The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

I had disliked Hemingway ever since I attempted to read The Sun Also Rises as a teenager, but when Hamlettte from The Edge of the Precipice  announced her read-along of The Old Man and the Sea, I decided to give him another try.  Perhaps we would get along better this time.

This novella was an unexpected surprise and delight that has, well, perhaps not made me a Hemingway fan, but at least has made me very open to reading more of this works.

Imagine that you live in a small town in a simple hut and your life consists daily of fishing for a catch that will bring you your wages when you sell it in the market.  Now imagine going 30 days without a fish, then 40 days.  You lose your only helper, a boy, because you are now viewed as unlucky, and he is sent to work with more successful fishermen.  Day 60 passes but still you sail out as every other day, confident you will catch something.  By the time our story begins, most men would be worn with worry and care, but not the fisherman of this story, Santiago, who prepares his boat and sets sail as he has the previous 84 days that he did not return with a catch.  On this particular day, Santiago ventures into the Gulf Stream north of Cuba to set his lines and wait for his luck to change.  And does it change!  Hooking an enormous fish, Santiago begins his battle which lasts three days and pulls him out into the depths of the ocean, perhaps without the possibility of return. Yet return he does, but tragically his magnificent catch has been worried by sharks, and resembles nothing but a bony carcass.  Does this worry the old man?  Not one bit.  He makes the same climb to his shack that he has made the last 84 days, yet this time he is a different man.  Falling onto his bed, he dreams of lions and his youth.

While Santiago is fighting against defeat in the novella, at the end of the novel, instead of being defeated by the fact his catch returned only as a ragged skeleton, he returns a hero and his dreams of youth indicate the experience has given him life and vigor that had been missing before that day.  It was not the result of his struggle that mattered; it was the struggle itself and its purpose, that brought meaning back into the old fisherman’s life.

Ernest Hemingway and Henry (“Mike”) Strater
with the remaining 500 lbs of an estimated 1000 lb marlin
 that was half-eaten by sharks before it could be landed
 in the Bahamas in 1935.
source Wikipedia

Hamlette @ The Edge of the Precipice has given us some excellent questions that we can choose to answer for the read-along:

Some people say this story is full of symbolism, maybe even an allegory.  What do you think things like the old man, the fish, and the sharks could symbolize?

The book How To Read Literature Like a Professor states that The Old Man and the Sea is a “nearly perfect literary parable”, full of Christian imagery.  We encounter images of Christ in the story when, after grasping the line all night to hold the fish, Santiago made an exclamation that, as Hemingway tells us, is reminiscent of an exclamation “someone would have while having a nail passed through their hand into a piece of wood”.  After the completion of his voyage, Santiago stumbles up the hill, carrying his mast on his back, bringing the image of Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha, and when Santiago falls asleep in his house on his bed, are arms are spread wide, as if in the shape of a crucified Christ-figure.

source Wikipedia

Were these symbols intentionally put into the story?  Who can know for sure.  Hemingway, himself, when questioned, said:  “There isn’t any symbolism.  The sea is the sea.  The old man is an old man.  The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.  The sharks are all sharks, no better or no worse.  All the symbolism that people say is sh*t.  What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”  Personally I think that Hemingway used these images to convey meaning.  He didn’t intend to make Santiago, Christ or a Christ-type figure, he simply used images that all readers would be familiar with, to help us feel the old man’s struggle, pain, and sacrifice, and to share his triumph when he returned with the experience of the catch of his life.

Thanks for this excellent read-along, Hamlette.  Here are some other participant reviews:

10 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Oooooh, I really like how you put this:

    It was not the result of his struggle that mattered; it was the struggle itself and its purpose, that brought meaning back into the old fisherman's life.

    Seriously, that gave me chills. Great way of encapsulating what this story is all about!

    That's very interesting about the Christian imagery — I actually hadn't picked up on that at all! I think you're probably right, that Hemingway used images and ideas that he knew would resonate with readers, not to turn Santiago into a Christ-figure, but to up the emotional punch of the story. The name Santiago means "Saint James," and Hemingway does like to include religion and religious imagery in his books, so I'm pretty sure those were intentional inclusions. I wish I'd picked up on them when I read through myself! Now I'll have to watch for them next time I read this.

    Thanks for participating in the read-along! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book 🙂

  2. I remembered that image of the old man walking up the beach with the mast on his shoulder and falling from when I first read it as a kid. Definitely images of Christ, along with other images of the nail in the hand, etc. That makes sense that Hemingway would use images that people would identify with.

    And thanks for that clarity about the ending. I wondered why he thought of lions – b/c it reminds him of his youth. So the entire struggle revived the youthful hope in his life. It makes a lot of sense.

  3. Thanks, Hamlette! I liked how you brought the parallels between the struggles of Hemingway and the struggles of Santiago into your review. Very interesting!

    I always err on the too-careful side when it comes to speculating on what a writer meant. Sometimes it's obvious what they mean and others times …… well, as Hemingway put it, the sea is the sea. I remember reading C.S. Lewis who said most times when people tried to guess his underlying intent, they were usually wrong. Since then, I tread more carefully.

  4. I read that Hemingway converted to Catholicism for his second wife, so perhaps that's why he used the religious imagery in his writing.

    Soon I need to choose another one of his books to read. Sadly I think this one we just read is the one that I'm going to enjoy the most, but I'm willing to give another book a try. I've seen the recommendations in the comments section of your post, so at least I have something to go on. I was thinking of trying some short stories before attempting another novel, but we'll see …… It seems like this was a very beneficial read-along for us all, that has given us a new appreciation for Hemingway's writing!

  5. I think so, too. It was a very successful read-along.

    We happened to stop in B&N the other day, and I was looking at my next possible book, also; but For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms were $17 each, and I thought that was too much for something I am not sure I will like. I think I'll get them used on Amazon.

  6. My usually sad library system appears to have many of his works, and in actual book form. I can't count the times lately that I've looked for a book but it is only in e-book form, which won't work on my Kindle. And they even have his short stories! Woo hoo!

    The Snows of Kilimanjaro looks interesting, although perhaps I should choose a safer one, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls or Farewell to Arms. At least I know I have many to choose from and that they're handy!

  7. I've said a few times to you I've been meaning to re-read this, and this post makes me want to. I really don't like Hemingway, but I did like this one when I first read it (years ago).

  8. It's an easy one to fit in, especially at the speed that you are going lately. I felt it was an uplifting book ……. strange because of the old man's bad luck and the result of his catch, but Hemingway, for me, managed to make me see beyond the surface of life into what is truly important.

    I'm now scared to read his other works but I will …… one day!

  9. Great idea about the struggle as opposed to the results! The comparison of a nail through his hand did make me think of Christ-type imagery. I thought this was a great read-along, too. I've re-read several of his other popular novels over the last few years. "To Have and Have Not" may be on my list in the near future. I also have been meaning to read "A Moveable Feast", too.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!