The Old Man and the Sea The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea book cover
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(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 105,994 words.)