The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea



The Pequod Review:

At only 27,000 words, The Old Man and the Sea is closer in length to a short story than a novel. It tells the story of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish for 84 days, a misfortune that has earned him a mixture of pity and disdain from his fellow townspeople. On his 85th day, he ventures out to sea alone and lands a 1,500-pound marlin. However, he is too far from shore and on his way back his boat is attacked by sharks, and his marlin is eaten. Santiago returns to his village devastated, and falls into a deep sleep.

The bulk of the story takes place on the water, and some of the best and most profound moments are when Santiago and the fish are locked in battle:

He felt faint again now but he held on the great fish all the strain that he could. I moved him, he thought. Maybe this time I can get him over. Pull, hands, he thought. Hold up, legs. Last for me, head. Last for me. You never went. This time I’ll pull him over.

But when he put all of his effort on, starting it well out before the fish came alongside and pulling with all his strength, the fish pulled part way over and then righted himself and swam away.

“Fish,” the old man said. “Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too?”

That way nothing is accomplished, he thought. His mouth was too dry to speak but he could not reach for the water now. I must get him alongside this time, he thought. I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. You’re good for ever.

On the next turn, he nearly had him. But again the fish righted himself and swam slowly away.

You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

Now you are getting confused in the head, he thought. You must keep your head clear. Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man. Or a fish, he thought. “Clear up, head,” he said in a voice he could hardly hear. “Clear up.”

Twice more it was the same on the turns. I do not know, the old man thought. He had been on the point of feeling himself go each time. I do not know. But I will try it once more. He tried it once more and he felt himself going when he turned the fish. The fish righted himself and swam off again slowly with the great tail weaving in the air. I’ll try it again, the old man promised, although his hands were mushy now and he could only see well in flashes. He tried it again and it was the same. So he thought, and he felt himself going before he started; I will try it once again.

He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony and the fish came over onto his side and swam gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff and started to pass the boat, long, deep, wide, silver and barred with purple and interminable in the water.

The Old Man and the Sea has become one of Hemingway’s most famous novels, but this seems to me to be largely a product of its timing. The book was published in 1952, after several disappointing works and more than a decade removed from his last great success (For Whom the Bell Tolls, in 1940). If The Old Man and the Sea had appeared in 1941 or 1942, it likely would have been viewed as a lesser and more insular book compared to his landmark novels. But coming at the end of a twelve year drought, Hemingway’s readers and critics were ready to embrace him again, and it was received enthusiastically. Hemingway certainly deserved to have his reputation restored — and without it, he probably wouldn't have won the Nobel Prize two years later — but The Old Man and the Sea is a minor novella that doesn’t match the power his best short stories.