The Old Man and the Sea as a Classic | Book Review

The Old Man and the Sea as a Classic | Book Review

The Old Man and the Sea as a Classic

A Work of Supreme Excellence

The Old Man and the Sea has rightly been called a “classic”. When we describe a literary work as a classic, we mean that it is a work of supreme excellence in respect of its various aspects and that its profound significance or meaning ensures its immortality. The Old Man and the Sea is surely a great book-as regards its structure, its character-portrayal, its realism, and its vision of life (even though at least one critic has brought the charge of “fakery” against the book), and its style.

Its Structure and Technique

The Old Man and the Sea is a compact, neatly organized novel. The story is smoothly and swiftly told, without interruptions or digressions. There is nothing surplus, and every detail tells. Although not divided into chapters, the book naturally falls into four distinct parts-the prologue which introduces us to the Old Man and the boy, the central portion which describes the Old Man’s struggle with this giant marlin and his victory, the subsequent fight of the Old Man with the fierce sharks and his defeat, and the epilogue describing the Old Man’s return and his talk with the boy. In literal terms the novel tells the story of a fisherman’s, adventure with the marlin and the sharks, a story that is exciting and thrilling with a lot of suspense and verve. In symbolic terms the novel deals with the theme of the undefeated man, or the man facing the heavy odds of life and winning a moral victory even though defeated in a physical or material sense. There is a deft use of symbols in the story-the boy, the lions, DiMaggio the baseball champion. The imagery of the Crucifixion is used to lend force to the account of the Old Man’s suffering and to bring out his heroic quality. Indeed, in the writing of this novel Hemingway shows himself a superb craftsman.


The portrait of Santiago is unforgettable. The Old Man’s humility, his pride, his piety, his courage, his endurance, his faith-these are all brought out in the course of the story, and these arouse our deepest admiration for him. The boy Manolin with his sincere devotion to Santiago and with his intense interest in fishing is also convincingly depicted. Even the kindly restaurant-owner is a living figure whom we seem to have met.

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Hemingway was a realistic novelist, and the Old Man and the Sea has nothing of the marvellous or fantastic in it. It is, indeed, a highly convincing and deeply moving work, even if the Old Man’s killing a giant marlin single- handed seems a bit unusual. Not only are the human characters perfectly credible, but the marlin, the porpoise, the man-of-war bird, the green turtles, the flying fish, and the sharks are all vividly described and the description shows evidence of the author’s first-hand and intimate knowledge of the sea and its creatures (even though a skeptical critic has asked how Santiago came to know the sex of the marlin he had hooked).

The Style

The Old Man and the Sea is written in the characteristic style which Hemingway originated and for which he became famous. It is a simple, bare, unembellished, crisp, staccato style stripped of all superfluity and excess, and economical or laconic in the extreme. It is also a style having a colloquial quality not only in the dialogue but in the description of a character’s thoughts and musings. It is, too, a concrete style with nothing abstruse or abstract about it. Everything is vividly realized and depicted with all the sensory data.

The Vision of Life

The Old Man and the Sea is a novel of affirmation and therefore marks at departure from Hemingway’s previous work which is characterized by dis- illusionment and negation. Santiago is not a permanently “wounded” hero as was Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms. This novel is a powerfully urged metaphor which stands for what life can be. And it is an epic metaphor of a contest where even the problem of moral right and wrong seems paltry before the great thing that is the struggle, struggle against the impossible odds of life. In this respect the novel is reminiscent of ancient epics. It is much in the spirit of the Greek tragedies in which men fight against odds and win a moral victory: the hero may fail and fall but he attains an impressive stature by his titanic resistance. Two opposite approaches have been made to this novel.

According to one approach, the novel has as its theme social concern and mutual independence. No matter how lonely Santiago may be on the sea, he draws comfort from his thoughts of the boy; and he is dependent too on the restaurant-owner and the wine- shop owner both of whom show him much consideration and regard. Even the baseball champion, Joe DiMaggio is essential to Santiago for the incentive he provides. According to the other approach, however, the novel is a study of human isolation and marks the culmination of Hemingway’s long search for disengagement from the social world and total entry into the natural. The effort to get out of society and its artificialities is, according to this approach, not motivated by a desire to “escape” but by a desire for liberation; such an effort is no act of cowardice. To be true to onesell demands getting out of society and returning to the lost world of nature. And that lost world, as The Old Man and the Sea reveals, has its own. responsibilities and disciplines. Santiago is the only hero in Hemingway who is not an American and who is altogether free of the entanglements of modern life. In this movement from, the confinements of society to the challenges of nature, Hemingway is most closely linked to Joseph Conrad.

The Old Man and the Sea illustrates the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles of society and enacts Santiago’s lonely drama in the bosom of nature. Now, whether we accept the one interpretation or the other, the essential character of the book as a great work remains. It is not necessarily Hemingway’s greatest work, but it is the one in which he said the finest thing he ever had to say. It is a powerful book, and its power is largely due to the way it depicts individual heroism, its reverence for life’s struggle. It is the heartening vision of the story which constitutes its compelling power. Hemingway at last finds himself in a world where he feels at home instead of in a world that is frightening because of its meaningless and accidental cruelty. Even this world breaks, and crucifies, a man, but a man survives still and carries on like Santiago.

Comparison With Other Classics

The Old Man and the Sea has been compared with many established literary classics-from Homer’s Odyssey to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has, in any case, some important links with a number of American classics. One such link is its concentration on the struggle for survival of an individual. set against the background of a community from which he is estranged. Like Natty Bumppo in the Leatherstocking novels, Thoreau at Walden, Huck Finn in his Adventures, or Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, Santiago is an outsider in some sense from his community, not because he is radically alienated from the community but because he is salao, i.e., very unlucky with respect to the established values of that community; he has not caught any fish for eighty-four days. Finally the evidence which he supplies of his still formidable capacity as a fisherman restores community respect and enhances the sympathy which much of the community has felt for him all along. Another link of this novel with other American classics is provided by Santiago’s experiencing a spiritual renewal away from the village and in the midst of a wholly natural environment. Numerous American heroes (Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn, Jake Barnes) escape to Nature to preserve their sense of self-hood and their vital freedom. Santiago clearly derives strength of body and character from his intimate relationship with the sea. And in so doing he stands, not alienated, but as a symbolical ideal for his community. In other words Hemingway, like Cooper, Thoreau, Twain, and Faulkner, celebrates a primitive intimacy with Nature as the means to spiritual strength.

To Hemingway, Nature in The Old Man and the Sea is not something evil. Santiago feels quite at home in the midst of the birds and the creatures of the sea. The giant marlin is his “friend” and “brother”; the stars are “distant friends”: he speaks even to the dangerous Portuguese man-of-war in a familiar manner: “You whore”. Hemingway’s account of Santiago’s relationship with Nature and its creatures recalls Thoreau’s intimacy with the world of Walden, not Melville’s picture of the sinister and treacherous sea. Finally, it must be admitted that The Old Man and the Sea, though undoubtedly a classic, is not an achievement of the same high order as some other American or British works. This serenely ordered novel, with its acceptance of the inevitability of natural rhythms, with its absence of psychological struggle, with its moral simplicity, is not among the greatest classics. It gives the effect of action frozen in a graceful tableau for our moral and aesthetic contemplation. But it is a book that deserves the reader’s serious attention and a perusal of it is a highly stimulating and inspiring experience.

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