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 detractors and loyal defenders. There are those who condemn the novella's self-conscious simplicity in style, glorification of violence, sexism, crude symbolism, and sentimentality, while others continue to admire its spare beauty, symbolic complexity, and its recognition of the human capacity to endure.
Plot and Major Characters
The action of the novella takes place over four days in September in a small Cuban town, in Cuban waters, and in the Gulf Stream. It opens with an explanation that an old fisherman, Santiago, has not caught a single fish for eighty-four days. At first a young boy, Manolin, had accompanied him, but after the fortieth day of not taking fish, his father had instructed the boy to leave the luckless old man and go with another boat. So Santiago fishes alone in his skiff, returning home each evening empty-handed. In the first exchange between Santiago and Manolin, we learn that despite obeying his father out of duty, the boy still has faith in Santiago, and loves him; the old man taught him how to fish, and they once had good luck together. Manolin knows the old man is poor—he lives in a shack, has no food, fresh bait, or even a cast net, even though he says he does, and he reads yesterday's newspapers. In the evenings the boy brings supper for them to share; Santiago accepts his kindness with graceful humility. Over dinner the two talk about luckier times or about American baseball and the great Joe DiMaggio. At night, Santiago dreams of Africa and the lions on the beach he saw there as a boy; he no longer dreams of his dead wife.
On the eighty-fifth day, before dawn, Santiago rows his small boat far out to sea, setting his lines with the bait Manolin has given him. He sees sea turtles and a large man-of-war bird circling overhead, which shows him where there are dolphins and flying fish; with the bird's help, he finds and catches a tuna, which he plans to use as bait. Around noon, with his line a hundred fathoms down in the purple waters, the old man feels a bite on the line and knows he has hooked a big fish, a marlin. The fish begins to tow the boat northwest, and Santiago holds on waiting for it to grow tired, talking aloud to himself and to the sea creatures—including porpoises and a small warbler threatened by hawks—and wishing the boy were with him. After sunset Santiago feels a tug on his remaining bait and cuts that line, fearing the smaller fish he has hooked might cut off the marlin. The big fish lurches, pulling the man down on his face so he cuts himself below the eye. With his left hand stiff and cramped, Santiago talks to the marlin, vowing he will stay with it until he is dead, but explaining also that he loves and respects the fish and understands its struggle. He says he is not religious, but he will says ten "Our Fathers" and ten "Hail Marys" and make a pilgrimage if he catches the fish. The fish lurches again, cutting Santiago's right hand. Exhausted, Santiago eats the raw tuna to keep up his strength and waits for dawn.
The next morning, the marlin shows itself as it jumps out of the water. It is two feet longer than the skiff with a sword as long as a baseball bat; this was the biggest fish the man has ever seen, well over a thousand pounds. The fish pulls the boat eastward, and Santiago tries to forget his aching old body by remembering the time when he had been called El Campeón because of his prowess as a wrestler. That evening, he catches a dolphin, which he cuts into fillets, and at night he sleeps, dreaming of porpoises and of lions on the beach.
Shortly after sunrise, the marlin begins to circle and Santiago tries to bring the fish closer to the boat. He does so finally, and drives a harpoon into its side and lashes his catch to the bow and stern of the skiff. The enormous fish will make his fortune, he thinks, as never was such a catch brought into Havana harbor. He sets sail toward home. An hour later, he sees a shark, which has smelled the blood of the marlin. The shark attacks the dead fish before Santiago kills it with his harpoon, which is lost in the battle. More sharks come, tearing and devouring the marlin and Santiago kills them also, first using his oar, then his knife, and then the boat's tiller. He steers toward Havana as even more sharks tear at the body of the fish. He regrets now that he has gone too far out and the sharks have beaten him.
It is late at night when Santiago arrives back at the harbor. He beaches his boat, leaving the carcass of the fish still tied to the stern. He unsteps the mast and puts it over his shoulders as he climbs, exhausted, to his shack. He falls down five times before reaching home, and then lies down, face down on his bed with arms out straight and the palms of his hands facing up. Manolin sees him sleeping the next morning, and cries at the sight of his old friend. As the boy goes to bring the old man some coffee, he meets fishermen who have gathered around the skiff, amazed at the giant marlin, which, they tell him measures eighteen feet from nose to tail. When Manolin wakes Santiago, the old man tells him he has been beaten, and the boy understands he means not by the fish, but by the sharks. The boy asks to keep the marlin's spear and tells Santiago to rest so they can go out together and fish again.
That afternoon, a party of tourists at the bar sees the enormous carcass of the fish, and a woman asks the waiter what it is. He say in Spanish that it is a marlin, then says "shark" to explain what happened to it. The woman and her companion think it is a shark, remarking they didn't know sharks had such handsome tails. In the meantime, up the road, with Manolin watching him, Santiago sleeps and dreams about lions.
Despite the mixed critical reaction to The Old Man and the Sea, there is little disagreement about the central meaning of novella. It has been viewed by most critics on its most basic level as a story of one man's courage and, by extension, of human beings' heroic quest and attendant struggle with nature. However, it has been pointed out, nature, as symbolized in one form by the fish, is not a malignant force but one that is to be respected for its power. Santiago, through his endurance, conquers the fish while recognizing it as a worthy foe, but in the end is defeated by another natural entity, the sharks. Santiago's noble battle can also been seen as an account of humans' search for meaning in a harsh world. As with Hemingway's other heroes, the nature of Santiago's struggle—done with prowess, grace, and pride even in loss—is what ultimately confers meaning to his existence.
Much of the novella's imagery, interwoven into a tight tapestry, reinforces the central idea. The man-of-war bird that chases the flying fish, the lions in the old man's dreams, the great DiMaggio who continues to play despite the pain of injury, and the tired warbler being chased by hawks, all echo Santiago's situation. The intertwining symbols—the marlin's sword is "as long as baseball bat," the sharks' teeth are like human hands, Santiago's hand, holding the fishing line, is "as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle"—also serve to point to another theme, of the interconnectedness of all things in nature. Santiago says that "everything kills everything else," and obversely, as we see in Manolin's and Santiago's relationship and in the man-of-war aiding the fisherman, all things nourish other things and keep them alive.
As many critics have noted, the many biblical allusions underscore the novella's themes of suffering, redemption, hope, faith, love, and endurance. Santiago is at once a sinner who has "gone too far out" and a Christ-like figure who bears the burden of trying to achieve the impossible and is victorious even in defeat. Like Christ, he is a fisherman; he lives on charity; he lacerates his hands during his struggle; he carries his mast across his shoulders like a cross and falls down five times; he sleeps in cruciform position at the end of his ordeal. The boy Manolin keeps his faith in the old man, and is an embodiment of uncorrupted youth and hope, the figure to whom the fisherman finally passes the marlin's spear, a symbol of heroic vitality.
The publication of Hemingway's sea story in LIFE was met with approval by most reviewers, with the magazine selling over five million copies in two days. The Scribner's edition of The Old Man and the Sea topped bestseller lists for six months after its release. The novelist William Faulkner found the work to be Hemingway's best, venturing even that it was perhaps the best single piece of any of his contemporaries. Other critics echoed these sentiments, admiring its technical accomplishment, lyrical and rhythmic prose, and elegantly direct symbolism. However, the chant of praise was not unanimous, and the noted critics Philip Rahv and John Aldridge called the work minor, faulting its elemental emotion, colorless style, and lack of complexity because it dealt primarily with the physical and not the psychic world of the hero. Despite its detractors, the novella went on to earn Hemingway the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize the following year. A film version of the book, starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago, appeared in 1958. From 1952 to 1966, most commentaries on the novella were reverential, and humanistic critics like Philip Young, Leo Gurko, and Clinton S. Burhans admired the book's noble and tragic hero, its veneration for humanity, and notions of fraternal interdependence. Other commentators, including the well-known Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker, welcomed the elegantly presented Christian themes, including Santiago's piety and suffering, his saintly humility, and the idea of redemption from meaningless existence.
After 1966 came a shift in assessment. Young, who had earlier praised the work, withdrew his earlier adulation, objecting to its affected simplicity, and Robert P. Weeks pointed out its lack of realistic detail. By the mid-1970s few articles on the novella appeared in scholarly journals, and those that were published tended to concentrate on uncovering previously undetected biblical, baseball, or other allusions. The 1980s and 1990s saw even less critical interest in the work, with longer studies about Hemingway often dismissing the novella as using crude symbolism and lapsing repeatedly into sentimentality. Despite its fall from grace, the novella continues to enjoy a reputation as Hemingway's most distinctive fictional effort, and one in which can be found many of the ideas that informed both his work and his life.