Review: The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea

I found Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea quite dull. Well, at least until page 57. I finished it almost two weeks ago, but I choose not to review it straight away, as I knew I couldn’t give it the justice that I suspected it deserved.

The truth is that I was distracted by its greater meaning. I couldn’t quite figure it out: I knew that it wasn’t just a fable about an unlucky old man who caught a really big fish after days out at sea. And I also recognised that most of the negative reviews that I had read stem from a general misinterpretation of the story; “just throw the fucking fish back in”, some say.

Yet, a few days after putting it down I found myself wanting to tell people, “I’ve just read the most fascinating story.” A passage from page 57 had been stuck in my head. It was the first time while reading the book that I began to acknowledge its ‘greater meaning’, and yet I was still puzzled:

I am glad we do not have to kill the stars. Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.

The Old Man, Santiago, reflects on his place in the universe and the natural order of things: he may have caught the fish, which he is determined to kill despite his respect for it, but he knows that there are greater entities than himself.

The book relies heavily on symbolism, and one of the most obvious examples of this, is the numerous references to The Bible:

He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast on his shoulder. He tried to get up. But it was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked at the road.

The Crucifixion imagery is symbolic of personal sacrifice and assimilates Santiago with Jesus. But Santiago is also a sinner:

But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it.

Before The Old Man and the Sea, I had only read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but these two books could not be anymore different. The Old Man and the Sea is beautifully written, but deceptively simple. Despite initially finding it dull, my awareness of a greater meaning to the story meant that I found it difficult to put it down.

The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest thing in the sea…

I have intentionally not went into too much detail regarding the plot: although simple, it does take a few unexpected twists and turns that captivate your attention. And if I’m being honest, this is a book that I’m still trying to come to terms with myself.

Surprisingly, I suspect that The Old Man and The Sea will go down as one of my favourite books. Like As I Lay Dying, I admire it because it perplexes me, challenges me, and reveals a greater meaning to me that I hope I will never fully understand.

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13 thoughts on “Review: The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

  1. I suspect this is a book I will need to re-read. When I first read it ages ago, I only did so because it’s my father’s favourite book, and although I liked it, I don’t think I got the greater meaning.

  2. I read The Old Man and the Sea years ago on a long airplane flight. I enjoyed it, but didn’t quite grab the ‘greater meaning’ either. A re-read should be in my future. There are probably a lot of things that weren’t picked up on during the first pass that could help with overall understanding. I think it’s the realization that there is a greater meaning to search for that makes this simple tale captivating.

  3. Pingback: Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (via Little Interpretations) | The Calculable

  4. I read this much too young to appreciate any greater meaning. Time for a reread, I think. Lovely review, the excerpts you have chosen to capture here really prompt me to give this another read

  5. I had a similar response – at first I was perplexed by the apparent dullness but then I realised that it was actually quite brilliant. There is something about an old person facing death that always tugs at my heartstrings and this is a particularly great treatment.

  6. Pingback: Teach a man to fish – Nose in a book

  7. Hemingway is not one of my favourite authors. I just read a short story and it was not my alley at all. I think I am more into Victorian and Romantic literature, even postmodern, rather than simple, plain prose.

    Do you plan on reading more of his works? Do you think I should give him a try?

    • Hi Elena,

      The only other Hemingway that I’ve read is ‘The Sun Also Rises’. It was so completely different from ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ that I do feel compelled to read more of his work.

      He’s a writer that I think I’ve yet to fully understand. I would definately recommend reading either one of these books – but I’m not sure if they’ll convert you entirely :)

  8. Read this recently too. Apart from, as you indicate – a deeper meaning – the torn hands, the fall with the mast – the imagery in the descriptive prose makes it a pleasure to read. I admire Hemingway’s descriptions. They have a coloured and textured feel to them which, try as I might, I simply cannot emulate. I like ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ too. The latter is heavy going because of the clumsy dialogue which contains ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in emulation of Spanish, but if you can overlook that both are superb stories.
    BTW I love your reviews (though there is an element of bias there).

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