1000 Books In Ten Years; Vol. 3; The Old Man And The Sea: by Ernest Hemingway

Since this work has already won the Pulitzer, and was cited when he won the Nobel Prize for literature, the novel’s impact is already clear and it would be hard to offer any sort of new commentary on it since it has been the subject of more literary articles than one could hope to count.  That said….

The novel is about an old Cuban named Santiago who had served as a tutor in the ways of fishing to a young boy, but after a long drought if fishless expeditions, the boy is forbidden by his parents to go out fishing with Santiago, though he continues to help feed and provide companionship to the old man. The old man decides to take his boat out a little farther one day and ends up catching a marine who is as strong as he is big and ends up pulling the man out to sea for close to three days before the old man can finally harpoon him. But because of his size, the marline cannot be brought aboard the boat and is tied to the side of the boat, where its blood attracts several attacks from various sharks, leaving nothing but a skeleton by the time the old man returns to port. The skeleton though is an impressive trophy and his fellow fishermen are all in awe of its size.

The work seems to serve as an allegory of sorts, but is written so simply and eloquently at the same time, that the text is open to many potential readings. Jean-Paul Sartre for example would certainly see this as a existential piece. The old man, who has been a fisherman for years, and who has caught many large fish in his youth, and even participated in an epic arm wrestling match which last close to 48 hours and saw the old man (in his youth) come away the winner. But these past accomplishments do not define who Santiago is now, merely who he was in the past, and as the old man wishes to still be the fisherman he was, he rests not on the narratives of his youth in his old age, but continues to be the fisherman he was, for he seems very much aware that it is very much what you DO that defines you, and not only what you DID. One passage that seems to dwell heavily on such existentialist ideals is when the omnipresent narrative states: “A thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.” He lives in the moment and see that he is defined by what he does, and not what he did.



There are some obvious religious references in the novel, such as when the old man cries out ‘Ay’ while he is suffering through pain and one of his hands has been cut open and the other is severely cramped. The omnipresent narrator suggest that there is not a meaning to this word, merely that it is a sound one might shout out when they feel the nails going through their hands and into the wood. When the old man returns to shore and is utterly exhausted, he still must carry his mast to his shack, and it is another scene the appropriates from the Gospels as Santiago seems to be very much like Christ, who pull the weight of the crucifix which he was to be nailed to, much as Santiago struggled with the great weight of the ships mast over his shoulder. The old man, during his internal dialogue even suggests that ‘fishing kills’ him as much as keeps him alive, a concept which one might imagine Christ indulging in as he hung from the cross, the cross being the tool that was to kill him, and also the tool that would allow him to live on through his sacrifice.



In the narrative, Santiago carries a certain humility and has a great respect for nature. Santiago considers the killing of the marline to be unjust, while he thanks god that the fish he hunts are not as intelligent, he concedes also that they are more noble than the men who hunt them, and admits later that “man is not much beside the great beasts and birds” and describes the life of a fisherman as in which man “kills his own brothers.” He sees the rest of nature in the same light and offers admits he is “glad” that he “does not have to kill the stars”. The passages where Santiago considers these thoughts are touching, he shows humility and love, regret and awe before nature, and it endures him to the reader.



There is also a Hobbesian reading to be offered, both in that man’s experience serve to colour how he sees the world, and also that man can only achieve what it seeks out when their collective power is used together to create a greater power. Hobbes believe that all of humanity came into the world with a clean slate, and through their experiences learned how to survive in the world. Through Santiago’s journey he learns, even as an old fisherman with years of experience, what one needs to be a better fisherman. The weight of the marline forces him to realize that he needs other hands on the boat. The multiple shark attacks make him realize that he needs better weapons, harpoons, knives and such to defend his catch, and when he arrives back on shore, he imparts these lessons on the young boy so that he might be better prepared as he continues his life as a fisherman. The fight, not only against the marline, but also against the sharks that tear its corpse apart, makes it clear that one person is not capable of doing the work required to sustain oneself, but that it requires many. Humanity’s natural state is a state of war, if not against each other than against nature, as Santiago discovers as he is in a perpetual state of war with the creatures of the sea. Had he had more hands on his boat he could have slept, he could have worked with others to get the fish on board, but as only one man, he was too vulnerable to the world to survive, or in this case protect his claim.

Hemingway’s narrative has components which are a little unsettling and don’t fit in with the romantic nature of the story, which rather than working against, actually adds some depth to it. There is a passage where Santiago is considering his accountability for what he sees as sin. He admits to himself that he killed the marline out of pride, and not for the need of survival, or self-defence as he tries to convince himself earlier in the narrative. As he contemplates this though, he sets the debate aside, or at least tries to, telling himself not to think about sin, that such debates are for other people and that he was ‘born to be a fisherman’, absolving himself, or trying to, for the responsibility of sin. Still though, guilt weighs on him like an albatross throughout the narrative, despite his attempts to absolve himself of it, which makes Santiago all the more endearing.

The narrative is simple, and short, and seemingly an example of conventional story telling, but there is a weight to the seemingly light nature of story which makes the narrative one that would compel the reader to examine their own nature. There are times when, as Sartre once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we are like slaves who have freed themselves of their shackles and have run to the eastern bow of a west bound slave ship. Our freedom is limited. But even though Santiago works within that limited space of freedom, he still carries sympathy for those who have less freedom than he, and guilt for his role in their exploitation. The narrative is not written entirely unlike John Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’, and shares many of the themes of that self work. The piece was a joy to read and asks little time of the reader (it is less than 130 pages), but still it gives much back to reader who is an active participant in narrative.

If you like this, try:


Steinbeck’s ‘The Pearl’ is a narrative similar in length, theme and writing styles, so for those who enjoy ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, ‘The Pearl’ would be a great selection as well.


Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’. This work is much longer, but its depiction of a fisherman who grapples with his internal struggles with guilt are not entirely unlike Hemingway’s work in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. ‘Suttree’ can be seen in many ways as an expansion of the type of narrative Hemingway undertook, and one which has more depth of story telling. Both writers have sympathetic view of their protagonists and create worlds that seem both authentic and romantic at the same time.


Hemingway originally want to call the book “The Man In The Boat”, but his publishers insisted that such a title would not be appropriate, though they never told Hemingway why.

Words I thought I’d look up:


Salao: Spanish for ballroom? Do NOT quote me on this one!


Bodega: Spanish in origin, appropriated by English, means a wine warehouse.


Saegasso: The name of a sea in the North Atlantic Ocean which is surrounded by ocean currents.


Iridescent: Having a lustrous or rainbow coloured appearance.


Filaments: Slender strand of fibre.


Carapace: Is the dorsal (upper sections) of an endoskeleton, or shell in many aquatic animal groups.


Loggerheads: Both a type of turtle and a type of bird. The turtle can grow to 84 inches and over 300 pounds, and though it is usually reddish, this sea turtle carries colour variances that range from yellow to brown. The bird, known as Loggerhead Shrike, has a black mask that reaches under it bill and extends to the back, tail and wings of the bird, while its underside is white. It is without the large talons which most birds or prey carry, and so, being a carnivore, often impales its prey on thorns! It eats insects, smaller birds and reptiles! In the book ’loggerhead’ is in reference to the turtle, but the bird sounds pretty cool.


Porpoises: Is a sea mammal, used in the novel to describe a dolphin.


Gaffed: A hooked fishing pole often attached to a ships mast.


Ptomaine: Foul smelling product of decay.


Dentuso: This is another Spanish word, in this instance one that describes a specific type of shark, though the Spanish word for sharks in general is Tiburon.


Galanos: Cold pressed meat, usually white meat such as chicken, but used to describe fish within the context of the novel.


Ay: 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 hand.


Mako: A small tree in New Zealand? Yeah, but not in the context of this book. Mako is also a type of shark, a short-finned mako shark to be precise. Can get close to 3.5 meters and weight a little over a ton! Though Wiki also reports that a record sized female was found measuring 13 feet and weighing a little over 1700 pounds!?!?!?!? They are fast and agile, and love eating meat! And it can be found in all the oceans of the world outside of the Artic ocean.


Tiburon: Spanish for shark.


Eshark: There is not answer online, so I have deduced that it is either; A) An online shark. Or; B) A Spanish waiter mispronouncing the word ‘shark’ to American tourists who have mistaken the sizable marline skeleton which the old man brought in for a shark.




Up next…. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adam.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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