The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The story focuses on old Santiago and his two most important relationships: to a young boy, and to nature. Santiago has not caught a fish in many days when the story opens, and his young companion has been forced by his parents to fish on another boat. His love for the old man, however, prompts him to look after his needs nonetheless.

Santiago goes further out than usual and hooks a giant marlin. The major part of this brief and very spare work traces the three days that Santiago fights against this mighty fish. We see not only his courage, strength of will, and knowledge of his craft, but also his deep respect for and understanding of nature.

Santiago defeats the fish, which he addresses as a comrade and fellow-sufferer throughout the struggle, but loses his catch at the end to sharks. The old man returns to port exhausted and with only the skeleton of his great fish.

Hemingway suggests, however, that the old man cannot ultimately be defeated because he conducts himself with dignity and self-respect, no matter what the external circumstances. The young boy lovingly receives him back, heartbroken at Santiago’s suffering but glad for the vindication of the skills of his master.

The story lends itself to many symbolic interpretations. Some see it as an allegory of Hemingway’s life as an artist, laboring alone to realize the elusive prize of art, only to have his efforts torn apart by sharklike critics.

Others emphasize the distilled expression here of the famous Hemingway code: courage, endurance, suffering without complaint, and the like. If so, the code has been expanded somewhat to include humility, pity, loyalty, and love--though life is no less killing for these things.

Bibliography:

Brenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.

Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism . Lexington: University Press of...

(The entire section is 506 words.)