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The Old Man and the Sea | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea | Context



Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an allegory—a story that reveals a deeper meaning or truth about human existence. One of the main ideas in The Old Man and the Sea is the eternal struggle of humankind versus nature.

In Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, castaway Robinson Crusoe comes to a closer understanding of God in his struggle to survive in a hostile natural environment. James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans advocates a respectful attitude toward nature, warning that human exploitation as illustrated by appropriation and exploitation of Native American land could lead to the downfall of a rich cultural heritage. In Herman Melville's 1851 signature work Moby Dick, Ahab fights fiercely and ultimately loses an epic struggle with a whale, confirming that an individual cannot defeat or conquer nature but can only exist within it.

Hemingway illustrates his own notion of humankind's relationship with nature. In The Old Man and the Sea, the old man is a fisherman; his livelihood depends on the sea, a symbol for all nature. He is an experienced fisherman with a deep understanding of nature as well as a deep love for all its creatures. To him, they all have a specific personality: the sea is female and both beautiful and cruel because she gives and takes life; conversely, the marlin is male because of his strength and calm. The old man does not question the order of things. On the contrary, he accepts that every creature, himself included, has a place in the natural circle of life. He declares he was born to be a fisherman as much as the marlin was born to be a fish. Therefore, as a fisherman he must fish to survive. There is no moral judgment; it simply is the way nature intended.

Deep-Sea Fishing

After returning from Europe following World War II, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, lived in Cuba. Hemingway spent much of his time deep-sea fishing on his boat, the Pilar. These experiences provided background for the vivid descriptions of a fisherman's skill in The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was an accomplished fisherman himself, participating in and winning competitions in the waters around Key West, Havana, and Bimini in the Bahamas soon after purchasing his boat in 1934. Then in 1936 Hemingway published an essay in Esquire about an old man being pulled by a huge marlin for several days before returning ashore with less than half the fish remaining. While Hemingway never claimed his story was based on a particular person, this essay, as well as his acquaintance with Carlos Gutierrez and Gregorio Fuentes, both captains on the Pilar, appear to be seeds for the novella. Like his fascination with fishing, the story itself had been developing inside him for a number of years.

Joe DiMaggio

It is no secret that Hemingway appreciated physical prowess and athleticism. The frequent references to baseball in general and Joe DiMaggio in particular speak of Hemingway's admiration for athletic ability, strength, endurance, and perseverance. These traits defined Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was born to Sicilian immigrants in California in 1914 and made his major league debut in 1936 with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio played center field and was an All-Star every one of his 13 years with the team. With an unparalleled 56-game hitting streak, DiMaggio led the Yankees to win the World Series nine times. Perhaps most impressive about DiMaggio's success was that he played a consistently flawless game despite numerous injuries—twisted ankles, dislocated shoulders, and bone spurs in his feet, requiring repeated surgery. Playing superbly through severe pain is the source of Santiago's admiration in The Old Man and the Sea.

Response to Critics

The Old Man and the Sea is likely the least autobiographical of Hemingway's work. Just over 50 years old, Hemingway was not an old man at the end of his life. However, he had not published much in over 10 years, and critics had practically pronounced him dead as a writer. The harsh reception of his novel Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950 has been likened to the sharks' feeding frenzy in The Old Man and the Sea. Similar to the novella's title character, Santiago, who, by capturing the biggest marlin of his career, shows he is still a powerful fisherman, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, showing himself still a powerful writer. On submitting The Old Man and the Sea to his editor, Wallace Meyer, Hemingway presented his opinion of the work: "the best I can write ever for all of my life." Indeed, the critical and commercial acclaim of the story finally silenced his critics.

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