Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

Start Free Trial

Analyze the setting and symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for his novella The Old Man and the Sea. The book might be analyzed from a variety of perspectives and while the setting of the tale and symbolic references are most often the subject of analysis, the style and structure of the work are sometimes ignored.

Traditionally, the style of a prose work is the method of linguistic expression the author chooses to use in order to get a point across to the readers. Usually, style is unique to world-class writers and Hemingway is no exception. His words are akin to poetic prose. In The Old Man and the Sea, he offers a simple classical style. For example, in describing Santiago’s relationship with the boy, Hemingway writes, “The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him” (10). The author’s simple style mirrors the simple life of a Cuban fisherman. There is a myriad of examples of Hemingway’s clarity that should be explored by students attempting to analyze his style.

Another Hemingway stylistic trait is a departure from the traditional fall of a classic hero as a result of some tragic flaw. Instead, he presents protagonist Santiago as a man of heroic status, not because of a flaw that causes his defeat, but because of his great courage despite the failure of his heroic quest:

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions. (127)

As to Hemingway’s unified plot in the novella, the student essayist should look to the author’s treatment of the traditional progression of the action from the beginning, the middle, and the end. Generally speaking, novels start with an exposition, which introduces essential prior elements of the plot for the reader’s convenience. This is followed by the rising action, by which the author controls the course of the story’s events and introduces complications. Next, the action reaches its peak or climax of the complications facing the protagonist. This is followed by the crisis, or turning point, that will determine the hero’s success or failure of the quest. The crisis prompts the falling action, during which the hero loses control over the course of events in the plot. Finally, in the traditional structure of a novel’s plot, there is dénouement, or resolution, which is the final part of the story where everything is made clear to the reader.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway, of course, breaks from traditional structure. He separates his novella into two major parts treated equally. The first is an introduction to the story. He carefully narrates the descriptions of the character of the protagonist and details through dialogue the background and events leading up to the catching of the great fish:

He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy. It was the weight of the fish and he let the line slip down, down, down, unrolling off the first of the two reserve coils. As it went down, slipping lightly through the old man’s fingers, he still could feel the great weight, though the pressure of his thumb and finger were almost imperceptible. (43)

The reader can see pieces of the old man’s character by closely examining the protagonist’s words. One of the author’s strengths lies in his ability to omit pertinent facts, leaving them to the interpretation of the reader:

"Fish, he said, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."

Let us hope so, he thought. (54)

The second part of the story centers on the conclusion of the tale. It begins with the rising action as Santiago patiently awaits his big catch and his fight to the death with the giant marlin. The climax is reached with the killing of the great fish, although it is a useless struggle. The dénouement is the devastating attack upon the fish by sharks, destroying the great adversary.

Throughout the journey, Santiago is never afraid, never fearful, and never alone. He ends his quest on an optimistic note, despite his failure. Searching for supporting examples allows the student essayist to not only learn about the author’s unique style and structure, but also to experience the power of the unspoken word employed by Ernest Hemingway in this masterpiece.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial