themes. The old man, Santiago, has spent months fishing, but he has not caught any fish. When he finally catches a giant marlin, it is consumed by sharks before he can reach shore. The marlin is symbolic of achieving goals, and Santiago finds that his quest ends only in futility and disillusionment. He cannot count on anything working out. In the end, all he has is the friendship of Manolin, the boy who fished with him, and the baseball scores. In this sense, Santiago is living a life that reflects the modernist idea that life is full of disappointment and that faith is fruitless. One must instead content oneself with momentary mass pleasures such as baseball.

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Modernism was a movement in art and literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was marked by a drive to break with traditional styles and closely linked to the realism movement. Modernist writers experimented with different literary forms and styles. Some of the influences on the American modernists included a growing sense of a national identity, suffrage, immigration and race relations, a quickly changing modern world, and the two world wars.

Earnest Hemingway was an American novelist. He lived in Paris in...

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the 1920s, where he was influenced by the modernist movement.The Old Man and the Sea was his last book, published in 1952 while Hemingway was living in the Bahamas.

The Old Man and the Sea fits into the genre of modernism because it is experimental and would also be considered realism.

The novel is experimental because it deals with an unusual topic outside of most readers' scope of experience: an old Cuban fisherman's fight to bring in a giant fish. It is linked to realism because the story depicts a very common activity -- fishing -- in a very realistic way. Hemingway describes the fight between the main character, Santiago, and the giant marlin in graphic detail and minute-by-minute.

Although the story is simple, most readers take The Old Man and the Sea as an extended metaphor. That means that the entire story could be taken as a metaphor for overcoming hardship in our own lives. Santiago has had a streak of 84 luckless days at sea and his young apprentice has been removed from his service, but he keeps going out on his fishing boat. This could symbolize a life with many struggles and hardships, break down of personal relationships, and the human drive to keep trying. Santiago hooks a massive fish and it takes him three days to actually pull it in. This could symbolize coming up against a massive adversary and never giving up until you overcome it. On his way back to town with the fish, Santiago thinks about how much money he will get for the fish and how many mouths it will feed. This could symbolize dreaming about a wonderful outcome before your current task is complete. Before Santiago makes it back to shore, he fights off many sharks and his marlin is mostly devoured. This could symbolize facing still more hardships as you struggle to reach a goal. Finally, Santiago is commended for his catch and reunited with his apprentice. This could symbolize hard work and perseverance paying off.

As an extended metaphor, The Old Man and the Sea is highly experimental and therefore would be considered modernist literature. Even taken at face value as a simple story about a fisherman hauling in an exceptionally massive fish, The Old Man and the Sea is a modernist tale because realist literature was part of the modernist movement, and included stories about banal or everyday activities, like fishing. 

Read the summary of The Old Man and the Sea on eNotes here, and find out more about the themes here.

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