The Good: A single theme, it's short enough, I guess.
The Bad: Flat characters, unimaginative narration, outright boring plot
The Basics: Despite winning Hemingway the Nobel Prize, The Old Man And The Sea should be the bottom of your Hemingway reading list.
Allow me to open my review by revealing that I am a fan of Hemingway's writing. I like Faulkner's works better, but I like Hemingway. Actually, I love literature that is considered Modernist (1914 - 1945). Some of the best works of American and European literature were written in that period and if I were ever given a chance to live out my life in the past, the liberal sensibilities of the '30s strikes me as my ideal time period. I would have flourished. I, for example, enthusiastically recommend A Moveable Feast (click here for that review!).
At his best, Hemingway's minimalist approach is enhanced by his belief in "the Iceberg Principle" and he loads his limited verbiage up with double meanings and insinuations and makes the reader dig for what's below the surface. By the time the reader gets to The Old Man And The Sea, they're sick of digging and he's sick of packing it all under the surface. It's a common theory that Hemingway's winning the Nobel prize for The Old Man And The Sea was more an acknowledgment of his lifetime body of works than this novel. I tend to believe that. It's worth noting that while Hemingway had been a powerhouse in the literature community during the modernist period, by the time he got around to The Old Man And The Sea, in 1952, he was less known for his writing and more as a celebrity. The closest equivalent now would be someone like, say, J.K. Rowling; she's not a terribly great writer or anything, but tabloids, etc. are happy she's around to put a story in the news from time to time. Man it's a sad world we've become. And it's a sad place Hemingway was writing from when he wrote this novel.
Outside the simplistic, unimaginative story of a boy and his older fishing companion trying to catch a marlin or sunfish or whatever it was, there's not real plot to the book and the characters are hardly interesting. They barely say anything and when they do it's not worthy of actually reading. To be more specific, The Old Man And The Sea tells the story of Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who is down on his luck, who is aided by a boy named Manolin in his day to day activities. Santiago goes out further than he ever has to try to fish and actually catch something and he does. Unfortunately, it's a huge marlin and it takes him and his skiff on a ride for days and after being dragged around for days . . . he ends up with nothing.
It's no big surprise; it's Hemingway in his late period. Hemingway is past his prime and he is feeling it in this work. Gone is the magic of language and the depth that may be revealed through the minimal use of words and directions. Santiago is tired and it comes across clearly in Hemingway being too tired to write him well. Many people compare The Old Man And The Sea to Moby Dick. The reason any version of Moby Dick will always be better than The Old Man And The Sea is because there is passion in the whale story. Ahab is a passionate man and he makes the story come alive through his obsession. There are no emotions powerful enough to sustain our interest in The Old Man And The Sea.
There is one silver lining in this droll literary failure and that is Hemingway makes an explicit thesis which is interesting and debatable: "A man may be beaten but not defeated." It's an interesting idea and one that bares sitting around with your learned colleagues and arguing about. Unfortunately, this novel doesn't offer a truly good grounds for the theme. That is, outside of it being explicitly stated, the idea never seems so immediate in this book. Indeed, Hemingway is writing from a stance of being defeated, not just beaten. "Beaten but not defeated" implies some spark of life that cannot be extinguished from the human animal, but it is absent from this work.
The Old Man And The Sea is the old man with paper attempting to churn out one more decent novel and failing. It's sad too; more than the character in the novel, the reader comes to pity Hemingway as an artist who stayed after his time.
For other classic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Long Day's Journey Into Night - Eugene O'Neill
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare
For other book reviews, please be sure to check out my index page for an organized listing. That list, updated daily, is available by clicking here!
© 2010, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.