Hemingway's primary preoccupations—violence, death, masculinity and fishing—are distilled here in a short narrative as strong and lean as the fisherman himself. Written at the end of his career, The Old Man and the Sea evidences the same themes found in his other works, here matured along with his singular spare style. Equal parts nihilism and optimism, this is the novel Hemingway is best known for—not his most influential but certainly the most representative of his ideas and artistic vision.
The story follows an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago reaching the end. He's had such a long streak of bad luck that Manolin, the boy apprenticed to him, has been forbidden by his parents from sailing with the old man. For awhile the boy goes with him anyway, and in the evening they discuss American baseball, particularly Santiago's hero Joe DiMaggio. Eventually the old fisherman feels his bad luck is almost over and puts to sea alone where he has an epic struggle with a giant marlin that lasts several days. When he finally returns all that remains of the fish is its massive skeleton, and the man himself is barely alive.
Readers familiar with the tenets of naturalism may be inclined to interpret The Old Man and the Sea according to its principle elements. However, the real struggle here isn't between man and nature, and Hemingway isn't concerned with evolutionary hierarchy. This beautiful little book is about self-assertion, the power of the will, and the brutal nihilism of ordinary existence—not untouched with moments of pride and hopefulness. Naturalism is too simple a philosophy for Hemingway to explore. His thoughts are complex and nuanced, and he is ultimately a human writer, even if his subjects are not always humane. The triumph of the old man, even though it ultimately destroys him, is a celebration of mankind's spirit and strength.
Though this is the last novel Hemingway wrote, it's an excellent place to start for those unacquainted with his style or themes. The prose is elegant and tough, the themes are fully examined, the narrative evenly-paced and exciting. Don't think that this is simply an entertainment, though—Hemingway is not concerned with amusing us, but with the ultimate goal of great literature, revealing universal truths about the nature of human existence and the world. On both counts, he succeeds.
A special extra...
We were privileged to visit Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida, early in 2007. For a brief pictorial tour, you can click here!
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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