The Old Man and The Sea as a Private & Personal Parable

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Hemingway’s Struggle with his Craft

      The Old Man and The Sea as a text admits of many varied interpretations. Most significant interpretation of the story is private and personal parable relating to Hemingway’s struggle with his art and his grappling with the critics especially after the publication of his novel, Across the River and into the Trees, in 1950, a story about world war-wounded colonel and his life of sensuous pleasures with his very young mistress in Venice, and also to the state of mind he experienced before publishing The Old Man and The Sea, in 1952. The novel is, therefore, to be regarded as a parable of Hemingway’s struggle with his art and his literary material and his critics. Hemingway himself can be seen in the Old Man Santiago, and his struggle with his writing a better novel and proving himself as a literary writer of repute and skill can be seen in the Old Man’s fight against the marlin. Finally, in the sharks tearing apart the Old Man’s hard won prize, the marlin, leaving nothing but the skeleton can be regarded as the critic's hostile and unfavorable towards Hemingway severely criticizing and tearing apart his novel, thereby damaging his reputation. Now it is also regarded that Hemingway himself encouraged his readers to interpret the novel in this manner. He himself in his acknowledgment of his noble prize in 1954 said: “It is because he have had such great writers in the past, that a writer is driven far out where he can go, out to where no one can help him,” positively a repetition of the Old Man’s statement, “I went out too far.”

The Comparison Between Santiago and Hemingway

      From this point, therefore, it is easy to see the connection and the similarity between Santiago and Hemingway and to see the Old Man’s struggle as Hemingway’s own grim struggle to write his best, in fact better and prove himself again. Various aspects of Hemingway’s life can be seen in the Old Man. Santiago in his youth was the champion, the best fisherman, but he is now down and out of his luck and he has to prove himself again by catching a big fish. Hemingway had also proved himself numerous times in. the past but he was down on his luck due to the failure of his novel Across the River and into the Trees. Now the Old Man uses all the skills he possesses, fishing, laying his pains with great precision and in this he is more careful than any other fisherman. He thinks it would be better if he were lucky but then he would prefer to be exact so that when luck suited on him, he would be ready and waiting. Hemingway also approached his art with the same care and precision. He preferred writing with seriousness in a precise manner striving for perfection. The Old Man again is seen as resolute and determined. Though his luck is severely down and almost non-existent, same as Hemingway was, and his confidence and determination can be such in the statement, “I may not be seen in the statement. “I may not be as strong as I think. But I know many tricks and I have resolution.” Implying that he was going to do all he could to prove himself.

Expertise and Heroism

      Santiago is an old fisherman, extremely professional and skilled. Hemingway is an old man, a professional writer who is thoroughly conversant with his art. Santiago’s expertise can be seen in the description of his laying the baits: “He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dark of the water. He kept them straighter than anyone did, so that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there.

      Others let them drift with the current and sometime they were at sixty fathoms when the fisherman thought they were at a hundred. But, he thought, I keep them with precision.

      The same expertise and professionalism, can be applied to Hemingway’s technique of writing. Further resemblances can be seen in Santiago’s attitude towards the marlin and later towards the sharks. Santiago feels a kinship, a brotherhood with the marlin. He loves and respects it. But he has to kill it at any cost. Hemingway also respects his craft and he too, has to master and yoke it at any cost. Santiago determinedly fights the sharks that attack the marlin. He fights these greedy scavengers who seek to destroy and demolish his hard won prize with grim resolution when defeat becomes inevitable. He keep on fighting still hoping and being beaten remains undefeated. He remained confident and hopeful for eighty-four days and went out on the eighty-fifth day on fishing with the same confidence and resolution. Similarly, Hemingway is a man who does not accept defeat. He went on with his craft with even more determination. The heroism evident in Santiago in this respect is also more evident than in Hemingway’s. Thus, the reading of the novel is a personal parable.

Biographical Elements in Earlier Works

      Biographical elements play a very significant role in Hemingway’s fiction. Right from the very beginning, when Hemingway started to write fiction in the 1920’s and 1930’s, his short stories and novels he had been using was in his personal experiences as a base. The early stories are based on his boyhood and young manhood experiences and are extremely successful benefiting much from the personal and private elements elevated and transformed into high fiction. For example, Hemingway and his generation grew up with both the world wars happening in their youth. Hemingway’s own response, his shock and trauma are significant for they happened to the same as those experienced by his generation too. His was a generation that went through profound agony, anguish and strain due to the world wars. Hemingway’s representation of the inadequacies of the traditional and conventional values is the immediate need of the war-torn era appealed to many because it was essentially the same response, as that of the youth. The Hemingway hero, struggles and strives for and makes “a separate peace” was a direct dramatization of how the young people of America felt in the wake of the war. Hemingway portrayed men and women, demoralized and desperate who no longer had any beliefs in the old traditional values because they were no longer applicable to their lives, disarrayed as it was in the disordered social world. Hemingway’s early fiction was thus a powerful fusion of his private emotional responses with fiction, with a universalization of concerns rendered Hemingway’s art successful in the earlier part of his career.

Biographical Element in Later Works

      The immense success that Hemingway enjoyed through the fusion of his personal experiences into his fiction during the earlier days, waned as his career progressed. In the 1930’s he began to publish such novels that were less fiction and more facts based directly on his personal life and his own adventures in his favorite outdoor activities such as bull-fighting, big-game hunting etc. By this time, he was also a well-known personality, known for his literary genius as well as his adventurous life and his love and fascination for the outdoorish life. His works at this time such as Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa are for the most part a chronicle and record of his own personal life and experiences of bull fighting in Spain in
the former and big-game hunting in Africa in the latter. He also wrote in a more autobiographical style, speaking for himself, and portraying his personal emotions and his making more than necessary of his skills in these sports. His critics, however, did not like this and were in direct opposition to his flaunting his personal life and over emphasizing his own private personality. They pointed out his public duty, to present universalized material. They pointed out the artist’s duty of presenting literature of serious social engagement. Hemingway may be as a result of such criticism, or because from extreme personal wanderings began to move towards a more public engagement in his concern with the Spanish Civil War and other social concerns. His following novels thus deal more with these social concerns, such as To Have and Have Not (1937), dealing with the economic depression and Harry Morgan’s desperate struggle for survival and existence, The Fifth Column (1938), dealing with the Spanish Civil War and again For whom the Bell Tolls (1940), dealing with the Spanish Civil War. But the huge success that he had enjoyed in his earlier days seemed to be clouding him. The cause for this was that though his subject matter was of a great social concern, the treatment-weak structure and stilted dialogue; was drawback. Maybe this was the reason why he again turned his hand towards writing fiction of the earlier genre, dealing with the earlier heroes, war injured, psychologically wounded, alienated from society, leading a depraved life in his next novel, Across the River and Into the Trees. Unfortunately, the protagonist the old and dying Colonel Cantwell, in his alienation and his futile struggle against disorder seems to be a more parody of his earlier heroes. And for this, suffered severe criticism. Critics labeled the novel a total failure, in characterization, plot and philosophy and so totally unconvincing. It was in the wake of this criticism that Hemingway set out to prove himself again and began to write his next novel The Old Man and The Sea.

Personal Elements in The Old Man and The Sea

      It is thus, against this background that Santiago’s story can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of Hemingway’s own perception of himself between the period of the publication of Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Old Man and The Sea, and like Santiago, Hemingway is a conscientious professional, dedicated to his work. As Santiago fishes with precision, taking meticulous care of all the little details that Hemingway writes. Santiago was a champion in his youth, everybody called him Champion but now he was an old fisherman down and out on his luck. Hemingway had enjoyed tremendous popularity after the publication of A Farewell to Arms and hailed as the greatest writer but who had been also badly received at his latest offering subsequent to a waning popularity. These are reasons enough to look at the text as a personal parable and take into account how the marlin and Santiago’s victory over it represents Hemingway’s struggle and great literary achievement in writing The Old Man and The Sea - Similarly, the sharks are representation of the critics who had lashed out at Hemingway severely criticizing and demolishing his earlier novels, for restricting himself to the representation of the heroes who are merely simple variations of himself and for not showing social awareness and concerns as required of an author and artist of repute. Further, Santiago’s suffering and pain at the hands of the marlin and later the sharks show Hemingway’s suffering, and his fear of growing old, losing his abilities and capabilities and his fear of death. All these are involved in the story. The sharks are also injured symbolizes how all the forces working against man demolish finally.

Personal But Public and Universal

      Hemingway’s personal life and his career during the last ten years of his life also provide evidence to support the view that the novel is a symbolic representation of his private life, a parable of his life and his views, concepts and convictions and ideals. As it has been pointed out earlier, Hemingway began turning back to the style and genre that he followed in his earlier days. He began to use the same technique of depicting his youthful self. In The Old Man and The Sea, the figure of the youthful self as seen in Manolin, DiMaggio etc. revitalizes and inspires the aging Santiago. Hemingway began to set his novel, in the background of those sports and games wherein he had triumphed during his youth. It was as though he were trying to recapture the strength and stamina of his youth during his greatest victories both in the literary field and the sports arena. But his attempt to return to the scenes of triumph is fact and in fiction did not prove overall successful. He was able to produce only two substantial works. A study of bull-fighting titled The Dangerpis Summer (I960) and A Moreable Feast (1964) were his only better works. The former was never published as a book though it was published in a magazine and the latter is considered to be his only other work of significance after The Old Man and The Sea. Apart from going back to his youthful exploits, Hemingway also explores the stresses and problems of old age as Hemingway himself was facing, in Santiago. In Across the River and into the Trees Hemingway was preoccupied with the problem and fear of impending death. He was also suffering from the stress of losing his process. All these can be seen in Santiago. But then there are also characteristics and qualities in him that clearly separate and distinguish him from Hemingway which thus allows him to maintain a critical distances between himself and his created protagonist. These qualities are the simplicity and essential humility of the fisherman and his extraordinary adventure. There can be no comparisons between the simple personality of Santiago and the complex person that Hemingway was. And in maintaining this distance and thereby allowing for elements that contribute to making Santiago more of an universal figure that the reader can easily identify with and see his struggle in Santiago’s struggle. They are also able to easily relate to his spiritual transcendence of all sufferings and achieve a moral victory even in defeat. In this way, the story is not just an individual Hemingway’s parable but a story of every American, his trials and tribulations, his struggles, failures and achievements.

University Questions

Critically comment on the fact that The Old Man and The Sea is a private and personal parable.
Discuss the validity of the interpretation of Santiago’s story as a symbolic representation of Hemingway’s own state after the publication of Across the River and into the Trees.

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