The publication of the novella The Old Man and the Sea near the end of Ernest Hemingway’s writing career restored his flagging reputation as a writer. It came at a time when critics thought Hemingway was losing his creative powers. They had panned his previous novel, Across the River and into the Trees (1950). The novella earned Hemingway the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and helped him win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. For about fifteen years, the work enjoyed wide critical approval and attention, although it had its detractors. By the late 1960’s, critics had begun a reassessment. Only a handful of articles were written about the novella in later years.
The Old Man and the Sea works on multiple levels of theme, image, and symbol. It has been compared to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798)—great tales of sea adventure and the testing of human endurance. The story depicts a world in which the heroic and the mundane intermingle. Hemingway claimed to be writing a story about a real fisherman, the real sea, and a real fish. There is no question, however, that the effort at realism does not mask the metaphorical and symbolic dimensions of the story. The story’s lean and spare style focuses readers’ attention on a timeless drama nearly devoid of contemporary reference, but the modern world is a backdrop to one man’s heroic struggle with nature. On one level, the story is a heroic testimony to that person’s endurance and courage. This interpretation is based on a reading of the text without recognition of its many ironies. The old man puts up a fierce and superhuman effort against the great marlin, a fish so large and powerful as to remind readers of Moby Dick. In Hemingway’s book, the fish is not entirely like Melville’s leviathan. The marlin is not malicious or a malignant force of nature. It never attacks its pursuer the way Moby Dick does, but it does put up a fierce and noble fight for its life. The endurance of the old man, and perhaps his intelligence, proves to be superior to that of the fish. The man conquers the fish but, in the end, loses the fish to the sharks.
On one level, the novella also is a gripping account of a man in search of meaning and dignity in a world that gives little quarter. To survive in this world and to feel that life has meaning is to struggle. This struggle is not unique to Santiago but rather is typical of the Hemingway hero. The struggle and how it is conducted provide meaning in a person’s life. Hemingway puts so much poetic energy into depicting this struggle that it becomes an object of beauty, much as does the perfect pass in the bullring or the swing of Joe DiMaggio. This struggle requires tenacious will, intelligence, and prowess, or, as the old man refers to it, “ability.” Readers of Hemingway’s greatest works are familiar with his ethos of the graceful struggle. Those who live the struggle and exhibit special prowess are Hemingway’s heroes. Such people include bullfighters, soldiers, and even, for that matter, bulls. Those who do not accept that life is a struggle and fail to exhibit prowess in whatever they do are depicted as failures and weaklings.
Hemingway dramatizes this struggle in the sparest of terms. The story presents only two characters, the old man and a boy who is friend and helper. The boy may be seen as the embodiment of the promise of uncorrupted youth. The boy’s many kindnesses to the old man reflect a self-effacing and generous spirit that can only be seen as examples of human virtue. Santiago resembles Christ in his sufferings: Readers may note the attention paid to the laceration of Santiago’s hands and to his ascent up the hill to his hovel while he carries the mast. He falls five times, as did Christ carrying his cross, and finally lies in his bed, arms outstretched and palms turned upward. The spirit of Christ also informs the actions of the boy. Santiago suffers greatly (which is his primary similarity to Christ), but he does nothing to help anyone. He is on the receiving end of help from the boy, who makes sure Santiago has food and care. The owner of the bar also sends the old man food.
Santiago lives an impoverished life. He barely eats, owns almost nothing, reads only yesterday’s newspapers, and lives in a tiny shack with a dirt floor. He owns a small fishing boat, but he has barely enough gear to outfit himself as a fisherman. His food and drink are charity.
Santiago’s inner life is almost as impoverished. He holds a few memories as points of reference. He dreams of the lions on the beach in Africa that he saw as young man and of a titanic arm wrestling match with a powerful man. These dreams symbolize the power of his youth. Santiago does not speak of his strength, but he credits himself with an ability to triumph over adversity through a combination of will and intelligence. When he is awake, he refers repeatedly to DiMaggio as the epitome of prowess or ability—a model against which Santiago judges himself. His connection to DiMaggio and the world of baseball is indicative of his values. Baseball embodies the values of physical strength and ability. Santiago also refers to Jesus and Mary and seems aware of a higher spiritual realm beyond his present struggle. These symbolic dimensions add depth and complexity to the narrative and contribute the great enjoyment readers continue to derive from this simple, beautifully written tale.