Last Updated on April 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
The Old Man and the Sea, although usually called a novel, is not divided into chapters; yet, at 27,500 words, it is too long to be called a short story. Efforts to split it into recognizably separate parts are haphazard at best, because its simple action moves along a timeline of morning, noon, sunset, midnight, and dawn, which is then repeated, and with little reminiscing by the protagonist and no interpolations by the author.
The action may be arbitrarily, but perhaps helpfully, divided into introduction, three dramatic sections, denouement, and coda. In this introduction, the reader learns that for forty days Santiago fished off Havana in the Gulf Stream, aided by his friend and admirer Manolin, and then for forty-four more days alone, all without success. In part 1, the action begins. On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago rows his skiff “far out” and at noon hooks an enormous male marlin. In part 2, the fish is so strong that it tows Santiago’s skiff northwest into the night and beyond. The following afternoon, the old man first sees his quarry when it suddenly surfaces. All through the second night, it tows the old man, whose hands are cut and whose back is strained. It circles at dawn, and Santiago harpoons it at noon and lashes it alongside the skiff. In part 3, a mako shark attacks and devours part of the marlin. Santiago kills the shark, but his fear that more sharks will follow the bloody wake is soon confirmed by their awesome appearance. In the denouement, the scavengers complete the ruin of his prize, leaving only the marlin’s skeleton, which he brings to shore. Bone-tired, he sleeps again in his shack. In the coda, Manolin brings Santiago coffee next morning, and the two determine to fish again.
Most of the time, Santiago is the only person whose words and thoughts are recorded. When he talks aloud to himself, as he often does, Ernest Hemingway puts his exact words within quotation marks. At other times, his unspoken thoughts are recorded but without the use of quotation marks and with the pronouns “he” and “I” used without evident distinction.
The Old Man and the Sea displays the classical unity of time, place, and action—with a distinct beginning, long middle, and end. It comprises three days and nights, occurs mostly on the vast sea, and presents one sequence of events. It is knit together by skillful foreshadowing, largely through Santiago’s repeated refrain of going out too far, his frequently calling his quarry his “brother,” his thoughts about baseball (especially his hero Joe DiMaggio), and his dreaming about playful lions that he saw long ago on African beaches. Manolin is involved in the action only in the first several pages and in the last few pages of the story. Thus, the novella has a sonata form, with Manolin constituting the short first and third motifs and a man pitted against the sea and its creatures as the more elaborate second motif.
Last Updated on April 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384
The Caribbean Sea is the branch of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Cuba. The sea contributes to the sense of fatalism in the primary character. Alone on the vast expanses of the sea, Santiago, the “old man” of the title, suggests a symbolic understanding of human alienation amid an indifferent world. The sea functions as a backdrop for his reflections of his interior being, thus reinforcing themes of loneliness, struggle, and courage. Ernest Hemingway says of Santiago, “He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now.” His loneliness, however, is also comforted by the sea, as he...
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knows that no man is ever completely alone on the sea.
The desolation of the open sea overwhelms the character, suggesting man’s relative insignificance, yet in this vast space, a courageous man finds beauty and solace by understanding his relationship to the environment. For Santiago, this relationship is like that of a man and woman (again reinforcing the man’s solitary existence). He understands the sea as la mar, a feminine noun in Spanish, something to be loved, something that gives or withholds great favors. In contrast, others understand the sea to be masculine, el mar, a rival or even an enemy.
Despite Santiago’s understanding of the aesthetic nature of his relationship to the sea, the sea itself is ultimately a violent, dangerous place on which survival becomes a primary goal and the ability to survive is the cardinal virtue. It is a place where predators feed on lesser forms of life, and Santiago’s struggle with the fish and with the sharks who feed on it illustrates that man also participates within this vicious cycle. Human existence is about surviving in a beautiful but hostile environment.
This place reveals the man’s poverty. Symbolically, it functions as a place where he retreats each night in humility before going out at daylight to fish and survive. It is a returning to the womb, demonstrating man’s longed-for comfort in stark contrast to the hostilities on the sea.
Havana is the capital and principal city of Cuba, in sight of which Santiago has long done his fishing. Its opulent urban setting contrasts with Santiago’s simple village and his daily struggle to catch and sell fish.
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Cuba and the United States in the Early 1950s
Relations between Cuba and the United States were generally friendly during most of the 1950s, as they had been since 1934. That year marked the end of the Platt Amendment, which had given the United States the right to intervene in Cuba’s affairs. The United States’ ownership of many Cuban sugar mills, however, was a continuing source of dispute. In 1952, President Prio Socarras was overthrown in a military coup by General Fulgencio Batista y Zalvidar. Batista had previously ruled as dictator from 1933 to 1940 and would rule again until 1959, when he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Despite Hemingway’s move to Ketchum, Idaho, soon after Castro and his supporters overthrew the Batista regime, Hemingway had supported both the overthrow and what he called the “historical necessity” of the Castro revolution.
Cuban culture during the first half of the twentieth century was marked perhaps foremost by an ambivalent view toward the Catholic Church. Unlike other Latin American countries, church and state in Cuba were constitutionally separate during this period. Because of its long Spanish heritage, however, Cuba was still dominated by Catholic cultural influences. The result was a contradictory situation in which eighty-five percent of the population called itself Catholic, but only ten percent actually practiced the faith. The effect of these circumstances is seen many times in The Old Man and the Sea. For example, when Santiago battles the marlin, he says, “I am not religious, but I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if I catch him.” Later after he has killed the fish, Santiago wonders if it is a sin to hope that he will make it back to shore with the fish’s meat intact, but he quickly dismisses the thought. “Do not think about sin,” he thought. “There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it.”
Cubans, like other Latin Americans, place a high value on the innate worth of the individual. Success in life is defined under the code of personalismo as the achievement of one’s spiritual potential or personal destiny rather than one’s financial or career status. Thus Santiago is respected as a skilled and unique individual even though he has not caught a fish in three months. As seen through the eyes of Manolin and the omniscient narrator, Santiago is a heroic and majestic figure who, like Odysseus or Christ, has undergone a great ordeal and provides a model to emulate.
Machismo, or maleness, is an important male goal in traditional Latin American society. Machismo is ideally developed in several ways, including military, athletic, and intellectual exercises, and sexual prowess. Most men are not expected to live up to the machismo ideal in practice. Yet by cultivating these powers, one can approach being the ideal man. Santiago, for example, is admired because of his physical power of endurance. He takes great pride in having in his youth defeated a powerful Black man in an all-day hand-wrestling contest in Casablanca. Santiago also places a high value on mental qualities like his self-confidence and his vast knowledge of the “tricks” of fishing. Santiago is so confident of these qualities that he can bet “everything [the fish] has against only my will and my intelligence.” It has often been noted that in his own life, Hemingway also strove to challenge himself intellectually through his friendships and writing, as well as physically, through boxing, war service, hunting, fishing, and bullfighting. Although Hemingway is sometimes criticized for what is interpreted as an attraction to violence for its own sake, it is not hard to understand why the Latin American belief in machismo appealed to the author.
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The narrative takes place in the 1940s. Although the opening and closing scenes take place on land in a small Cuban fishing village, the dominant setting is the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway believes the sea to be the last great unexplored territory on earth, and this work travels deeply into the nature of this mysterious setting.
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Point of View
All novels use at least one point of view, or angle of vision, from which to tell the story. The point of view may be that of a single character or of several characters in turn. The Old Man and the Sea uses the omniscient, or “all-knowing,” point of view of the author, who acts as a hidden narrator. The omniscient point of view enables the author to stand outside and above the story itself and thus to provide a wider perspective from which to present the thoughts of the old man and the other characters. Thus at the beginning of the tale, the omniscient narrator tells us not only what Santiago and the boy said to each other, but what the other fishermen thought of the old man. “The older fishermen . . . looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it.”
The Old Man and the Sea takes place entirely in a small fishing village near Havana, Cuba, and in the waters of the Gulf Stream, a current of warm water that runs north, then east of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. Hemingway visited Cuba as early as 1928 and later lived on the coast near Havana for nineteen years, beginning in 1940, so he knew the area very well. The references to Joe Dimaggio and a series of games between the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers in which Dimaggio came back from a slump have enabled scholars to pinpoint the time during which the novel takes place as mid-September 1950. As Manolin also reminds readers, September is the peak of the blue marlin season. The story takes three days, the length of the battle against the fish, but as Manolin reminds the old man, winter is coming on and he will need a warm coat.
Like the three-day epic struggle itself of Santiago against the fish, Hemingway’s story falls into three main parts. The first section entails getting ready for the fishing trip; then the trip out, including catching the fish and being towed by it, which encompasses all of the first two days and part of the third; and finally the trip back. Another way of dividing and analyzing the story is by using a dramatic structure devised by Aristotle. In the opening part of the story, or rising action, the readers are presented with various complications of the conflict between the other fishermen’s belief that Santiago is permanently unlucky and Santiago and the boy’s belief that the old man will still catch a fish. For example, readers learn that some of the other villagers, like the restaurant owner Pedrico, help Santiago, while others avoid him. The climax of the story, when Santiago kills the fish, marks the point at which the hero’s fortunes begin to take a turn for the worse. This turning point becomes evident when sharks start to attack the fish and leads inevitably to the resolution (or denouement) of the drama, in which Santiago, having no effective weapons left to fight the sharks, must watch helplessly as they strip the carcass of all its remaining meat. Perhaps showing the influence of modern short story writers, however, Hemingway has added to the ending what James Joyce called an epiphany, or revelation of Santiago’s true character. This moment comes when the author implicitly contrasts the tourist’s ignorance of the true identity of the marlin’s skeleton to Santiago’s quiet knowledge of his skill and his hope, reflected in his repeated dreams of the lions on the beach, that he will fish successfully again.
A symbol can be defined as a person, place, or thing that represents something more than its literal meaning. Santiago, for example, has often been compared to Christ in the way he suffers. His bleeding hands, the way he carries the boat mast like a cross, and the way he lies on his bed with his arms outstretched, all have clear parallels in the story of Christ’s crucifixion. In this interpretation of the story, Manolin is seen as a disciple who respects and loves Santiago as his teacher. In this context, the sea could be said to represent earthly existence. Humans, as stated in Genesis, have been created by God to have dominion over all other living creatures, including the fish in the sea. Yet humans like Santiago still suffer because of Adam and Eve’s original sin of eating the apple from the tree of knowledge. Santiago, however, says he does not understand the concept of sin. Santiago can also be seen more broadly as a representative of all human beings who must struggle to survive yet hope and dream of better things to come. Hemingway himself does not seem to mind if his characters, setting, and plot have different meanings to different readers. He once said that he “tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”
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The Old Man and the Sea employs straightforward prose and conventional narrative form and technique. Technically speaking, it is perhaps Hemingway’s most conventional fiction. None of the modernist techniques—indirection, implication, allusion, omission, unexplained juxtaposition—that Hemingway so elaborately deploys in In Our Time (1925; see separate entry) and other works are used in this parable-like tale, which helps to explain why it reaches the widest audience of any Hemingway work.
Consider, for example, his use of symbolism to suggest that Santiago is a Christ-figure or, at the very least, that Santiago’s suffering is analogous to Christ’s suffering. After the sharks attack his marlin, Santiago cries out “Ay”; then Hemingway writes that “there is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” The many Christological associations in the novel are obvious, and spelled out, in a way that they would never be in Hemingway’s earlier modernist fiction.
Another technical aspect of the book worthy of attention is the manner in which the novel functions as one long sustained exploration of the old man’s character and consciousness, somewhat in the fashion that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue serves to reveal character. Overall the plot, action, and story line are remarkably simple and direct; technical elements of pacing and timing are likewise handled in conventional but highly effective fashion. For example, the great marlin is first seen, leaping high out of the sea, at the exact midway point of the book. In The Old Man and the Sea, then, Hemingway’s technical mastery dazzles the reader, not through formal experimentation and elaborate technique, but through clear, stunning imagery, poetic evocations of the sea and its creatures, and vivid characterization of the old man; and all of this is immediately accessible to any reader.
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Hemingway focuses on Santiago’s consciousness in this quest story. Very much in the way that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue serves to reveal character, this novella functions as one long exploration of the old man’s character.
Hemingway’s symbolism suggests that Santiago is a Christ-figure. After the sharks attack his fish, for example, Santiago says, “Ay”; Hemingway writes that “there is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” At the end of the book, Santiago struggles up the hill with the mast on his shoulder, a symbolic echo of Christ carrying the cross. Many “religious” images contribute to this symbolic pattern, while other patterns of symbolism center on baseball and dreams of youth.
The book’s simple plot contains some element of suspense, but above all, the book lives in its beautiful imagery, the poetic evocation of the sea, and the admirable character of the old man.
The moon had been up for a long time but he slept on and the fish pulled on steadily and the boat moved into the tunnel of clouds.
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If the reader accepts the apparent critical consensus, there are very few literary precedents for The Old Man and the Sea. Moby-Dick (1851), another great sea-centered novel involving a quest for a great creature, is sometimes cited as a precedent, but the resemblances are superficial. Others have noted the biblical qualities of Hemingway’s story. Also, for the evocation of the sea and the human place in the design of nature, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” (1898) provides a certain resonance, and we know that Hemingway admired Crane’s work. Perhaps more directly to the point would be precedents which involve characters of great simplicity and dignity who interact reverently with nature. The most compelling instance here—and Hemingway may well have had it in mind when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea—may be William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). In particular, consider the portions of that novel which deal with Sam Fathers—who is a direct analogue of Santiago—and hunting. Faulkner’s “The Old People” (1942) and “The Bear” (1942) depict an exemplar-apprentice relationship between a wise and simple, humble and proud old man (Sam Fathers) and a young boy (Ike McCaslin), a quest for a noble creature (the bear), and a rich and reverential evocation of nature.
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- The Old Man and the Sea was adapted as a feature film starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago and Felipe Pazos as the Boy, Warner Brothers, 1958. This film has been praised for some of its visual effects, and the score won an Academy Award.
- It was also the source of a made-for-TV production in 1990 starring Anthony Quinn, Gary Cole, Alexis Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, and Francesco Quinn.
- The novel is also available on a two-cassette sound recording narrated by Charlton Heston.
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Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. One of the earliest and still one of the best critical studies of Hemingway’s works.
Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. New York: Scribner’s, 1969. The first full-length biography of Hemingway, this volume remains the best and most reliable resource for a balanced portrait of the man and his career.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Conversations with Ernest Hemingway. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. A useful and convenient compilation of Hemingway interviews and statements.
The Hemingway Review. Most of the important new scholarly and critical work on Hemingway appears in this journal.
Moore, Gene M. “Ernest Hemingway.” In Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, edited by Walton Beacham. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Contains a useful overview of Hemingway criticism and biography.
Reynolds, Michael. The Young Hemingway. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986. The first volume in a multivolume biography of Hemingway, this judicious work is one of the most significant and substantive of the many biographies that have appeared since Baker’s landmark study.
Wagner, Linda W., ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1987. Contains some of the best critical essays on Hemingway’s work. See especially William Faulkner, “Review of The Old Man and the Sea,” and Linda W. Wagner, “The Poem of Santiago and Manolin.”
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972. A useful guide to Hemingway’s work.
Williams, Wirt. The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. This critical study contains an interesting chapter on The Old Man and the Sea, treating it as tragedy and as “Christian fable.”
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Baker, Carlos, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels. Scribner’s, 1962, pp. 132–72.
Beegel, Susan F. “Conclusion: The Critical Reputation of Ernest Hemingway.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson. Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 276.
Brenner, Gerry, and Earl Rovit. “The Structure of the Fiction.” In Ernest Hemingway, Revised Edition. Twayne, 1986, pp. 62–89.
Brenner, Gerry, ed. The Old Man and the Sea: The Story of a Common Man. Twayne, 1991.
Lynn, Kenneth. Hemingway. Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966, p. 274.
For Further Study
Burhans, Clifford. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man.” In American Literature, January, 1960, p. 447. Burhans relates The Old Man and the Sea to Hemingway’s earlier work and finds it a mature statement of the author’s philosophy.
Burhans, Clinton S., Jr. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man.” In Hemingway and His Critics: An International Anthology, edited by Carlos Baker. Hill and Wang, 1961, pp. 259–68. The critic describes the novel as Hemingway’s “mature view of the tragic irony of man’s fate.”
Burwell, Rose Marie. Hemingway: The Postwar Years and the Posthumous Novels. Cambridge University Press, 1996. Burwell’s work has gathered considerable acclaim for its supplanting of the wound theory and notions of code heroes with new readings of the late works.
Griffith, John. “Rectitude in Hemingway’s Fiction: How Rite Makes Right.” In Hemingway in Our Time, edited by Richard Astro and Jackson T. Benson. Oregon State University Press, 1974, pp. 159–73. Griffith discusses the author’s expressions of “ritual correctness and moral right.”
Kinnamon, Kenneth. “Hemingway and Politics." In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson. Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 149–69. Despite the author’s noted individualism and scorn for politicians, Kinnamon makes a strong case for a consistent leftism in Hemingway’s basic political philosophy.
Levin, Harry. “Observations on the Style of Ernest Hemingway.” In Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert P. Weeks. Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 72–85. Levin discusses Hemingway’s “power of connotation” and “oblique suggestion.”
Love, Glen. “Revaluing Nature: Towards an Ecological Criticism.” In Old West—New West: Centennial Essays, edited by Barbara H. Meldrum. University of Idaho Press, 1993. Love chastises critics for failing to respond to environmental issues and suggests that works like Hemingway’s “engage such issues profoundly.”
Morgan, Kathleen, and Luis Losada. “Santiago and The Old Man and the Sea: A Homeric Hero.” In The Hemingway Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 35–51. The critics discuss Homeric influences in the novel.
Morrison, Toni. “Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks.” In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 63ff. The author’s multicultural interpretations of Hemingway (though Morrison does not refer specifically to The Old Man and the Sea) suggests that multiculturalism may be a source of new insights into Hemingway’s work.
Plimpton, George. “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway.” In Hemingway and His Critics: An International Anthology, edited by Carlos Baker. Hill and Wang, 1961, pp. 19–37. The author discusses his working methods and techniques employed in the novel.
Spilka, Mark. Hemingway’s Quarrel with Androgyny. University of Nebraska Press, 1990, p. 189. Spilka notes that throughout his life, and contrary to his public persona, Hemingway was very dependent on women and secretly identified with them.
Sylvester, Bickford. “The Cuban Context of The Old Man and the Sea.” In The Cambridge Companion to Ernest Hemingway, edited by Scott Donaldson. Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 243–68. A fascinating essay on how Hemingway’s wide knowledge of local customs, history, religion, and baseball informs the substance of his novel.
Waldmeir, Joseph. “Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway’s Religion of Man.” In Ernest Hemingway: Five Decades of Criticism, edited by Linda Welshimer Wagner. Michigan State University Press, 1974, pp. 144–52. The critic explicates Christian symbolism in the novel.
Williams, Wirt. “The Old Man and the Sea: The Culmination.” In The Tragic Art of Ernest Hemingway. Louisiana State University Press, 1981, pp. 172–97. Williams focuses on the “tragic action” of the novel as a struggle of will.
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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 Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.
Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s roots in previous Hemingway works and discusses Santiago as a “code hero,” as distinct from a “Hemingway hero.” Claims simple interpretation of the book’s symbols reduces their meanings.