The Old Man and the Sea was an enormous success for Ernest Hemingway when it was published in 1952. At first glance, the story appears to be an extremely simple story of an old Cuban fisherman (Santiago), who catches an enormously large fish then loses it again. But, there's much more to the story than that...The Old Man and the Sea helped to revive Hemingway's reputation as a writer of great acclaim. This slim volume also contributed enormously to Hemingway's recognition as a world-renowned writer--with the award of the Nobel Prize for literature. The popular reception of the novel comes from its part-parable, part-eulogy style--recollecting a by-gone age in this spiritual quest for discovery. Touching and powerful in turns, the story is told in Hemingway's simple, brittle style. The book reaches out to a very human need--for stability and certainty.
Santiago is an old man, and many are starting to think that he can no longer fish. He has gone for many months without landing any kind of fish to speak of; and his apprentice, a young man named Manolin, has gone to work for a more prosperous boat. The fisherman sets out into the open sea and goes a little further out than he normally would in his desperation to catch a fish. At noon, a big Marlin takes hold of one of the lines, but the fish is far too big for him to handle.
Hemingway pays great attention to the skill and dexterity that Santiago uses in coping with the fish. Santiago lets the fish have enough line, so that it won't break his pole; but he and his boat are dragged out to sea for three days. Finally, the fish--an enormous and worthy opponent--grows tired; and Santiago kills it. Even this final victory does not end the Santiago's journey; he is a still far, far out to sea. To make matters worse, Santiago drags the Marlin behind the boat (and the blood from the dead fish attracts sharks).
Santiago does his best to beat the sharks away, but his efforts are not enough. The sharks eat the flesh off the Marlin, and Santiago is left with only the bones. Santiago gets back to shore--weary and tired--with nothing to show for his pains but the skeletal remains of a large Marlin. Even with just the bare remains of the fish, the experience has changed him, and altered the perception others have of him. Manolin wakes him the morning after his return and suggests that they once more fish together.
A Unique Knowing of the Other: The Old Man and the Sea
Far more than a simple story about a man and a fish, the short novella shows understanding of men very different from himself--while he elevates their simple lives to legendary status. Kinship and honor develops between the fish and the man--a throwback to an older time in a way that almost denigrates modern advancements (where enormous motorized boats kill thousands of fish at one time).
Hemingway writes of a time when fishing was not merely a business transaction, or a sport. Instead, fishing was an expression of humankind in its natural state--in tune with nature and oneself. Enormous stamina and power arises in the breast of Santiago. The simple fisherman is becomes a classical hero in his epic struggle.
A Life-and-Death Struggle?: The Old Man and the Sea
The old man holds on to the rope--even though he is cut and bruised by it, even though he wants to sleep and eat. He holds onto the rope as though his life depended on it. Once more Hemingway brings to the fore the power and masculinity of a simple man--in a simple habitat. Hemingway demonstrates how the heroic can live in even the most seemingly mundane circumstances.
The Old Man and the Sea has often been read as a Christian allegory:
The battle between man and fish lasts for three days.
Hemingway filled the lines of his novella with crucifixion imagery .
Although this critical stance/impression isn't entirely convincing, Hemingway certainly appears to be interested in the battle between life and death. His novella shows how death can invigorate life. If we compare The Old Man and the Sea with Hemingway's study of bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon, we see how killing and death brings men to an understanding of his own mortality--his own power over it.
This books is beautifully written and cunningly constructed, which is why The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most revered and most favored works. The power of this story lies in its simplicity. There is no ostentation to Hemingway's writing. No needless ornamentation. His stripped-down style enables him to tell a story of simple, almost-archetypal bravery and heroism.