The Old Man and the Sea
I ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of Grace and Clarence Edmonds Hemingway. He first published his writing in the Oak Park High School newspaper and he began his journalistic apprenticeship as a teenage reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917. Although his family expected him to attend university, Hemingway was drawn instead to the excitement of World War I. In the spring of 1918 he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross on the front line in Italy; in July 1918, two weeks short of his 19th birthday, he was wounded in battle.
After recovering from his wounds and until he was able to make a living writing fiction, Hemingway supported himself as a journalist. He lived in Paris in the early 1920s and worked as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. His first important work of fiction, a collection of short stories entitled In Our Time, appeared in 1924, followed in 1926 by the novel The Sun Also Rises. For the next three decades, Hemingway published one best-selling volume after another, including A Farewell to Arms (1929), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea. One of the most famous and influential novelists of his time, Hemingway is known for his precise, innovative prose style and his unique perspective.
Hemingway married Hadley Richardson in 1921; following their divorce, he married Pauline Pfeiffer in 1927. His second marriage also ended in divorce and Hemingway married Martha Gelhorn in 1940, only to divorce her and marry Mary Welsh in 1945. His macho public persona—he was known as a hunter, an aficionado of bullfighting, a drinker, and a womanizer—made him a celebrity. Hemingway’s writing career often tended to be overshadowed by the superficial media attention that surrounded his life and which had little to do with his fiction, which was firmly anchored in timeless, fundamental values such as courage, honour, truthfulness, and compassion. The Hemingway code has often been summed up by the author’s own phrase ‘grace under pressure’, a ‘grace’ that is not only physical and aesthetic, but also moral and spiritual. Indeed, much of Hemingway’s fiction is highly principled and profoundly religious.
Hemingway received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho.
The Old Man and the Sea is one of the most popular works of the 20th century. When The Old Man and the Sea first appeared in the September 1, 1952, issue of Life magazine, millions of people stood in line at news-stands to purchase a copy; 5,300,000 copies were sold in two days. The excitement generated by the novella, rare for such a serious piece of literature, was due to its unforgettable portrait of the old fisherman, Santiago, and its vivid depiction of the sea.
The Old Man and the Sea probes basic questions of life and death, and explores humankind’s relationship with nature. Free of the sentimentality that often characterizes stories dealing with nature and animals, the narrative carries a strong emotional impact. Primarily, it is an action story, with the great noble marlin, the malevolent, savage sharks, and the wise, skilful, and patient old man holding centre stage.
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 believed that the sea was the last great unexplored territory on Earth and The Old Man and the Sea travels deep into the nature of this mysterious setting.
IV THEMES AND CHARACTERS
The small cast of characters in The Old Man and the Sea consists of Santiago, the old fisherman, and Manolin, the boy who has fished with him for years. Even when the old man hits a run of bad luck, Manolin still wants to fish with him. However, Manolin’s parents demand that he fish with a more successful boat.
Other important characters come to life in Santiago’s mind. He speaks to and loves the flying fish, the dolphins, and the noble marlin. Santiago also talks to the sharks, but he meets their malevolence with enmity. The sea is a major presence in the book. Santiago thinks of the sea as a woman, ‘as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her’, while the younger fishermen think of the sea as the masculine ‘el mar’ and consider it ‘a contestant or a place or even an enemy’. The famous New York Yankees baseball player of the 1930s and 1940s, Joe DiMaggio, is a symbolic presence in the novel and is often in Santiago’s thoughts. DiMaggio plays on in spite of a painful bone spur. Santiago, too, perseveres in spite of his age and ‘bad luck’.
The book’s best-known line sums up its most important theme: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’ Hemingway suggests that, although a person may be stripped of everything in the process of living, a quest conducted with skill, courage, and endurance can guarantee the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Hemingway rejects the traditional happy ending in which Santiago, the impoverished old fisherman, would bring home the great fish intact and sell it for a large amount of money at market. Instead, Santiago brings only the bare skeleton of the marlin into port, earning no money yet garnering a far greater prize: rather than triumphing over nature, he achieves oneness with it.
Other important themes in the book centre on the master-apprentice relationship between Santiago and Manolin. The old man has taught the boy many important things—how to fish with skill and precision, and how to live with wisdom and dignity—but the old man also has great need for the boy, especially when he is alone at sea and must tackle the great fish. During his trying experience with the marlin, the old man repeatedly says: ‘I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.’ The dual theme of the old man’s solitude and the characters’ relationship of mutual respect and love is encapsulated in the statement: ‘No one should be alone in their old age.’
Another major theme is the kinship of all creatures. Santiago loves and respects the fish he kills. The old man finds it difficult to express the paradoxical love he feels for the fish: ‘I do not understand these things,’ he thinks, ‘but it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.’
Few writers have been more sensitive to nature, to the depths and the strengths of human character, and to the tragedy and the glory of human experience than Hemingway. All of his work is grounded in universal, timeless values: courage, precision, skill, honour, honesty, and dignity. Much of his writing is profoundly religious and deeply spiritual, but never moralistic. Hemingway’s writings examine the truth of experience, however dark or violent; he does not deny the reality of evil, suffering, and death, but he is equally concerned with the human struggle to transcend life’s difficulties through redemptive conduct and values.
V LITERARY TECHNIQUE
The Old Man and the Sea is a quest story focused on Santiago’s consciousness. Much in the same way that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue serves to reveal character, the novella functions as an extended exploration of the old man’s character.
Hemingway’s symbolism poses Santiago as a Christ-like figure. After the sharks have attacked 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 centre on the sport of baseball and dreams of youth.
The book’s simple plot contains some elements of suspense, but above all, the story’s attributes lie in its beautiful imagery, the poetic evocation of the sea, and the admirable character of the old man.
VI TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
Discuss the baseball imagery in the book. What does the ‘great DiMaggio’ symbolize? What does the ‘bone spur’ symbolize?
When Santiago was a boy, he saw ‘lions on the beaches’ in Africa. What do these lions symbolize? Why does he dream about Africa and the lions every night?
What is the difference, according to Santiago, between those who think of the sea as ‘la mar’ and those who speak of it as ‘el mar’?
Discuss some of the things Santiago knows about nature and the details he sees in the behaviour of the birds and fish. How did he learn these things?
When Santiago caught the albacore, he ‘hit him on the head for kindness’. Discuss this scene and Santiago’s ‘kindness’ in general.
Santiago says he is ‘not religious’, but he prays regularly and promises to make a pilgrimage if he catches the fish. Discuss Santiago’s religious feeling, both his natural piety and his Catholic piety.
Why is ‘no one worthy of eating’ the great marlin?
In one of the book’s most important passages, Santiago thinks: ‘But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.’ How do you interpret this statement?
Analyse in detail the relationship between Santiago and Manolin.
The main theme of the book is summed up in the single sentence: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’ Discuss in detail the meaning of this theme and the ways in which the book develops and illustrates the idea.
Compare Santiago’s feelings about the sharks with his feelings about all the other creatures in the book.
Analyse in detail the old man’s relationship with the marlin. Discuss his love, respect, and pity for it, and his determination to kill it. In how many ways are the man and fish ‘joined together’?
Discuss Santiago as a Christ-figure. Note the specific details that link Santiago with Christian imagery. The pattern of Santiago’s experience is suffering and endurance; is it also somehow redemptive?
VIII RELATED TITLES
In a general sense, all of Hemingway’s work is related to The Old Man and the Sea because as his last important work it represents the culmination and crystallization of the major themes that inform all his work. More specifically, Hemingway’s very early work ‘Big Two-Hearted River: Parts I&II’, written some three decades before The Old Man and the Sea, explores related material and themes: in the course of the story about a young man alone in the north woods of Michigan fishing for trout in a small wilderness stream, Hemingway examines the important themes of humankind’s relationship with nature and the question of human suffering and endurance. However, strictly speaking, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ should be seen as the final chapter in the story-cycle In Our Time, which deals primarily with the growth of Nick Adams. Many other Hemingway stories and novels examine related subject matter and themes: nature and people’s place in nature; fishing and hunting; relationships between a young protagonist and an older, wiser character. Examples of these works include ‘Indian Camp’, ‘The Battler’, ‘My Old Man’, and ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’.
Source: Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Copyright by Gale Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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