Old Man and the Sea: Through the Eyes of Hemingway and Faulkner

Arun Sharma

Written between December 1950 and February 1951, ‘Old Man and the Sea’ is one of  the major works by Hemingway. Santiago, his fictional character is an aging fisherman and the story is about his fierce struggle to catch a giant marlin and to contain as well as control it. Unlike the author’s other works there are no glamour women, no sensual romances, no  bull fights or drinking escapades. The fisherman loves the ocean and its habitants give him a sense  of profound beauty, it also is sole means of his survival. He passionately loves the giant fish yet he must kill it for the sake his own survival. Often the paradox in life is: you are compelled to kill something you love so dearly. And the book deals with the pain and struggle one must go through, and a fight he must win.

This novella is much simpler and better than most of his earlier works. Its “honest and elemental” theme succinctly portrays hunger and struggle for survival for Santiago, fisherman’s ferocious fight with giant animal he just caught in the sea. Sea for Hemingway’s Santiago is a symbol of immense beauty  and a struggle for existence. The old Cuban fisherman with no catch for 84 days and finally  hooks a monster marlin on 85th day. All alone in his skiff unable to fasten the line as the giant fish would break if he did not lessen the strain with his own body while tightly holding on to it or the big animal would drag and pull the fisherman himself. In this process he endures days of hunger, exhaustion and pain from the lone cutting injuring his hands. Finally, he catches the fish and lashes it to the side of his skiff only to spend his return voyage fighting the sharks competing with him on his catch. For several days and nights, he is all alone on the vast sea fighting with the sharks. The story is also about the courage with which Santiago faces danger and copes with hunger.

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” is the message he delivers in his seminal work!

William Faulkner’s words on Old Man and the Sea:

“His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves, shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further.”

New York Times review on the book: “Here is the master technician once more at the top of his form, doing superbly what  he can do better than anyone else.”

“Magnificence of great marlin and the beauty of days and nights on the Gulf stream” is effectively conveyed in this short book.

Superbly simple language, economy of words, powerful existential challenge of hunger, fight and struggle to win a fight along with keen sense of beauty of the Sea and a powerfully loaded message that, one need to be ready to die but not accept defeat is the message Hemingway delivers in his remarkable work.

The writer himself evaluates his own work as “………I had finally gotten what I had been working all my life.  That story in  only 27000 words.”

The old fisherman is humble, gently proud with a sense of beauty and brotherhood with nature is  articulated effectively and poetically.

He writes: ” Why they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallow when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel….”

Manolin, a young boy who once was his fishing companion deeply loves the old man, brings him tea, coffee and bread and checks upon him every night! The deep affection, care he displays symbolizes sensitivity,  humaneness and sentimentality that makes the story sprinkled beautifully and is compassionate. While I haveread this book twice in the last two decades, the author himself has read more than 200 times as he says, “ Don’t you think it is a damn story that it should affect all of us the way it does. I had to read over 200 times and every time it does something to me.” Hemingway is passionately proud if his work!

The book is a great example of conciseness, frugality and economy of words. It also proves that it is not the verbose, complexity and length that alone makes a book great but also the simplicity.  This is the key lesson here for other writers!

Courage on the face of danger, kindness, compassion, unwilling to accept a defeat and finding beauty in struggles are the key takeaways in this compact and yet a powerful book that made Hemingway win the Noble prize in literature in 1954 for “mastery of art narrative”.