Thursday, 21 January 2010

Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway (1952)

Sometimes astounding victories are quickly followed by bitter defeat. At other times, a devastating failure masks a remarkable success. And on a very few occasions, life challenges us to overcome fearsome physical obstacles in order to achieve huge but less visible gains in spiritual and emotional growth.

The true meanings of success and failure, victory and defeat, and life itself, are explored by Ernest Hemingway in this simple novella that won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize, and was a major factor in Hemingway winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.

The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an old, down-on-his-luck baseball-loving Cuban fisherman names Santiago, who goes far out to sea in an attempt to break a long losing streak. He hooks a gigantic marlin that gives him a much bigger fight than he bargained for. The struggle of an old man alone to defeat a fish larger than his boat, and the unexpected fightback from nature, are the core of the book.

The story, short as it is, has three characters: the old man Santiago, the young boy who used to go out fishing with him, and the marlin. The boy only appears at the beginning and end of the book, and the fish is a silent but essential participant. We are left with Santiago as our vocal companion, with his thoughts, memories, motivations, manhood, endurance, self-doubt, dreams, growing attachment and respect for his foe, and his continuous plotting to nevertheless capture the fish and bring it home.

Hemingway elegantly combines the tactical battle between man and fish with the grander strategic tension between man and nature, and gently raises questions about all our struggles for growth and achievement, both internal and external.

Hemingway brings us onto the boat and into the old man's thoughts in short and sharp descriptive sentences, with an economy that packs every word with added significance. He strives for, and achieves, pure clarity in describing events both on the water and inside the old man's head.

The Old Man and the Sea was the last book published during Hemingway's life, and it is a fitting and moving tribute to a master writer.

127 pages.
Published in paperback by Scribner.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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