The Old Man and the Sea

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Novels

The Old Man and the Sea
Original book cover
Author Ernest Hemingway
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Tragedy, Novella
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Publication date 1952
Media type Print ( hardback and paperback)
Pages 118
ISBN ISBN 978-0-684-80122-3
Preceded by Across the River and Into the Trees
Followed by Islands in the Stream

The Old Man and the Sea is a novella (just over 100 pages in length) by Ernest Hemingway, written in Cuba in 1951 and published in 1952. It was the last major work of fiction to be produced by Hemingway and published in his lifetime. One of his most famous works, it centers upon Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. It is noteworthy in twentieth century fiction, reaffirming Hemingway's worldwide literary prominence as well as being a significant factor in his selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Background and publication

Most people maintain that the years following Hemingway's publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940 until 1952 were the bleakest in his literary career. The novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) was almost unanimously disparaged by critics as self-parody. Evidently his participation as an Allied correspondent in World War II did not yield fruits equivalent to those wrought of his experiences in World War I ( A Farewell to Arms, 1929) or the Spanish Civil War ( For Whom the Bell Tolls).

Hemingway had initially planned to use Santiago's story, which became The Old Man and the Sea, as part of a random intimacy between mother and son and also the fact of relationships that cover most of the book relate to the Bible, which he referred to as "The Sea Book." (He also referred to the Bible as the "Sea of Knowledge" and other such things.) Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream. Positive feedback he received for On the Blue Water ( Esquire, April 1936) led him to rewrite it as an independent work. The book is a novella because it has no chapters or parts and is slightly longer than a short story.

The novella first appeared, in its 26,500-word entirety, as part of the September 1, 1952 edition of Life magazine. 5.3 million copies of that issue were sold within two days. The majority of concurrent criticism was positive, although some dissenting criticism has since emerged. The title was misprinted on the cover of an early edition as The Old Men and the Sea.

Inspiration for character

While Hemingway was living in Cuba beginning in 1940 with his third wife Martha Gellhorn, one of his favorite pastimes was to sail and fish in his boat, named the Pilar. General biographical consensus holds that the model for Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea was, at least in part, the Cuban fisherman Gregorio Fuentes.

Fuentes, also known as Goyo to his friends, was born in 1897 on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, migrated to Cuba when he was six years old and met Hemingway there in 1928. In the 1930s, Hemingway hired him to look after his boat. During Hemingway's Cuban years a strong friendship formed between Hemingway and Fuentes. For almost thirty years, Fuentes served as the captain of the Pilar; this included time during which Hemingway did not live in Cuba.

Fuentes at times would admit that the story was not exactly about him. He related that the true inspiration of the old man and the boy did exist but they never knew who they were. The story goes that in the late 1940s, upon return from an early morning fishing trip, Fuentes and Hemingway saw a small rowboat 10 miles out to sea. Hemingway asked Fuentes to approach the vessel to see if they needed help. Inside the boat was an old man and a boy. As the vessels closed in the old man began yelling at them with insults including telling them to go to hell, indicating that they had scared away the fish. According to Fuentes, he and Hemingway looked at each other in surprise. Just the same, Hemingway asked Fuentes to lower them some food and drinks while the old man and boy glared at them. Without another word exchanged, the two boats parted ways. According to Fuentes, Hemingway began immediately to write in his notebook and later asked him to find the old man. According to Fuentes, he never was able to find the fisherman that had made such an impression on Hemingway. Fuentes recounts that this was the real origin of the lore. A few years after The Old Man and the Sea was published, residents of Cojimar believed that the old fisherman that Fuentes and Hemingway ran into at sea was a humble local fisherman they called el viejo Miguel; some described his physical appearance as a wiry Spencer Tracy.

Fuentes, suffering from cancer, died in 2002; he was 104 years old. Prior to his death, he donated Hemingway's Pilar to the Cuban government.

Plot summary

The Old Man and the Sea recounts an epic battle between an old, experienced fisherman and a giant marlin said to be the largest catch of his life. It opens by explaining that the fisherman, who is named Santiago (but only directly referred to outside of dialogue as "the old man"), has gone 84 days without catching any fish at all. He is apparently so unlucky that his young apprentice, Manolin, has been forbidden by his parents to sail with the old man and been ordered to fish with more successful fishermen. Still dedicated to the old man, however, the boy visits Santiago's shack each night, hauling back his fishing gear, feeding him, and discussing American baseball—most notably Santiago's idol, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago tells Manolin that on the next day, he will venture far out into the Gulf to fish, confident that his unlucky streak is near its end.

Thus on the eighty-fifth day, Santiago sets out alone, taking his skiff far into the Gulf. He sets his lines and, by noon of the first day, a big fish that he is sure is a marlin takes his bait. Unable to pull in the great marlin, Santiago instead finds the fish pulling his skiff. Two days and two nights pass in this manner, during which the old man bears the tension of the line with his body. Though he is wounded by the struggle and in pain, Santiago expresses a compassionate appreciation for his adversary, often referring to him as a brother. He also determines that because of the fish's great dignity, no one will be worthy of eating the marlin.

On the third day of the ordeal, the fish begins to circle the skiff, indicating his tiredness to the old man. Santiago, now completely worn out and almost in delirium, uses all the strength he has left in him to pull the fish onto its side and stab the marlin with a harpoon, thereby ending the long battle between the old man and the tenacious fish.

Santiago straps the marlin to his skiff and heads home, thinking about the high price the fish will bring him at the market and how many people he will feed.

While Santiago continues his journey back to the shore, sharks are attracted to the trail of blood left by the marlin in the water. The first, a great mako shark, Santiago kills with his harpoon, losing that weapon in the process. He makes a new harpoon by strapping his knife to the end of an oar to help ward off the next line of sharks; in total, five sharks are slain and many others are driven away. But by night, the sharks have almost devoured the marlin's entire carcass, leaving a skeleton consisting mostly of its backbone, its tail and its head, the latter still bearing the giant spear. The old man castigates himself for sacrificing the marlin. Finally reaching the shore before dawn on the next day, he struggles on the way to his shack, carrying the heavy mast on his shoulder. Once home, he slumps onto his bed and enters a very deep sleep.

A group of fishermen gathers the next day around the boat where the fish's skeleton is still attached. One of the fishermen measures it to be eighteen feet from nose to tail. Tourists at the nearby café mistakenly take it for a shark. Manolin, worried during the old man's endeavor, cries upon finding him safe asleep. The boy brings him newspapers and coffee. When the old man wakes, they promise to fish together once again. Upon his return to sleep, Santiago dreams of lions on the African beach.

Symbolism of character

The Old Man and the Sea allows various interpretations. Hemingway emphasizes that

No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I 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.

The style of the work, the simplicity and the concreteness of its descriptions, provides a rich opportunity for symbolic interpretations. Some insights follow.

Santiago represents Christ suffering. Hemingway compares him to Jesus Christ on several occasions. He describes Santiago's cry as a "...a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hand and into the wood" (107). Santiago also "...picked the mast up and put it on his shoulder and started up the road. He...[sat] down five times before he reached his shack" (121) much like Jesus did on the journey to his crucifixion, carrying the cross. Later Santiago sleeps "...face down ... with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up" (122), the position of Jesus on the cross. All throughout the book the old man wishes for salt, a staple seasoning in the human diet. He is a fisherman, similar to Christ's disciples. It is also quite ironic that he is longing for salt in the environment that abounds in besides open space, salty sea water. Quite like the predicament of man, he feels he is surrounded by "it" yet it is precisely "it" that he longs for. He wishes the dissolved salt (it) could crystallize and be intelligible to him.

The marlin represents what man is searching for whether it may be good or bad. Some men love their gods, but he hates the fish as men hate their gods. The fish was very beautiful and huge and Santiago felt a connection with it, he considered it his brother. Hemingway says that Santiago is not a religious man, but he seems to have some faith as shown by his offers to say his "Hail Marys" and praises if he catches the marlin.

Literary significance and criticism

The Old Man and the Sea served to reinvigorate Hemingway's literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novella was initially received with much popularity; it restored many readers' confidence in Hemingway's capability as an author. Its publisher, Scribner's, on an early dust jacket, called the novella a "new classic," and many critics favorably compared it with such works as William Faulkner's "The Bear" and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Following such acclaim, however, a school of critics emerged that interpreted the novella as a disappointing minor work. For example, critic Philip Young provided an admiring review in 1952, just following The Old Man and the Sea's publication, in which he stated that it was the book "in which Hemingway said the finest single thing he ever had to say as well as he could ever hope to say it." However, in 1966, Young claimed that the "failed novel" too often "went way out." These self-contradictory views show that critical reaction ranged from adoration of the book's mythical, pseudo-religious intonations to flippant dismissal as pure fakery. The latter is founded in the notion that Hemingway, once a devoted student of realism, failed in his depiction of Santiago as a supernatural, clairvoyant impossibility.

Joseph Waldmeir's essay entitled "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man" is one of the most famed favorable critical readings of the novella—and one which has defined analytical considerations since. Perhaps the most memorable claim therein is Waldmeir's answer to the rhetorical question,

Just what is the book's message?
The answer assumes a third level on which The Old Man and the Sea must be read—as a sort of allegorical commentary on all his previous work, by means of which it may be established that the religious overtones of The Old Man and the Sea are not peculiar to that book among Hemingway's works, and that Hemingway has finally taken the decisive step in elevating what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of a religion.

Waldmeir was one of the most prominent critics to wholly consider the function of the novella's Christian imagery, made most evident through Santiago's blatant reference to the crucifixion following his sighting of the sharks that reads:

Ay, he said aloud. 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.

Waldmeir's analysis of this line, supplemented with other instances of similar symbolism, caused him to claim that The Old Man and the Sea was a seminal work in raising Hemingway's "philosophy of Manhood" to a religious level. This hallmark criticism stands as one of the most durable, positive treatments of the novella.

On the other hand, one of the most outspoken critics of The Old Man and the Sea is Robert P. Weeks. His 1962 piece "Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea" presents his claim that the novella is a weak and unexpected divergence from the typical, realistic Hemingway (referring to the rest of Hemingway's body of work as "earlier glories"). In juxtaposing this novella against Hemingway's previous works, Weeks explains that

The difference, however, in the effectiveness with which Hemingway employs this characteristic device in his best work and in The Old Man and the Sea is illuminating. The work of fiction in which Hemingway devoted the most attention to natural objects, The Old Man and the Sea, is pieced out with an extraordinary quantity of fakery, extraordinary because one would expect to find no inexactness, no romanticizing of natural objects in a writer who loathed W.H. Hudson, could not read Thoreau, deplored Melville's rhetoric in Moby Dick, and who was himself criticized by other writers, notably Faulkner, for his devotion to the facts and his unwillingness to "invent."

Awards and nominations

The Old Man and the Sea led to numerous accolades for Hemingway, including the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He also earned the Award of Merit Medal for the Novel from the American Academy of Letters that same year. Most prestigiously, the Nobel Prize in Literature came in 1954, "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style."

Retrieved from ""
This Wikipedia Selection is sponsored by SOS Children , and is a hand-chosen selection of article versions from the English Wikipedia edited only by deletion (see for details of authors and sources). The articles are available under the GNU Free Documentation License. See also our Disclaimer.