The Old Man and the Sea

Page protected with pending changes
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from The old man and the sea)

The Old Man and the Sea
Original book cover
AuthorErnest Hemingway
CountryUnited States
GenreLiterary fiction
PublisherCharles Scribner's Sons
Publication date
1 September 1952
LC ClassPS3515.E37

The Old Man and the Sea is a 1952 novella written by the American author Ernest Hemingway. It tells the story of Santiago, an aging fisherman who catches a giant marlin after a lengthy struggle, but who then loses his bounty to sharks.

The last major fictional work to be published during Hemingway's lifetime, The Old Man and the Sea was begun in Cuba during a tumultuous period in the author's life—his previous novel Across the River and Into the Trees had met with negative reviews, and he had fallen in love with his muse Adriana Ivancich, amid a breakdown in relations with his wife Mary. Having completed one book of a planned "sea trilogy" in December 1950, Hemingway began to write as an addendum a story about an old man and a marlin which had originally been told to him fifteen years earlier. Writing up to a thousand words a day as his personal life stabilised, he completed the 26,531-word manuscript in six weeks.

Over the next year, Hemingway was increasingly convinced that the manuscript would stand on its own as a novella. In May 1952, Life magazine agreed to publish the whole magazine in one issue, which it did on 1 September; Hemingway's publishers Scribner's released their first edition a week later on the 8th. Thanks to favourable early reviews and word-of-mouth, popular anticipation was so high that both releases were heavily bootlegged. The magazine sold a record 5.3 million copies in two days, while Scribner's sold tens of thousands of copies. Translated into nine languages by the end of 1952, The Old Man and the Sea remained on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-six weeks. In 1953, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it was the only work explicitly mentioned when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Initial reviews were extremely positive, with many hailing a return to form for Hemingway after Across the River's negative reception. The applause lessened over time, however, and literary critics began to think the initial reception overblown and over-enthusiastic. Whether The Old Man and the Sea is inferior or equal to Hemingway's other works has since been the subject of significant debate. Thematic analysis has focused heavily on Christian imagery and symbolism, and on the similarity of the work's message to others in the Hemingway canon.


The elderly fisherman Santiago has not caught a fish in eighty-four days and is considered salao (very unlucky). The parents of Manolin, whom Santiago had trained, have forced their son to work on a different, luckier boat; Manolin still helps Santiago prepare his gear every morning and evening and brings him food. They talk about baseball and Joe DiMaggio, before the boy leaves and Santiago sleeps. He dreams of the sights and experiences of his youth.

On the eighty-fifth day of his streak, Santiago takes his skiff out early, intending to row far out into the Gulf Stream. He catches nothing except a small albacore in the morning before hooking a huge marlin. The fish is too heavy to haul in and it begins to tow the skiff further out to sea. Santiago holds on through the night, eating the albacore after sunrise. He sees the marlin for the first time—it is longer than the boat. Santiago increasingly appreciates the fish, showing respect and compassion towards his adversary. Sunset arrives for a second time and the fisherman manages some sleep; he is awoken by the fish panicking but manages to recover his equilibrium. On the third morning the marlin begins to circle. Almost delirious, Santiago draws the marlin in and harpoons it. He lashes the fish to his boat.

A mako shark smells blood in the water and takes a forty-pound bite of the marlin. Killing the shark but losing his harpoon, Santiago lashes his knife to an oar as a makeshift spear and kills three more sharks before the knife blade snaps. Cursing himself for going out too far, he apologises to the mutilated carcass of the marlin. He clubs two more sharks at sunset, but the marlin is now half-eaten. In the third night, the sharks come as a pack and leave only bones behind them. Santiago reaches shore and sleeps in his shack, leaving the skeleton tied to his skiff.

In the morning Manolin cries when he sees Santiago's state. He fetches coffee and sits with Santiago until he wakes. He insists on accompanying Santiago in the future. A fisherman measures the marlin at eighteen feet long, and a pair of tourists mistake its skeleton for that of a shark. Santiago goes back to sleep. He dreams of lions on an African beach.

Background and publication[edit]

A bearded man sitting on cushions on a boat in the sea aims a gun at the camera; the man looking next to him looks exasperated.
Photograph of an old bearded man sitting under fishing rods in a dimly lit ship's cabin.
Hemingway on board the Pilar in 1935 (top) and c. 1950 (bottom)

The Old Man and the Sea was Ernest Hemingway's sixth novel, following The Sun Also Rises (1926), A Farewell to Arms (1929), To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and Across the River and Into the Trees (1950).[1] Although the latter, published on 7 September, sold 75,000 copies in its first month and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-one weeks, critical reception was largely negative.[2] Amid a breakdown in marital relations with his wife Mary, Hemingway fell deeper into love with his muse, the young Italian Adriana Ivancich, who spent the winter of 1950–51 in the Hemingways' company in Cuba. Suddenly finding himself able to write in early December, he completed one book (published in 1970 as Islands in the Stream) of a planned "sea trilogy", and, as his passion for Ivancich cooled, set about writing another story.[3]

In the mid-1930s, the Cuban guide Carlos Gutiérrez had related a story involving an old man and a giant marlin to Hemingway, who retold it in Esquire magazine in an essay titled "On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter".[4] According to Mary Cruz, this tale was likely first told by the Cuban author Ramón Meza y Suárez Inclán in 1891 and was consistently retold by fishermen over the next forty years.[5] Significant influence came from Hemingway's own experience with the Gulf Stream, where he sailed for thousands of hours in the decades before writing The Old Man and the Sea. He greatly enjoyed the sport of big-game fishing, participating in and winning several tournaments, and he also became an avid amateur naturalist, inviting luminaries such as Henry Weed Fowler and Charles Cadwalader to record and describe catches on his boat, the Pilar. During a single month on board, aided by Hemingway's skill in fishing and sailing, the ichthyologist Fowler learnt enough to "revise the classification of marlin for the whole North Atlantic."[6]

Having put off a novelisation for sixteen years, but aided by his love and knowledge of fishing and the sea, Hemingway suddenly found himself writing a thousand words a day—twice as fast as usual.[7] Although Ivancich's departure on 7 February 1951 caused Hemingway some disquiet, the novella was essentially finished by 17 February; Mary, who read each day's production in the evenings, commented that she was "prepared to pardon [Hemingway] for all the disagreeable things [he] had done."[8] Hemingway was himself struck by the quality of this seemingly simple story, which he had written in little more than six weeks. Over the next few months, he sent copies to trusted friends and associates including his publisher Charles Scribner and his friend A. E. Hotchner, who all responded very positively.[9]

The 26,531-word manuscript was held in temporary abeyance for over a year, during which time Hemingway became increasingly certain he wished to publish it on its own brief merits, rather than as an addendum to the "sea trilogy".[10] Conversations with Leland Hayward and Wallace Meyer encouraged him in this direction—Hemingway was delighted when Hayward secured the publication of the entire novella in one issue of Life magazine in May 1952. As he wrote to Meyer, Hemingway wished to reject the idea the idea he should only write War and Peace or Crime and Punishment-like novels.[11] He rejected his publisher Scribner's initial cover designs, and asked Ivancich to draw a set of sketches which he found much more suitable.[12] He had intended to dedicate the book to Mary and to his boat, the Pilar, but changed his mind on Memorial Day when thinking about friends he had lost; Mary generously accepted the new dedication, to Scribner and Max Perkins.[13] Events moved slowly yet positively during the summer. Hemingway's old adversary William Faulkner released a highly positive review, and word-of-mouth reached such proportions that both the Life and Scribner's editions were heavily bootlegged.[14]

Life released their Labor Day printing, containing the first publication of The Old Man and the Sea, on 1 September 1952; they sold a record 5.3 million copies in two days. Advanced sales of Scribner's edition in America and Jonathan Cape's edition in Britain reached a total of 70,000, and afterwards combined weekly sales in the two countries averaged 5,000. It remained on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-six weeks and had been translated into nine languages by the start of 1953.[15]

Reception and legacy[edit]

The Old Man and the Sea met with popular acclaim. For the three weeks after publication, Hemingway received on average more than eighty letters a day from well-wishers, and Life received many more. Religious figures began to cite the book's themes in their sermons.[16] Critical reception was initially equally positive, placing the novella as superior in quality to Across the River and equal to Hemingway's earliest work. With Time magazine labelling it a "masterpiece", Cyril Connolly praised "the best story Hemingway has ever written" and Mark Schorer noted that Hemingway's "incomparable" work set him apart as "the greatest craftsman in the American novel in this century".[17] Many reviewers, seeing it as "the apex of the Hemingway canon", termed it a "classic".[18] Hemingway's favourite review was from the art historian Bernard Berenson, who wrote that The Old Man and the Sea was superior to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and equal in many ways to the Homeric epics.[19]

After the initial adulation had faded, less positive reviews began to appear. Delmore Schwartz believed that the relief that the novella was not as bad as Across the River had prejudiced the first reviews. Seymour Krim wrote that The Old Man and the Sea was "only more of the same", while John W. Aldridge felt himself "unable to share in the prevailing wild enthusiasm" for the novella.[20] Years later, Jeffrey Meyers called it Hemingway's "most overrated work", a "mock-serious fable" with "radical weaknesses".[21] Despite the cooling critical outlook, The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on 4 May 1952—this was the first time Hemingway had received the award, having been overlooked previously for A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.[22] He also accepted a Medal of Honor from Fulgencio Batista's newly-established Cuban dictatorship, despite personally disapproving of the new regime.[23] The Old Man and the Sea's highest recognition came on 28 October 1954 as the only work of Hemingway's mentioned by the Swedish Academy when awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature; they praised its "powerful, style-making mastery of the art of modern narration".[24]

The Old Man and the Sea was the subject of significant critical commentary in the decade and a half after publication. Wirt Williams felt that this early scholarship focused upon "the naturalistic tragedy, the Christian tragedy, the parable of art and the artist, and even the autobiographical mode".[25] Analysis of these themes continued into the 1960s, during which John Killinger connected the novella with Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Hovey linked its themes to the Oedipus complex. However, Philip Young's republication of Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration in 1966 was much less positive than the original edition in 1952, setting the disinterested scholarly tone that would dominate the next decades. Analysis only restarted in earnest with the publication of Gerry Benner's hyper-critical The Old Man and the Sea: The Story of a Common Man in 1991, and has continued unabated since.[26]

Writing in 1985, Meyers noted that The Old Man and the Sea was already being taught in schools worldwide and continued to earn $100,000 per year in royalties.[27] According to the CIA, it was a favourite book of Saddam Hussein, who saw himself, like Santiago, as "struggl[ing] against overwhelming odds with courage, perseverance, and dignity".[28] The Big Read, a 2003 survey of the United Kingdom's 200 "best-loved novels" conducted by the BBC, listed The Old Man and the Sea at number 173.[29] Hemingway was directly involved in making a 1958 film adaptation starring Spencer Tracy. Production was marred by numerous difficulties and although the film soundtrack, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, Hemingway heartily disliked the final film.[30] Two more adaptations have been produced: a 1990 television film starring Anthony Quinn,[31] and a 1999 production by Aleksandr Petrov which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.[32]

Critical analysis[edit]


Some literary critics have found The Old Man and the Sea inferior to Hemingway's earlier works. Dwight Macdonald has criticised what he saw as the "fake-biblical prose" which tries to present itself as "high culture", but in reality is anything but.[33] He compares the novella unfavourably with Hemingway's earlier works; he deplores The Old Man's "wordy and sentimental drone" when compared to the "disciplined, businesslike understatement" of The Undefeated, a short story Hemingway had written in 1927.[34] Similarly, Meyers remarks that Santiago's "stoicism—much more subtle and restrained in Jake Barnes [in The Sun Also Rises]—has become simple-minded."[35] He criticises The Old Man and the Sea's "pervasive sentimentality and self-pity", the "forced and obtrusive Christian symbolism", and the "crude and obvious irony" in the tourists viewing the marlin's skeleton, concluding that "Hemingway either deceived himself about the profundity of his art" or met his audience's desire for a "mock-serious fable [with] pretense of culture]".[35]

Robert Weeks notes that the novella abounds in factual impossibilities —he cites Santiago's near-clairvoyance in identifying fishes and judging weather patterns. Weeks maintains that the absence of realism from Hemingway, who was previously criticised for "devotion to the facts and unwillingness to 'invent'", epitomises the novella's "extraordinary fakery".[36] Dismissing Carlos Baker's praise of the struggle as "gallantry against gallantry", instead preferring "fakery against fakery: a make-believe super-fish duelling a make-believe super-fisherman", Weeks concludes that The Old Man and the Sea is "an inferior Hemingway novel."[37] Bickford Sylvester commented that most of the errors Weeks cited were based upon faults in then-current science, and some others intended to nudge readers towards "truth beyond fact", used "to signal the unstated patterns of a work".[38] Sylvester argues that narrative details in The Old Man and the Sea which may seem "extraneous, implausible, or erroneous" are actually "specific topical references". He cites the baseball conversation between Santiago and Manolin, which subtly indicates not only the precise dates of the novella's events (12–16 September 1950) but also parallels the fisherman with his hero DiMaggio, also the son of a fisherman, who similarly resurged in performance during that week.[39] Pointing to details applicable solely in the novel's Cuban context, such as the twenty-two-year-old Manolin's subservience to his parents, Sylvester concludes that the novella is far from Weeks's "evasive, cozy cosmos".[40]


Joseph Waldmeir's 1957 essay "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man" is a favorable critical reading of the novel—and one which has influenced later analysis. Waldmeir's says of the book's message:

The answer assumes a third level on which The Old Man and the Sea must be read—as a sort of allegorical commentary on all his previous work, by means of which it may be established that the religious overtones of The Old Man and the Sea are not peculiar to that book among Hemingway's works, and that Hemingway has finally taken the decisive step in elevating what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of a religion.[41]

Waldmeir considered the function of the novel's Christian imagery, most notably through Hemingway's reference to the crucifixion of Christ following Santiago's sighting of the sharks.



  1. ^ Baker 1962a, p. 1; Kosiba 2012.
  2. ^ Reynolds 1999, pp. 228–229; Baker 1969, p. 486.
  3. ^ Reynolds 1999, pp. 250–257; Baker 1969, pp. 488–489.
  4. ^ Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, p. xiii.
  5. ^ Cruz 1981, pp. 168–170.
  6. ^ Baker 1969, p. 264; Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, p. xiv.
  7. ^ Baker 1969, p. 489; Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, p. xiv.
  8. ^ Baker 1969, pp. 489–490; Reynolds 1999, p. 238.
  9. ^ Reynolds 1999, pp. 238, 249; Baker 1969, pp. 490, 492.
  10. ^ Baker 1969, pp. 492–493, 499.
  11. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 485; Baker 1969, pp. 499–501.
  12. ^ Baker 1969, p. 501.
  13. ^ Reynolds 1999, p. 250.
  14. ^ Baker 1969, pp. 503–504.
  15. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 485; Reynolds 1999, p. 258; Baker 1969, pp. 504–505.
  16. ^ Baker 1969, p. 505.
  17. ^ Reynolds 1999, pp. 258–259; Meyers 1982, p. 412; Meyers 1985, pp. 486–487.
  18. ^ Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, pp. xix–xx.
  19. ^ Baker 1969, p. 505; Reynolds 1999, p. 259.
  20. ^ Meyers 1985, pp. 487–488; Reynolds 1999, p. 259.
  21. ^ Meyers 1985, pp. 488–489.
  22. ^ Reynolds 1999, p. 263; Baker 1969, p. 510; Meyers 1985, p. 489.
  23. ^ Baker 1969, p. 506.
  24. ^ Oliver 1999, p. 246; Nobel Prize citation.
  25. ^ Williams 1981, p. 173; Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, p. xxi.
  26. ^ Sylvester, Grimes & Hays 2018, pp. xxiii–xxvii.
  27. ^ Meyers 1985, p. 485.
  28. ^ "Regime Strategic Intent – Central Intelligence Agency". Central Intelligence Agency. Archived from the original on June 13, 2007.
  29. ^ "BBC – The Big Read – Top 200 (150–200)". British Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on November 19, 2003. Retrieved September 21, 2023.
  30. ^ Oliver 1999, pp. 247–248; Meyers 1985, pp. 489–493.
  31. ^ Oliver 1999, p. 248.
  32. ^ Cavalier.
  33. ^ Macdonald 1960, pp. 593, 596.
  34. ^ Macdonald 1960, pp. 597–598.
  35. ^ a b Meyers 1985, p. 489.
  36. ^ Weeks 1962, pp. 188–190.
  37. ^ Weeks 1962, pp. 190–192.
  38. ^ Sylvester 1996, pp. 265–266.
  39. ^ Sylvester 1996, pp. 246–249.
  40. ^ Sylvester 1996, pp. 256–261.
  41. ^ Joseph Waldmeir (1957). "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man". Papers of the Michigan Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. XLII: 349–356.


Further reading[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by Nobel Prize in Literature
Succeeded by