Hemingway's Art as Novelist: in The Old Man And The Sea

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      Ernest Hemingway as a novelist of the twentieth century was an artist par excellence. There are many aspects to his art which are peculiar to Hemingway or have been rendered so. Hemingway’s art of novel writing with reference to The Old Man and The Sea can be discussed from five major points. These are Hemingway’s art of narration and story telling, his characterization, plot-construction and technique, his style, symbolism and the philosophy espoused in the novel. A detailed discussion of the above is as follows.

Hemingway’s Art of Narration and Story Telling

      Hemingway is a story-teller par excellence. He takes hold of a story then develops a gripping plot around it that attracts and holds the readers, attention from beginning till end. Hemingway was a man of the outdoors all through his life and in his novels adventurous and vigorous outdoor sports figure prominently. Sports such as deep-sea fishing, big game hunting and bullfighting are used to explore the themes of love, violence, death and suffering. In the exploration of these themes, a recurring backdrop is war. Hemingway was greatly fascinated by war in all his life and an obsessive study of war in all its aspects again pertaining to violence, pain, death and suffering can be observed in Hemingway's art. However, war does not figure in The Old Man and The Sea, yet pain, suffering and death-all Hemingway's favorites are prominent and are explored through deep-sea fishing and the ordeals the protagonist has to go through. The novel is about an old Cuban fisherman who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, is ad luck, then hooking a huge marlin and his long stride in a bid to capture it and after catching it, his misadventure with sharks that destroy his prize marlin. The novel is filled with action and the story moves on rapidly with a rapid description of the Old Mans adventures and ordeal. The story moves on with suspense and excitement, essential ingredients to capture reader’s attention. Hemingway’s novels are fast paced and filled with action and sometimes there being an occasional emphasis on melodrama. But nowhere in this novel is there any melodramatic incident. Hemingway's realism apparent in all his text is in full force in this novel and Santiago's struggle is portrayed with vivid realism. Based on a true incident Hemingway's story of a lone old and exhausted man, fighting to capture the biggest marlin, ever seen or heard of and then his struggle against the sharks to protect his prize, may sound unbelievably incredible but Hemingway's stylistic touch has rendered it realistic. The adventure is fantastic to a certain aspect but Hemingway's focus on the psychological aspect of the struggle, the Old Man's suffering and pain, his endurance and stoic acceptance of his suffering and his incredible resolution to capture the fish at all or any cost remains intact. And then his incredible, battle against the sharks wherein his pain is both physical, mental and psychological. Santiago after hooking the marlin is towed away by the fish and he has to remain in his skiff after the fish for two days and two nights. In the process, his right hand is injured, his left hand is cramped, his back and his shoulders are sore and hurt. He is hungry and exhausted and light-headed due to lack of sleep. At one point he says, "fish you are killing me". In his pain and agony, the image of the crucification is superimposed. Thus, Hemingway's superlative art, transforms an incident he had heard as an anecdote into a novel of great substance and heroic appeal. The manner in which he tells the story imbues the story with tension and suspense lifting such a sport as fishing which is tedious and boring in there being nothing to do but wait and watching into something so exciting as to capture the reader's interest and maintain it throughout.

Hemingway’s Characterization

      Hemingway’s art of characterization is in many ways limited to his portrayal of the Hemingway’s hero and the code hero. Critics have pointed out this limitation saying that almost all of Hemingway's protagonists are variations of the same man the Hemingway’s hero a wounded man, disillusioned and alienated from society, wishing to establish an isolated existence and who has made or wishes to make a separate peace. On the other hand, is the code hero who almost always appears alongside the hero as a man to look up to, a man whose example is to be followed. The code hero is a man who represents moral qualities which are admirable and laudable. These qualities are the qualities of courage, dignity, honor, integrity, an indomitable spirit, endurance and indefatigable attitude. The Old Man and The Sea portrays how ultimately the Hemingway’s hero or the code hero has come together. In many ways, Santiago is the exemplification of the code hero. Santiago is a professional fisherman but now he is an old luckless man. He has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish and even the young boy who had been his companion had been forced to leave and go on another boat. But he doesn’t give up his hope. He accepts the whole thing a challenge. He accepts it as part of the game and dares to go out again without accepting defeat and with the confidence that his big fish must be out some where waiting for him. He is not a quitter but a fighter and he will fight till the end. The Old Man fights the marlin enduring great pain and suffering. He stoically endures his pain without complaining and suffers defeat at the hands of the sharks. But even when he knows it to be useless, that he had been beaten, he goes on fighting and the heroic nature of his fight that counts and scores for him a victory even in defeat. In this regard, he is a representative of the bullfighter in The Undefeated, Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not, Robert Jordan in For whom the Bell. Tolls. Santiago himself mouths Hemingway’s philosophy, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated” and “A man is not made for defeat”. During his struggle he never wavers in his determination and resolve. He draws inspiration and strengthens his resolve by thinking about the great baseball star DiMaggio, the boy Manolin and the lions playing on the beaches of Africa. He thinks of them and draws youthful energy. Similarly, his remembrance of the hand wrestling match with the Negro. With the energy he draws from these memories he keeps his resolve to fight and win firmly. He is a true hero but different from the conventional Hemingway hero because unlike them he is neither wounded, disillusioned nor striving for an isolated and alienated existence. He is rather the code-hero in all his heroism and this heroism is manifested in every step and every detail throughout the novel. Santiago apart from his heroism is also portrayed as a skilled professional who uses his techniques to the maximum in order to be ready when lady luck smiled on him. He prefers to use his skills and be ‘exact’ rather than being merely luck. This characteristic of being ready and waiting is one of the more significant qualities of the Hemingway code-hero. In the novel, as in most other Hemingway novels, where there are no profusion of major character we have Manolin the young boy, who is the only other speaking character in the novel. Manolin’s character has also been etched with great precision and deliberation. His character lives and throbs with life. The boy has been tutored by Santiago since he was five years old. He is deeply attached to the Old Man whom he considers to be the “best fisherman”. He looks up to him as a teacher and a father and now when the Old Man is down he looks after all the Old Man’s needs and yearns for him as tenderly and lovingly as a son would. In this respect and in the manner in which the Old Man remembers him and how in the end again the boy yearns for him and acts as a source of courage and sympathy, Manolin’s character is reminiscent, of the Hemingway heroes. Hemingway’s art of characterization is thus limited to an extent but his characters are memorable, vivid and realistic characters.

Plot Construction and Technique

      Hemingway’s art of plot construction is another aspect, wherein his greatness as a novelist comes through. He follows strict rules of construction like a dramatist, going from a beginning, development of action, climax, falling of action and denouement. Similarly, the plot construction of The Old Man and The Sea follows such a pattern with an action that is swift, tight and exact and is, therefore, one of Hemingway’s more perfect plots.

      As in all his previous novels, Hemingway focusses on the small realistic details and on developing a vivid, realistic backdrop to the novel in the case of this novel, the vast endless sea. The section of the novel falls into four distinct parts - the introductory section, or the prologue which introduces us to the Old Man and the boy, Manolin, the second section is of rising action when the Old Man hooks and then struggles to catch the marlin and lashes it alongside his skiff, the third section of falling action when he struggles against the sharks in his bid to protect his prize, and finally the denouement or the epilogue which recounts the Old Man’s return to his shack, followed and the boy and others reactions followed by the dreams of the future plan. Akin ta a tightly round, complete and whole drama, there is nothing extraneous or superfluous element in the story, neither does it need any kind of addition nor wants an extra element to complete it. Nothing can be removed or nothing is to be added. Its action is whole. This is due to the deftness of Hemingway’s art. There are three other important aspects in relation to Hemingway’s technique. These are his sense of place, fact and scene. Hemingway firmly establishes the place. The setting of his novel through his vivid and forceful description of the place refers to the Canary Islands, the gulf stream, and the golden beaches of Africa where as a youth he had seen lions frolicking in the sun. Hemingway’s details are also strictly factual, for example, his description of how Santiago hung his carefully covered baits at exact depths, ready and waiting for any fish, and his description of the man-of-war, birds, turtles and other creatures of the sea. His sense of fact is brilliant, as can be seen in the following quotation.

“Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up butchered”.

      Hemingway’s scenes are also brilliantly drawn. For example, in the text, Hemingway draws attention on how alone and solitary he was amidst the background of the vast and boundless sea and then going on a step further and illustrating Santiago's closeness, his oneness with the sea. After he had been tried to the fish half a day, a night and another day and his hands were injured and cramped and the fish showed no signs of tiring Hemingway writes:

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a fight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, them etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Hemingway’s Style

      Hemingway’s prose style is marred by ultra simplicity, and candor, devoid of any kinds of embellishment, bare and austere. It was also a colloquial, non-literary style, based on everyday speech and used phrases and words of common use. His prose style is also economical in the extreme. Hemingway’s individualistic style was a result of his early years spent as a reporter and a war correspondent. From these experiences, he developed his laconic conversational rhythm a spare prose style characterized by concrete nouns, a limited range of vocabulary and elementary sentence structure. “His crisp, staccato style in narration is also a direct result, of his reportorial days. The manner in which he selects his minute details reminds us of a skilled and painstaking reporter and artist who takes in every little detail. His prose and his dialogues are thus marred by simplicity, economy and spare directness. To illustrate his prose, here is a quotation from the text.

The Old Man was thin and count with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer scene bring from its reflection on the tropic; sea were on his cheeks.”

The same simple, colloquial style can be seen in his spare dialogue. “I am a strange old man.”

“But are you strong enough now for a truly big fish?”
“I thinks so. And there are many tricks.” Let us take the stuff home, the boy said, ‘so I can get the cast net and go after the sardines.’
Hemingway uses the simplest of words and syntax. His diction is of a rhythm that is not complex in any way.
“Who gave this to you”?
‘Martin. The owner.’
‘I must thank him.’
I thanked him already,’ the boy said,
‘you don’t need to thank him.’
‘I’ll give him the belly meat of a big fish,’ the Old Man said, ‘Has he done this for us more than once?’
‘I think so.’

      This is the kind of dialogue that admits no extraneous elements. It is pared down to the barest essential possible. It is clear and lucid as his prose. There is no new words or phrases but the simplest, oldest and shortest words in English that are in common use, are used in simple constructions. This is the beauty and marvellousness of Hemingway’s style.


      Hemingway’s style also involves the use of symbols to a large extent. Earlier, the use of symbols in Hemingway’s prose was not very clearly noticed. But later on, the use of symbol and his prose arid fiction being replete with symbols was noticed and brought under discussion. The Old Man and The Sea, his final major work is full of symbols and symbolic meanings. The symbolism in this text works at various levels. The most apparent symbolism in the text is the symbolism in Santiago’s struggle of man’s struggle against the forces of nature and through a resolute and determined stance may achieve a moral victory even in the defeat that is life. This way, the novel upholds the indefatigable and indomitable spirit of man. At another level the Old Man’s struggle is seen as symbolizing Hemingway’s own struggle. His artistic struggle, to write a major novel, is seen in Santiago’s fight against the marlin and the sharks are seen as those hostile critics who tore apart with harsh criticism Hemingway’s earlier work, Across the River and into the Trees, and his therefore having to prove himself again, though he had already proved himself a thousand times before. There are various other symbols in the text namely, Manolin, DiMaggio, and the lions on the beaches of Africa. They all stand for Santiago’s youth and his constant memories of them help him to draw inspiration and sustain his energy and his resolution to fight till the end. Finally, it can be concluded that there is a strong strain of Christian symbolism running through the text.

Hemingway’s Philosophy

      Hemingway had, earlier in his novels and short stories, mainly expressed a philosophy of nihilism. The negation and alienation of the human being was a subject dear to his heart. Hemingway’s philosophy shows a marked change in his The Old Man and The Sea: This novel expresses an attitude of affirmation and solidarity. This is shown in the struggle that Santiago undergoes with courage, endurance, pride and yet humility. This novel is distinct from his earlier novels due to this note and the strong sense of purpose that Hemingway portrays in the indefatigable and indomitable spirit of Santiago representative of man. In stating that “man may be destroyed but not defeated” Hemingway has said the most beautiful thing about man’s life. It is a marked move from Hemingway’s earlier world, a world that cruelly rendered Jack Barnes impotent, that derived Frederic Henry of his love and the only meaning he had ever known in his life, destroys all and any avenues for survival in Harry Morgan, Robert Jordan loses his idealism that makes him volunteer to help the liberalist in the Spanish civil war. The earlier Hemingway hero, thus inhabited a world of isolation, death and despair. Santiago inhabits a different world order that balances the negativity of the earlier world with positiveness. The world that Hemingway portrays is no longer a world full of despair where man desperately struggles add is yet doomed to suffer and die. Santiago’s world is a world where man still suffers, and battles against the odds but in his struggle itself he can show what a man is what man can endure. The world is now a meaningful place where man can achieve things of significance and value. The novel is great for its affirmation of life. Santiago’s indomitable courage and the manner in which he struggles even, when defeat is inevitable and by the manner of his battle achieves a victory even in defeat is a story chronicling a kind of heroism that is uplifting and inspiring.


      These five different aspects are enough evidence to show the greatness of Hemingway as a novelist. Though, his literary output was in any event huge, the little that he has produced has been of such caliber that it has had a casting effect on the mind of the readers. His novels may be small in number but they are mostly literary jewels that have earned Hemingway a permanent place among the great novelists in the history of American literature.

University Questions

Write a critical appreciation of Hemingway as a novelist with particular reference to The Old Man and The Sea.
Discuss critically the important aspects of the characteristics of Hemingway as a novelist. Narrate with examples from The Old Man and The Sea.

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