When Ernest Hemingway was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, only one of his novels was directly praised by the Swedish Academy: “The Old Man and the Sea”. The myth of Hemingway, along with his influence on American letters may lead many to believe that his work is unimportant. Since the image of his work is already caught in our heads, and since he was so popular during his time, we may feel that there is nothing left to discover in his stories and that the past, with its antiquity, is where we should leave him. However, to quote Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun).
First published in Life Magazine, in 1952, “The Old Man and the Sea” tells the story of Santiago, an old fisherman, sailing out far from the Cuban coast. The old man had not caught anything for 84 days, and his sail “looked like the flag of permanent defeat” (Hemingway, 13). The old man eventually snags an 18-foot marlin fish and fights for three days to lure him in, until finally the marlin is defeated. However, the fish was so big that the old man could not fit him in his skiff, so he tied the fish alongside the boat. While sailing for a shore he could not see, under the setting sun, sharks slowly began to tear apart and eat his prize. Finally, he returned to the coast of Havana, where there was nothing left but the head, the tail and the bleach-white carcass of his greatest victory.
In my opinion, what separates “The Old Man and the Sea” from other works of literature is that its prose is succinct, clear and honest; all of which are characteristic of Hemingway’s style. With “The Old Man and the Sea” being under 100 pages in any edition, but not quite thin enough to be a short story, Hemingway gives the reader enough air to breathe, but only just. Hemingway’s prose does not require rehearsed or accented readings and the words do not need footnotes or explanations. Hemingway’s world is stripped bare, and there it is. The sentences in “The Old Man and the Sea” are almost always made up of short, Anglo-Saxon or Old English, words. The only exception to this rule that I could find would be the recurring use of the Latin-derived word ‘phosphorescence’. This is Hemingway’s most redeeming quality as a writer because, unlike Joyce, his writing does not require a reader to be college-educated or to endure difficult references; Hemingway was a writer for the people. Additionally, Hemingway’s sentences always seem to drop at their end and leave a brief silence where one feels they are experiencing a short epiphany. This is shown particularly in the following passage when the old man is taking a rest from luring in the fish.
“The breeze was steady. It had backed a little further into the north-east and he knew that meant that it would not fall off. The old man looked ahead of him but he could see no sails nor could he see the hull nor the smoke of any ship. There were only the flying fish that went up from his bow sailing away to either side and the yellow patches of Gulf weed. He could not even see a bird.” (Hemingway, 80).
Hemingway’s prose is also unique in the musical quality of its repetitions, which are inspired by Bach’s use of ‘counterpoint’. This is shown particularly when the old man’s hand cramps while luring in the fish.
“It will uncramp though, he thought. Surely it will uncramp to help my right hand. There are three things that are brothers: the fish and my two hands. It must uncramp. It is unworthy of it to be cramped. The fish had slowed again and was going at his usual pace.” (Hemingway, 52).
With these two elements of Hemingway’s style being as prominent and as beautiful as they are, “The Old Man and the Sea” contains some of the most resonant prose in the history of American literature.
Finally, the narrative of Hemingway’s novel is a tragedy as elemental and instinctive as cave paintings, up on ceilings, lit by a torch. Instead of man being against nature, Hemingway frames his narrative in terms of man acting in accord with nature and its intrinsic struggle; and the old man shows his virtue by participating in that struggle with resolve, honesty and tenderness. The humanity and beauty of “The Old Man and the Sea” makes it not only a great work of American literature but of the literature of the world.
After coming ashore, with the skeleton of the fish along his boat, Hemingway writes of the old man, “The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought. Then he added, sometimes. And the great sea with our friends and our enemies. And bed, he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing. It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.
‘Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’” (Hemingway, 89).