American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952). This short novel by Ernest Hemingway* (1899-1961) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and special recognition in Hemingway’s Nobel Prize Award in 1954. It was adapted into a film in 1958 that starred Spencer Tracy. Perhaps the only major American novel entirely about another culture, it has no American characters, except for two uncomprehending tourists who appear once.

Santiago,* an aged, hand-line fisherman in Cojimar, just east of Havana, is known as “El Campecon” (the Champion) for his physical prowess. But in September 1950, he has not taken a fish in eighty-four days, eschewing the smaller marlin near shore while seeking the rare giants in the depths of the Gulf Stream. Manolin, his youthful apprentice, has been forced by his parents to work with a fisherman who markets average fish. Santiago persists alone, without income, depending for bait and food upon the continuing assistance of Manolin.

On the eighty-fifth day Santiago hooks a 1,500-pound marlin 600 feet down in the mile-deep sea. With the huge fish lashed alongside his skiff, Santiago sails back to Cojimar, battling sharks that follow a fearless mako in stripping away all the marketable meat. Arriving home on the night of his third day at sea, exhausted and despondent, the old man sleeps without his recurrent dream of lions. But when he awakes in the morning, Manolin shares with him a fictional plan to fish together again, thereby obliquely reminding his tutor of a champion’s commitment to his destined role. Despite their unspoken knowledge that the severely injured Santiago, near death, will fish no more, the old man returns to sleep, this time dreaming of the lions; Manolin, the succeeding champion, watches reverently by his cot.

Although sometimes lamented for its celebration of aggression or attacked as an unconvincing departure from Hemingway’s hardheaded empiricism, this novel is widely regarded as his most consummate realization of a discernible natural order embracing human affairs. The old man’s resolution, to the death, parallels that of the marlin’s and the mako’s, suggesting that the sea sanctions the sacrificial behavior of individual creatures responsible for the round of contact between species. The hero’s numinous impression that time momentarily stops at the marlin’s death indicates that the slaying of a respected adversary is a timeless necessity, one mystery Hemingway found in the bullring.

These and other devices unobtrusively empower a sea narrative notably similar to Moby-Dick* (1851) in epistemological focus. With this work Hemingway’s canon achieves circular completion.

Toni D. Knott