Critics Acclaim for Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea

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Classic Par-Excellence

      The work of an artist becomes a classic when it endures and every aspect appeals and retains its appeal for different generations and communities. The Old Man and The Sea is also a classic because of its enduring popularity among all kinds of people and because every other aspect of the novel is of supreme excellence and its meaning and significance ensure its lasting immortality. Apart from its philosophical meaning, other aspects such as its tight structure, intense characterization, style, and the realism depicted also ensures its stability for all time.

The Compact and Well Knit Structure

      The structure of the novel is beautiful in its compact neatness. It is ultra-organized proceeding in a fast paced narrative through a prologue, rising action, climax, falling action and an epilogue in the manner of a drama whose action is whole and complete neither needing anything extra nor containing anything extra that needs to be removed. There are no interruptions or digressions of any kind and the story moves forward swiftly. The prologue introduces us to the Old Man, the protagonist, and the boy Manolin, and their conversation repeals the predicament or problem that is to be resolved, the following section is the rising action, wherein the Old Man goes out after his huge fish and struggles for two days and two nights, the climax is reached when through superhuman effort he at last succeeds in harpooning the fish. The third section of the falling action comprises the portion that tells of how after lashing the fish alongside his skiff, he sails homewards and is attacked by sharks. His fierce battle with the sharks and his loss and finally, the epilogue where everything is summed up in the Old Man’s conversation with the boy Manolin. Literally, therefore, the novel tells the extraordinary story of an old Cuban fisherman hooking and catching a fish bigger than he has seen or heard of and also his incredible fight with sharks who attack the marlin. It is, therefore, a very exciting story, adventurous and full of suspense and thrill. On the other hand it is not a non-action story as the story has symbolic significance at various levels. At one level, the story symbolizes man and his on going struggle for survival in a hostile world, and deals with the theme of man his heroism that allows him to struggle and strive for and by the manner of his struggle winning a moral victory even in defeat. There is further a symbolism of the crucification of Christ that gives a religious tone to the novel and intensifies the man’s sufferings, his woes and his trials and tribulations. The text shows meanings in various layers due to the technique of symbolism that Hemingway used and perfected.

Intense Characterization

      Hemingway was a master craftsman and a very adept at his art. He has created an immortal figure in Santiago. The physical description is ultra vivid and realistic and upon reading it, a picture instantly forms in the reader's mind. “The Old Man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck... Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

      The various qualities are beautifully described. His humility is put across subtly. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” Describing his stoic endurance through unbearable pain and suffering, Hemingway brings out his determination, “You are killing me, fish, the Old Man thought.....Come on and kill me, I do not care who kills who.” And later tired and exhausted after his struggle with the sharks, at this point, he states, “Right then, I’ll fight them until I die.” Thus arousing our love, composition, pity, respect and admiration in as many ways as possible. Even though there are no other characters apart from Manolin, we do not in any way feel that Hemingway did so out of a dearth of characters. Rather, the two characters beautifully and carefully etched remain in our memories.

Hemingway’s Style and Realism

      Hemingway’s characteristic - simple, bare and economical style reaches its zenith in this novel. A style which he developed from Mark Twain, drawing from his simplicity and colloquialism, it can be seen at its best here. A simple, bare and unembellished prose style and the diction and syntax which were devoid of any kind of complexity or superfluity are Hemingway’s spawning millions of limitations but none to equal and was one of the reasons for the greatness of the text and contribute largely to making his novel, a classic. The manner in which he presents the characters, thoughts and the dialogue between the characters are executed with clarity, lucidity and in a vivid manner speaking for realism and in a convincing effort. Now Hemingway’s literary style was essentially a realistic style and this also seems to have found its bench mark in The Old Man and The Sea. Even though the story of a lone aged fisherman battling and catching a giant hundred pound marlin and then singlehandedly and weaponlessly facing sharks sound incredible. There is nothing unbelievable in the manner Hemingway narrates the tale. It speaks volumes for Hemingway’s craft that he rendered every aspect of such a fantastic story realistic and convincing from every angle. His descriptions are intensely vivid and not just the human but the elements of the natural world are rendered credible and true. This speaks for Hemingway’s close and first hand knowledge of his subject. As he had used his personal knowledge to write his earlier novels such as his first-hand experience of the war in A Farewell to Anns, knowledge of bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon, his experiences in Africa while hunting big-game in the hills of Africa etc. Hemingway himself lived among Cuban fishermen and writing after the second world war, in which he had actively participated too. This personal experience and knowledge has been used effectively to render the particulars of the text realistic and natural.

Hemingway’s Philosophy

      Hemingway s philosophy was not a static philosophy. It grew and develop as he grew and progressed as a novelist and a writer. In the beginning, he wrote on disappointment and disillusion and the desperateness was as a result of the two world wars. He focussed on ‘nada and a negative view, his heroes and heroines were usually alienated from society and were shown as striving towards an isolated existence. For example, in his earliest novels such as A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises etc. where the heroes, Frederic Henry and Jack Barnes, are disillusioned war-wounded men, wounded physically as well as psychologically in a permanent manner, suffering from a depression and desperateness brought on by the horrors of the war and the realities of life. The philosophy inherent in these works is one of disillusionment, alienation and negation. However, Hemingway’s view changed slowly and more in this novel The Old Man and The Sea. The mood is of belief and positive affirmation. The novel is a metaphor for life and what life can be. In portraying the struggle and the contest against the forces against man and in the form of the metaphor of Santiago’s struggle against the marlin and the sharks, it is reminiscent of the great ancient epics. More so, since the significance of the whole thing has been given more to the struggle and the manner of the struggle against the odds of life rather than what is right or wrong and whether one achieves a victory or suffers a defeat. This is very much similar to the ancient Greek epics where the hero is usually a man fighting against great odds, and though he may fall, failing to achieve a physical victory, he may win a moral victory by the nature of his immense struggle and resistance. There are various different aspects of the novel and various interpretations. One way of reading the novel is to look at it as a novel of social concern with the theme of inter-dependence being its main theme. Santiago, old and solitary at sea is never alone. He is aware that no man can ever be alone at sea because of the large numbers of natural creatures giving him company. Moreover, Santiago remembers his earlier constant companion, the boy Manolin and then the baseball star DiMaggio. He dreams and gets inspiration from his memories and thoughts of the two. He also remembers events such as the hand wrestling match he won against the great Negro, and the lions he saw playing on the beaches of Africa as a youth. He affirms his resolution and determination by thinking of them. Further, he admits his dependence on the owner of the restaurant. “The Terrace”. On another front, the novel is a study of the theme of human isolation. The Old Man and The Sea marks Hemingway’s point of entry into the world of the nature after a long and protracted struggle to get away from the social order. However, this desire is not the desire to escape from society but to liberate oneself from the artificialities that characterized society. And because it is an effort towards and liberalization and it is not an act of cowardice but an act of bravery. This effort is a necessary effort if one is to achieve the watermark of being true to oneself. And such efforts render the act of isolating oneself from society and returning to nature an act of immense importance and of great significance. This world of nature has its own rules and responsibilities and Hemingway’s portrayal of a character moving away from the ordered society, its confirms and limitations towards a natural order are early indicative of an affinity with Joseph Conrad, another naturalistic writer. The Old Man, Santiago is the only hero in the Hemingway canon who is free from any social relationship and the only hero who is not American but Cuban and his drama enacted in the heart of nature, shows how the human spirit can be freed from the confines of society.

      No matter how one reads and interprets the text, the fact remains that in its essential character it is a great novel. Whether it can be called Hemingway’s greatest work or not is a matter for debate but that Hemingway has said the finest thing he ever had to say in this text is indisputable. The power and beauty of the text lies in the manner in which he has depicted the heroism of man, a heroism that remains essentially undefeated even at the face of defeat, and the manner in which he has depicted a love and reverence for life with all its problems and tribulations and the heartening vision of life that he has portrayed. It is as though at last Hemingway has found an order where far from feeling alienated and isolated, he feels as though he has found his place. It is a representation of the view that the world is one wherein man has to struggle and where man may be crucified but is not a meaningless world because he may yet achieve a moral victory and go on with determination.

The Novel’s place among the Classics

      The Old Man and The Sea has established itself amongst the literary classics in the history of literature - English, American or otherwise. In comparison to classics starting from Homer’s Odyssey to the century classic Lord Jim by Joseph Conard, it holds it's own. Closer home among the classics of American literature, the novel have many similarities. For example, the story of the individual struggle for existence, his alienation and isolation from society can be seen in classics from American literature such as Thoreau s Walden where Thoreau sets up an isolated existence in lap of nature, Mark Twain’s The Adventures, of Huckleberry Finn where Finn, runs away from society into Nature and J.F. Cooper’s leather stocking novels where Natty Bumpoo, the protagonist is a philosopher from the backwoods, and a personification of the ideal democratic man from the point of view of a democrat. As these men were at odds with their community, being more of an outsider than an inside Santiago in. The Old Man and The Sea,’ are part of the community and yet alienated in a sense, an outsider as for once he is declared salao, the worst form of unlucky and therefore, no one wants to associate with him, as a professional fisherman he is different. Others prefer to fish within sight of land, he prefers to go far out, others depend on luck, he prefers to be exact so as to be ready when lady luck shields him. However, in the end, he reestablishes his reputation in the community and reaffirms their sympathy and respect.

      Another point of similarity between Santiago and the other heroes is their escape to nature to re-affirm and assert their manhood and vitality. Santiago, amidst the elements of nature and in his struggle against the marlin and then the sharks experiences a renewal of his spiritual strength and thus derives strength from nature and in this regard, he stands not as an isolated figure but more as a figure closely related to his community being a symbol of the ideal. Hemingway’s old man shares a close and intimate relationship with nature, a nature of whom he shows both its positive and negative aspects and is reminiscent of Thoreau’s intimacy with nature in Walden. Some critics are finally of the opinion that The Old Man and The Sea is lacking in various aspects to be considered as a true classic though it is serenely ordered and it takes psychological depth and struggle.


      The Old Man and The Sea, is however, praised as a masterpiece, a classic by the majority. It has been unreservedly praised for its technique, style and simplicity of story and moral achievement. According to Malcolm Cowley, the novel is classical in spirit. He says, “The’ story is tense, concentrated and full of excitement.” Carlos Rocker praises it as the super example of symbolic art. And Phillip Young is of the opinion that, “The only thing that keeps The Old Man and The Sea from greatness is the sense one was that the author is imitating instead of creating the style that made him famous. But this reservation is almost made up for by the book's abundance of meaning. As always the code-hero, Santiago comes with a message, and it is essentially that while a man may grow old and be wholly down on his luck, he can still dare, stick to the rules, persist when he is licked, and thus by the manner of his losing he win his victory,” On the other hand, Robert P. Weeks has charged Hemingway a fare and according to him, “The old is not really real, nor is the boy real, nor is the fish good and true.....The realism of Hemingway’s first published story is not an arbitrarily selective technique: it is an inevitable part of his world view...but this style has gone soft in The Old Man and The Sea because the view of the world has gone soft. Santiago’s universe is not the chaotic universe in which Frederic Henry, Jake Sarnes, and Robert Jordan encountered meaningless violence and evil. It is more nearly a cozy universe in which fish have nobility and totality and other virtues...It is a universe so chummy that the hero calls birds His brother.” Even the sharks are “stagy and melodramatic” and “This cosmic camaraderie is patently false and forced.” These are various responses which itself arouse interest for a serious persual of the text. The novel is clearly deserving of the epithet “Classic.”

University Questions

After critics had lashed Hemingway unfavorably for Across the River and Into the Trees but he won critical acclaim for The Old Man and The Sea. Elaborate.
The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway's masterpiece, a classic that won him the Pulitzer in 1953 and was also largely responsible for the Nobel Prize for Literature which was awarded to him in 1954. Discuss with close reference to the text.

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