Hemingway's Writing Style in The Old Man And The Sea

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Hemingway’s Prose Style

      Hemingway’s prose is marked by its simplicity and its colloquial non-literary style, which is existed in The Old Man And The Sea. This was the style he developed early in his career from his days as a reporter and then a war correspondent for the newspapers. The style that won him much critical acclaim, it also invited a lot of criticism. However, Hemingway was constant and this style reached its height in The Old Man and The Sea.

Clarity, Simplicity and Economy

      Hemingway’s prose style is here essentially the same as that in his earlier books. It is marked by extreme simplicity of diction and syntax. The words used are simple as everyday words, for which one needs never rake one’s memory to get its meaning. Hemingway does not believe in literary embellishments either. He does not go about beating the bush, but states whatever he has to say in the simplest way possible in a few words as possible. He did not care for the stylistic, ornamental style of the Classics. Let us take a close examination while describing the Old Man, Hemingway writes :

      The Old Man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles into the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and hands had the deep creased ears from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert. Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.” And in describing the Old Man’s shack Hemingway writes:

“The shack was made of the tough bud-shields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, a chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibred guano, there was a picture in color of the sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin Cobre.”

      These example are illustration enough of Hemingway’s economical style which does not admit any appendages words or linkes nor admit any kind of difficult or obscure vocabulary that might interrupt the flow of the novel by posing a problem in the roader s understanding of the text. It is a spare style completely devoids of the verbosity. And a powerful style in all its simplicity and economy that has spawned a large number of limitations but no equal.

His Dialogue Style

      Hemingway’s dialogues are rendered in the same simplistic style. There is no evidence of rhetoric anywhere, it being pared down to the minimalistic essential level. Apart from this, there is not much dialogue in the book. The beginning and the end where Manolin comes in shows some dialogue otherwise it is almost absent. Hemingway’s style can be seen from the following example. The Old Man and the boy are talking ‘Tomorrow is going to be a good day with this current; he said, ‘where are you going?’ The boy asked, “Far out to come in when the wind shifts. I want to be out before it is light.’ ‘I’ll try to get him to work far out,’ the boy said. ‘Then if you hook something truly big we can come to your aid.’

‘He does not like to work too far out,’ ‘No’, the boy said, ‘But I will see something that he cannot see such as a bird working and get him to come out after dolphin.’

‘Are his eyes that bad?’

‘He is almost blind,’

‘It is strange,’ The Old Man said, ‘He never went turtling. That is what kills the eyes.’ ‘But you went turtling for years off the Mosquito coast and your eyes are good.’ ‘I am a strange old man’.

Hemingway’s Frequent Use of Interior Monologue

      Hemingway has used dialogue very sparsely in this novel. He has therefore, used an interior monologue style in order to present the going on and happenings in the novel. This interior monologue refers to thoughts flashing through the Old Man’s mind. These thoughts function as a constant and continuing commentary through which Hemingway provides information on what else is going on in the novel In fact the novel does not progress through Hemingway the author’s comments. Rather the story progresses through the thoughts running through Santiago’s mind. The thoughts serve to function as constant reminders of what is happening in the novel, that is what the Old Man is doing. There is nothing interacted or complete in Hemingway’s description of the Old Man’s thoughts. They are as simple, clear and lucid as possible in much the same style as that of the rest of his prose. They’re realistic and appear exactly similar as the thoughts that would flash through a man’s mind. The language is informal and flows on rapidly but without any kind of flourishes. For example, after he has hooked the marlin and he himself becomes the towing bitt with the fish towing him tirelessly, he thinks:

“What I will do if he decides to go down, I don’t know. What I’ll do if he sounds and dies I don’t know. But I’ll do something. There are plenty of things I can do.”

      The Old Man’s thoughts about the marlin are beautiful and full of lyricism though simplistic in style and choice of words.

      He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an Old Man. But what a great fish he is and what he will bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plan or if he is just as desperate as I am?

      Later, after the fight with the sharks, the Old Man’s extreme exhaustion is hinted and put across through his thoughts eloquently:

“The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought. Then he added sometimes. And the great sea with our friends and our enemies. And bed he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing. It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was and what beat you, he thought.”

      Very often, the interior monologue is manifested in the form of thoughts that the old Man speaks out aloud. But there is hardly any change or any difference between what he thinks inside and what he speaks aloud. They are as simple and briefly stated. Direct, informal and spare to the point that one is reminded of a man of few words. For example, one thought he repeatedly speaks out aloud is “I wish I had the boy” he never goes beyond the statement and never expresses in extraneous dialogue why he wanted the boy.

      As the fish starts to jump and then to circle, he says:

‘Don’t jump, fish; he said, ‘Don’t jump’ and then “I’ll rest on the next turn as he goes out,’ he said. I feel much better. Then in two or three turns more I will have him.”

Familiar But Fresh

      The words that Hemingway uses are short and familiar words but there is a newness and freshness in the way Hemingway combines them and uses them to produce a neat and musical effect. For example, in the passage describing how Santiago caught an albacore Hemingway writes:

“He dropped his oars and felt the weight of the small tuna’s shivering pull as he held the line firm and commenced to haul it in. The shivering increased as he pulled in and he could see the blue back of the fish in the water and the gold of his sides before he swung him over the side and into the boat. He lay in the stern in the sun, compact and bullet shaped, his big, unintelligent eyes staring as he thumped his life out against the planking of the boat with the quick shivering strokes of his neat, fast moving tail.”

      “Neat, fast-moving tail” is a totally new and fresh use of the words. Malcolm Cowley has said about Hemingway’s style that Hemingway in no way tries to express the inexpressible by inventing new words or new terms of phrase. Hemingway rather uses the oldest and the shortest words in the simplest construction possible but then renders a newness. A new value as if English were a strange language that he had studied or invented for himself and was trying to write in its original purity.

Written in Hemingway’s Old Age

      The Old Man and The Sea was Hemingway’s last major novel, written towards the fag end of his career when he himself was becoming an Old Man beset with disease and sickness. Leslie A. Fielder sees certain negative elements in the text which he felt are due to Hemingway’s advancing years. He says, “The single flaw in The Old Man and The Sea is the constant sense that Hemingway is no longer creating, but merely imitating the marvelous spare style that was once a revelation; that what was once an anti-rhetoric has become now merely another rhetoric, perhaps are most familiar one.” Even the critic like, Nemi D’Agostino who feels that the novel is an old and tired author’s tired work and it lacks the power and beauty of his earlier works. Agonisto feels that Hemingway’s use of idiom has subtly but surely become mannered and the rhythm, the flow in the novel is elegant but frozen. Therefore, it lacks the freshness, charity and lucidity that marked his earlier fiction. In this same strain of praising and with holding praise Agostino writes that as far as style, is concerned, “the rhythm is the cadence with a sumptuous and solemn fall. The language is rich in suggestive and exotic words, in rich sensuous imagery, in highly literary expressions, in bright and exquisite touches, and is consciously regulated by a love of verbal magic. It is, in short, the rhythm and language of a decadent poem and prose which; however, suggestive and intense, must always remain an artificial and minor form, incapable of full historical and moral significance. Within these limits The Old Man and The Sea is externally a refined work with its admirable linear development and its brilliant imagistic style.”


      However, there can be no doubt that Hemingway was more than successful in presenting a vivid scene in the book through his concentration in one direction without any side tracks and deviations and by using a language strictly suitable is its sparsity and purity. It is, therefore, considered that Hemingway has contributed to modern literature a style consisting of the raw, everyday words, even when the philosophy under discussion is of the most austere and of high kind.

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