Fiction Reads: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. 

From The Old Man and the Sea | Page 1

Violence in its varied forms was an endless fascination for American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). Recurrent themes in his work – War, deep-sea fishing, hunting, bullfighting, great loss, tragedy, and grace under pressure.

The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is a deep dive into man’s bond with nature, the contradictions, ironies, and struggles of a fisherman’s life, culminating in how a man can be destroyed but not defeated. 

Illustration by Michael Nicholson

The Old Man and the Sea synopsis: Man, fish, nature

Santiago, an old deep-sea fisherman lives near the Gulf Stream, on Havana coast, Cuba. He has gone 84 days without taking a fish. 

(How could a man go that many days without taking a fish? Deep sea fishing: this was a time of fishing lines, and most sole fishermen didn’t have access to modern technology that makes fishing today a more lopsided, less adventurous experience.)  

The old man’s fishing companion Manolin, a boy who has great affection for the old man, is asked to go on another boat by his family after 40 luckless days. 

The initial pages glide with the boy seeing off the old man on his next fishing trip. 

Rowing his small boat (skiff), the old man gets a huge Marlin trapped in one of his fishing lines. But, as the giant fish begins pulling the boat, an epic man vs. fish battle ensues. 

What fate awaits the old man and the fish? 

Flying fish, illustration by Raymond Sheppard

Epic, detailed, yet concise telling  

Hemingway’s greatest achievement in The Old Man and the Sea is seamless, razor-sharp editing. 

Not a word seems wasted. 

Fitted into 100-odd novella pages – A word more and the tale would have felt stale, redundant, and stretched. That’s how precise the telling is. 

Nitpicking – The straightforward narration leaves little room for multiple characters, but then Hemingway is looking for the ‘ocean in a drop’ experience. 

Sea, fish, old man, fishing line, and boat, are the prime characters. 

The old man’s musings surge with great insights. 

Fish, he utters in one instance, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before the day ends

The old man can’t help admiring the fish, but he is bound by his fate and occupation to kill it. 

The fish has the attributes of the old man’s courage and fighting spirit. At many moments, it is like the old man is arm wrestling an equal. 

In the third-person narration and the old man’s monologues, the extraordinary resilience of the old man and the Marlin is artfully depicted. 

The old man speaking to his tiring arms, to the Marlin, and how he avoids looking at his late wife’s photograph at home: strains of him battling loneliness with grace and courage. 

The complete story was published in Life magazine before the book’s publication.
The magazine edition reportedly sold five million copies.  

The Old Man and the Sea book review 

Hemingway often dived into life-threatening situations. His experiences were the source of his riveting, unsentimental, subtle and intense fiction.

For a long time, no writer came close to conveying with unblinking, crisp prose, the weight of standing up to hardships. 

Hemingway was a rare one. 

The last of the great Hemingway fiction works: in The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway goes where few writers have, in gritty detail on life’s endless mysteries and stark truths.  

Islands in a Stream (1970), published nine years after his death, features a similar fish-boy battle but pales in comparison.  

That The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature (1954) and a Pulitzer (1953) is merely a footnote to the life Hemingway led and how he wrote.

Of late, Hemingway’s works have been unfairly dismissed as hyper-masculine. The writer’s passion for big game hunting and the brutality of bullfighting may seem odd to many readers now. But his storytelling remains untarnished by time.  

As read in a book preface – There were many imitators of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style, but the standard he set was too severe.  

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

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