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Book Review: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Updated on September 1, 2015

Moby Dick in Cuba

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea was written in 1951's Cuba, the last major successful work by Ernest Hemingway. It is about pre-Castro Cuba and an old failure of a Cuban angler, struggling with a great marlin in open water. It is rather like Moby Dick in Cuba. The subject of widely ranging criticism following a decade of critical derision of Hemingway, it energized his reputation by earning many important awards.

The 1950s were an era of progress and a time of Cold War intrigue, deceit, and paranoia, ala Spy vs. Spy. The United States became more capitalistic than before WWII, entered the Space Race with the Soviets and initiated espionage and multi-layered agendas against the USSR, the Eastern Bloc, and Cuba. Joseph McCarthy operated the communist witch-hunts that were designed to make him famous as well as catch "commies."

New inventions proliferated in America during this time. We experienced a post-war housing boom and the Baby Boom. The "discount store" sprouted. Project Blue Book studied UFOs and Rock and Roll dominated music. The Beat Generation was running up on the heels of The Greatest Generation. Times were changing. The old ways had to step aside for progress and Ernest Hemingway and his work were "Old."

Fishermen at Sea (1796) by J.M.W. Turner (public domain)
Fishermen at Sea (1796) by J.M.W. Turner (public domain)

Marine and Human Sharks

Having been a war correspondent in WWI, he produced literary classics and post-WWII, he failed to repeat his success. After his last great work, For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1940, his writing was panned until he published The Old Man and the Sea. He was nicknamed "Papa Hemingway" as a putdown.

The Greatest Generation was called the same type of names by The Beat Generation, but Beat writers had been influenced by Ernest Hemingway himself. Ironically, Hemingway created his own demise by aging after teaching the new generation, in a way, to deride the old and move forward. The Old Man and the Sea was praised, however, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the American Medal of Merit, resulting in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

In the story, the Old Man is a poor Santiago, who went to sea for 84 days to fish, mostly unsuccessfully. A neighborhood boy, Mandolin had helped Santiago with his meager fishing near the port city, despite his parents deciding that this was not a good idea. After many weeks of struggle, Santiago tells the boy he is going far out to sea to catch a particular Big Fish trophy, a giant marlin. He goes to sea, meets the fish, and struggles mightily in catching it for several days.

The fish is two feet longer than his boat, pulls him to open water, and nearly kills the old man. Eighty-four days make 3 months of 28 days, or a full season. September is the time setting for this fishing story, the season of struggle for Santiago.

The autumn season offers literary notions of death, because September is the month in which the autumn equinox initiates the final season of the dying year. However, Santiago captures his Big Fish, the giant marlin. Even so, sharks come after the marlin tied to Santiago's boat until there is nothing left but bone.

This is the way Hemingway felt about his critics picking apart his work.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway | Source

Prophecy and Redemption

Autumn in Hemingway's story represents a final struggle for redemption by Santiago, by Hemingway, and even by the USA during the conflict with Cuba and Soviet Communism in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 1950s were a dark ride in US history.

TV reporters sometimes lied to the public about the Cold War. The events preceding the Bay of Pigs incident SNAFU in 1961 left America looking like a political fool instead of a world savior.

McCarthyism also backfired - the famous List of Communists dwindled down to nothing, but ended the lives of many artists, writers, and actors with the ensuing blacklisting from employment.

UFO studies and NASA distracted Americans and the globe from these witch-hunts. In the same way, Hemingway's writings from 1941 - 50 backfired and were rejected as sentimental.

Then ­The Old Man and the Sea came as redemption, just as the Space Race won redemption for America. The "Old Man" was Hemingway's Space Race-type of redeemer. The marlin was Santiago's redemption.

Political Carton - LBJ and Viet Nam, Post-Kennedy

The old man and the sea are characters used in many eras, but the LBJ Era  is of the same time period as the Hemingway story.
The old man and the sea are characters used in many eras, but the LBJ Era is of the same time period as the Hemingway story.

Even the Critics Give Praise

At the end of the book, Santiago returns to port and is exhausted, stumbling home to sleep and leaving his marlin skeleton attached to his boat at the edge of the water.

While Santiago sleeps, Mandolin gathers coffee and clean clothes for him, while people gathers outside to measure the marlin skeleton. It is a full 18 feet long! That is the size of three 6-foot men lying end-to-end.

The people are excited - they speak highly of this accomplishment while Santiago sleeps, unaware of them.Tourists look at the skeleton and admire it. This was is prophetic in that, after Hemingway died, many people continued to read and praise The Old Man and the Sea - even the critics.

I recommend this story to anyone that would like to know more about Ernest Hemingway's struggle to succeed at the end of his career. The parallels with America itself are fascinating.

A marlin, close up.
A marlin, close up. | Source

© 2008 Patty Inglish


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    • collegatariat profile image

      collegatariat 5 years ago

      I found this book to be fascinating, as much for it's ability to captivate with such a simple story as for the story itself. It would be incredible to be able to write such a seemingly bland topic and keep it riveting throughout.

      The parallels you brought out between American politics and the novel were interesting also. But even though it was specific to Hemingway's era, it's still a timeless book.

    • Nan Mynatt profile image

      Nan Mynatt 6 years ago from Illinois

      I love Ernest Hemingway's style of writing and all of his books. He had a unique way of writing and will never e forgotten.

    • profile image

      Mallory 7 years ago

      I went to Hemingway's home, bought The Old Man and the Sea in the bookstore, went straight to the beach, and read the whole thing. Got a sunburn, but hey, it was worth it!

    • KKalmes profile image

      KKalmes 7 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      Hello Patty, one of my favorite books and one of my favorite Spencer Tracy movies. thank you

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 8 years ago from North America

      peek-a-boo -- Since your IP is connected to a university campus, I decline to do your homework for you :) However, I think the material you need is clear in my article. Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      peek-a-boo 8 years ago

      what would the theme or subject be

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Make sure to read his short stories. One I like very much is called A Clean Well Lighted Place, from 1926.

    • takka83 profile image

      takka83 9 years ago from Australia

      Hey, great hub!! I just wrote a review of this book.. it's my first review so I kept it short and sweet. I'm new to Hemingway, but after reading the old man and the sea I wanna read ALL of his works!! If anyone can recommend what I should read next, then please visit my book review and leave a comment! I'd be very grateful! thank you :-)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Not your favorite book, is it mouse? I found it interesting, but I can see how others may indeed see it as dull. I like to think about this story when I think about Moby Dick and the larger human condition. So many things seem connected.

      Thanks for posting.

    • profile image

      mouse 9 years ago

      oh my gosh that book is so boring i read it at skool n will neva read it agen got do point quote comment on it sooooooooooo BORING

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Hi Moons, the story is considered a classic in American Literature, so I am glad you visited and saw it. Best Wishes!

    • profile image

      moons 9 years ago

      Your story a new one to me. Thanks.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Thank you! I am impressed by struggling to survive and succeeding, even if it takes a decade. I've read your mountain experience and that is what I am talking about! I'll make a comment over there soon.

    • adventure profile image

      adventure 9 years ago from U.S.A.

      I read this classic years ago and loved it. Great choice.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Thank for the comments! This was never assignmed reading for me, either. But it was very insightful recently as I read it.

    • Topgunmommy profile image

      Topgunmommy 9 years ago from Lindsay Canada

      While I have heard of the story, I have never read it --- Now i want to -- guess I'd better make trip to the library soon.

      Thanks for the inspiration.

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 9 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Patty -excellent. I read this on the bus between Issaquah and Seattle, WA a few years ago. I can't believe I made it all the way through grad school without it as an assignment. But so much more enjoyable for pleasure than for school work!

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from North America

      Thanks Jonathan, I read it all at once as well!

    • vreccc profile image

      vreccc 9 years ago from Concord, NH


      What a pleasure to be the first commentor on this hub. I love this book. I remember going to a bookstore one afternoon when I was in grad school, not having any real plan, I pulled it off the shelf, sat on the floor and read it in its entirety. I think that was the second time I read it. This is a magical book.

      "The Dogders of Brooklyn and Sox of Boston". Something like that.