The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea is a story 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.

Plot summary

The Old Man and the Sea tells an epic battle between an old, experienced fisherman and a giant marlin. It opens by explaining that the fisherman, who is named Santiago, has gone 84 days without catching any fish at all. He is 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, getting him food and discussing American baseball and his favorite player 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 onto 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, ending the long battle between the old man and the tenacious fish. Santiago straps the marlin to the side of 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 the sharks keep coming, and by nightfall the sharks have almost devoured the marlin’s entire carcass, leaving a skeleton consisting mostly of its backbone, its tail and its head. Finally reaching the shore before dawn on the next day, Santiago struggles on the way to his shack, carrying the heavy mast on his shoulder. Once home, he slumps onto his bed and falls into a deep sleep.

A group of fishermen gather the next day around the boat where the fish’s skeleton is still attached. One of the fishermen measures it to be 18 feet (5.5 m) 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 his youth—of lions on an African beach.

Background and publication

Written in 1951, and published in 1952, The Old Man and the Sea is the final work published during Hemingway’s lifetime. The book, dedicated to Hemingway’s literary editor Maxwell Perkins,[2] was featured in Life Magazine on September 1, 1952, and five million copies of the magazine were sold in two days.[3] The Old Man and the Sea also became a Book-of-the Month selection, and made Hemingway a celebrity.[4] Published in book form on 1 September 1952, the first edition print run was 50,000 copies.[5] The novella received the Pulitzer Prize in May, 1952,[6] and was specifically cited when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.[7][8] The success of The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway an international celebrity.[4] The Old Man and the Sea is taught at schools around the world and continues to earn foreign royalties.

Santiago, to show the honor in struggle and to draw biblical parallels to life in his modern world. Possibly based on the character of Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway had initially planned to use Santiago’s story, which became The Old Man and the Sea, as part of an 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 generally classified as a novella because it has no chapters or parts and is slightly longer than a short story.

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 question—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.”[12]

Supplemented with other instances of similar symbolism, Waldmeir’s 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”).[13] In juxtaposing this novella against Hemingway’s previous works, Weeks contends:
“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.”[13]

Some critics suggest “The Old Man and the Sea,” was Hemingway’s reaction towards the criticism of his most recent work, Across the River and into the Trees.[14]The negative reviews for Across the River and into the Trees distressed him, but were likely a catalyst to his writing of The Old Man and the Sea.
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