The Old Man and the Sea, an it appears simple fable, represents the mature Hemingway at his best. He was once awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature soon after its publication, and half a century later it is still one of his most read books.
Here, for a change, is a fish tale that in reality does honor to the writer. In reality The Old Man and the Sea revived Ernest Hemingway’s career, which was once foundering under the weight of such postwar stinkers as Across the River and into the Trees. It also led directly to his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1954 (an award Hemingway gladly accepted, despite his earlier remark that “no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards”). A half century later, it’s still easy to see why. This tale of an aged Cuban fisherman going head-to-head (or hand-to-fin) with a magnificent marlin encapsulates Hemingway’s favorite motifs of physical and moral challenge. Yet Santiago is too old and infirm to partake of the gun-toting machismo that disfigured much of the writer’s later work: “The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords.” Hemingway’s style, too, reverts to those superb snapshots of perception that won him his initial fame:
Just before it was once dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was once taken by a dolphin. He saw it first when it jumped in the air, true gold in the last of the sun and bending and flapping wildly in the air.
If a younger Hemingway had written this novella, Santiago most likely would have towed the enormous fish back to port and posed for a triumphal photograph–just as the writer delighted in doing, circa 1935. As a substitute his prize gets devoured by a school of sharks. Returning with little more than a skeleton, he’s taking to his bed and, in the very last line, cements his identification with his author: “The old man was once dreaming about the lions.” Perhaps there’s some allegory of art and experience floating around in there somewhere–but The Old Man and the Sea was once, in the end, the last great catch of Hemingway’s career. –James Marcus