The Old Man and the Sea

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Original book cover

The Old Man and the Sea is a novella by Ernest Hemingway written in Cuba in 1951 and published in 1952. It was the last major work of fiction to be produced by Hemingway and published in his lifetime. One of his most famous works, it centers upon an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Though it has been the subject of disparate criticism, it is noteworthy in twentieth century fiction and in Hemingway's canon, reaffirming his worldwide literary prominence and significant in his selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.


Background and publication

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Life issue of September 1 1952, featuring The Old Man and the Sea

Most biographers maintain that the years following Hemingway's publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940 until 1952 were the bleakest in his literary career. The novel Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) was almost unanimously disparaged by critics as self-parody. Evidently his participation as an Allied correspondent in World War II did not yield fruits equivalent to those wrought of his experiences in World War I (A Farewell to Arms, 1929) or the Spanish Civil War (For Whom the Bell Tolls).

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Gregorio Fuentes is one possible model for Hemingway's eponymous "Old Man."

Hemingway had initially planned to use Santiago's story, which became The Old Man and the Sea, as part of a larger work, which he referred to as "The Sea Book." Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream. Positive feedback he received on Santiago's story led him to write it as an independent work.

The novella first appeared, in its 26,500-word entirety, as part of the September 1 1952 edition of Life magazine. 5.3 million copies of that issue were sold within two days. The majority of concurrent criticism was extravagantly positive, while a streak of dissenting criticism has since emerged.

Bizarrely, the title was misprinted on the cover of an early edition as The Old Men and the Sea.

Inspiration for character

While Hemingway was living in Cuba beginning in 1940 with his third wife Martha Gellhorn, one of his favorite pastimes was to sail and fish in his boat, named the Pilar [1] ( . General biographical consensus holds that the model for Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea was, at least in part, the Cuban fisherman Gregorio Fuentes.

Fuentes, born in 1897 on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, migrated to Cuba when he was six years old and met Hemingway there in 1928. In the 1930s, Hemingway hired him to look after his boat. During Hemingway's Cuban years a strong friendship formed between Hemingway and Fuentes. For almost thirty years, Fuentes served as the captain of the Pilar; this included time during which Hemingway did not live in Cuba.

Fuentes, suffering from cancer, died in 2002; he was 104 years old. Just prior, he had donated Hemingway's Pilar to the Cuban government. He had never read The Old Man and the Sea.


Template:Spoiler top The Old Man and the Sea recounts an epic battle between an old, experienced fisherman and a giant marlin—presumably the largest catch of his life.

It opens by explaining that the fisherman, named Santiago, has gone 84 days without catching a fish. He is apparently so unlucky that his young apprentice, Manolin, has been forbidden by his parents to sail with the old man and been ordered to fish with more successful fishermen. Still dedicated to the old man, however, the boy visits Santiago's shack each night, hauling back his fishing gear, feeding him, and discussing American baseball—most notably Santiago's idol, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago tells Manolin that on the next day, he will venture far out into the Gulf to fish, confident that his unlucky streak is near its end.

Thus on the eighty-fifth day, Santiago sets out alone, taking his skiff far into the Gulf. He sets his lines and, by noon of the first day, a big fish that he is sure is a marlin takes his bait. Unable to pull in the great marlin, Santiago instead finds the fish pulling his skiff. Two days and two nights pass in this manner, during which the old man bears the tension of the line with his body. Though he is wounded by the struggle and in pain, Santiago expresses a compassionate appreciation for his adversary, often referring to him as a brother.

On the third day of the ordeal, the fish begins to circle the skiff, indicating his tiredness to the old man. Santiago, now completely worn out and almost in delirium, finds the strength to stab with a harpoon and kill the fish during one of his great lunges out of the water.

Santiago straps the marlin to his skiff and heads home, thinking about the high price the fish will bring him at the market and how many people he will feed. The old man determines that because of the fish's great dignity, no one will be worthy of eating the marlin.

While Santiago continues his journey back to the shore, sharks are attracted to the trail of blood left by the marlin in the water. The first, a great mako shark, Santiago kills with his harpoon, losing that weapon in the process. He makes a new harpoon by strapping his knife to the end of an oar to help ward off the next line of sharks; in total, seven sharks are slain. But by night, the sharks have devoured the marlin's entire carcass, leaving only its skeleton. The old man castigates himself for sacrificing the marlin. Finally reaching the shore before dawn on the next day, he struggles on the way to his shack, carrying the heavy mast on his shoulder. Once home, he slumps onto his bed and enters a very deep sleep.

Ignorant of the old man's journey, a group of fishermen gathers the next day around the boat where the fish's skeleton is still attached. Tourists at the nearby caf mistakenly take it for a shark. Manolin, worried during the old man's endeavor, cries upon finding him safe asleep. The boy brings him newspapers and coffee. When the old man wakes, they promise to fish together once again. Upon his return to sleep, Santiago dreams of lions on the African beach. Template:Spoiler bottom

Reaction and critical analyses

The Old Man and the Sea served to reinvigorate Hemingway's literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novella was initially received with much popularity; it restored many readers' confidence in Hemingway's capability as an author. Its publisher, Scribner's, on an early dust jacket, called the novella a "new classic," and many critics favorably compared it with such works as William Faulkner's "The Bear" and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Following such extravagant acclaim, however, a school of critics emerged that interpreted the novella as a disappointing minor work. Notable in this shift from unqualified support is the critic Philip Young. In 1952, just following the novella's publication, Young provided an admiring review, suggesting that it was the book "in which [Hemingway] said the finest single thing he ever had to say as well as he could ever hope to say it." Then, in 1966, he jeeringly noted that the "failed novel" too often "went way out." These self-contradictory views show that critical reaction ranged from adoration of the book's mythical, pseudo-religious intonations to flippant dismissal as pure fakery. The latter is founded in the notion that Hemingway, once a devoted student of realism, failed in his depiction of Santiago as a supernatural, clairvoyant impossibility.

Critical views

One of the most celebrated favorable critical readings of the novella—and one which has defined analytical considerations since—came in 1957 with Joseph Waldmeir's essay entitled "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man." Perhaps the most memorable claim therein is his answer to the rhetorical question,

Just what is the book's message?
The answer assumes a third level on which The Old Man and the Sea must be read—as a sort of allegorical commentary on all his previous work, by means of which it may be established that the religious overtones of The Old Man and the Sea are not peculiar to that book among Hemingway's works, and that Hemingway has finally taken the decisive step in elevating what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of a religion. (351)

Waldmeir was one of the most prominent critics to wholly consider the function of the novella's Christian imagery, made most evident through Santiago's blatant reference to the crucifixion following his sighting of the sharks that reads:

Ay, he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. (Hemingway 107)

Waldmeir analyzes this line, supplemented with other instances of similar symbolism, in such a way that allows him to claim that The Old Man and the Sea was a seminal work in raising what he calls Hemingway's "philosophy of Manhood" to a religious level. Regardless of whether one agrees with this logic, his hallmark criticism, curiously sycophantic in tone, stands as one of the most durable, positive treatments of the novella.

On the other hand, one of the most outspoken critics who has emerged in the camp of dissenting opinion of the work is Robert P. Weeks. His notorious 1962 piece, "Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea," presents a series of points that he claims show how the novella is a weak and unexpected divergence from the typical, realistic Hemingway. In juxtaposing this novella against Hemingway's previous works, he explains that

The difference, however, in the effectiveness with which Hemingway employs this characteristic device in his best work and in The Old Man and the Sea is illuminating. The work of fiction in which Hemingway devoted the most attention to natural objects, The Old Man and the Sea, is pieced out with an extraordinary quantity of fakery, extraordinary because one would expect to find no inexactness, no romanticizing of natural objects in a writer who loathed W.H. Hudson, could not read Thoreau, deplored Melville's rhetoric in Moby Dick, and who was himself criticized by other writers, notably Faulkner, for his devotion to the facts and his unwillingness to "invent." (188)

While his dismissal is mostly limited to the story at hand (he refers to previous Hemingway works as "earlier glories"), the evident range of critical interpretations is a curiosity for a work so widely renowned as a masterpiece.


The accolades that Hemingway received directly for, and largely as a result of, The Old Man and the Sea were many. On May 4, 1953, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He also earned the Award of Merit Medal for the Novel from the American Academy of Letters that same year. Most prestigiously, the Nobel Prize in Literature came in 1954, "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style."


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An image from Petrov's animated film

Of the several films that have been made based on the novella, the most notable, produced in 1958, stars Spencer Tracy as Santiago and Felipe Pazos as Manolin. It was adapted by Peter Viertel and directed by John Sturges, Henry King (uncredited) and Fred Zinnemann (uncredited). It won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and was nominated in the categories of Best Actor in a Leading Role (Spencer Tracy) and Best Cinematography.

Another prominent version is a 1990 television movie starring Anthony Quinn as Santiago. This version introduces two characters not in the novella, Tom Pruitt and Mary Pruitt, played by Gary Cole and Patricia Clarkson, respectively.

In 1999, the centennial of Hemingway's birth, director Alexandr Petrov released an animated, large-format film of the novella, created from 29,000 hand-painted images. The project was initiated in 1995 after Petrov's first meeting with Productions Pascal Blais, a Canadian animation company. It received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.



  • Hemingway, Ernest (1952). The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

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de:Der alte Mann und das Meer es:El viejo y el mar he:הזקן והים ja:老人と海 pl:Stary człowiek i morze pt:O velho e o mar sv:Den gamle och havet zh:老人与海


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