Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

I’ve never been drawn to reading Hemingway, never got pulled into the mythology around him. I’d heard his language was simple — some said to the point of being a simplistic sort of “he-man” utterance, even though others lauded it as a pillar of modernism. I wasn’t that interested in modernism, and I wasn’t made to read him in school, so I gave him a miss. But when I was compiling my list of Books for Adult English Learners, this one was frequently recommended (it’s also often taught in high school). And I decided to have a look. What was Hemingway all about, anyway? Was he worth reading?

The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel; it’s barely even a story. It’s more of an extended metaphor, based on a tale that Hemingway heard spoiler alert! about an old Cuban fisherman who went on an epic fish-hunt for a giant marlin that was then eaten to the bone by sharks on his way home.

Yes, that’s all that happens. There is little of external interest, unless you are very interested in deep-sea fishing. And at first I thought I would be bored, but the metaphor got a hold of me, through its very limitations. Though I knew how the story would end, thanks to an introduction from the publisher that gives everything away, I was still compelled to keep reading until the man had lost everything he set out for, all his hopes, all his dreams. Yet, “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” he says.

It sounds like a macho anthem, man fighting against a hostile world, but the old man also expresses respect and wonder for his fishy prey, and even for the sharks who devour it. They act only according to their nature, while he blames himself for “going out too far.” And there is a young boy who cares for him and admires him and who meets him on his return — without that boy, this would be a bleak and violent fable indeed. But with him, I think it turns into something more; a reminder that we all will be devoured by the forces of nature, down to the bone, and it is only the relationships we have made, the ties of love and connection, that will remain.

The language is indeed simple, but not overly so.  The old man expresses his thoughts (sometimes out loud, for no particular reason) in a sort of peasant poetical style that is not very realistic for a poor Cuban fisherman, but without it there would not be much of a book. I found it readable enough, and I would read Hemingway again — though I understand he can be very uneven.

Have you read Hemingway? What would you recommend?

Back to the Classics: Classic with Nature in the Title


20 thoughts on “Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

  1. Hi Lori! I would recommend A Farewell To Arms & the short story (also part of a great collection) “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Of those two, the latter.


  2. I’ve not read any Hemingway myself, since I also wan’t either excited about his books or required to read them. I enjoyed your analysis of this one. I’m still not sure I’m excited to pick his books up myself, but it was interesting to learn a little more about this classic.


  3. I went through a phase some years ago where I felt I needed to read a lot of classics. That’s how I ended up reading this book. I don’t remember much about it now – I think you got more out of it than I did. I’ve also read The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. I enjoyed A Moveable Feast the most because of the subject matter (memoir about living in Paris in the twenties with other writers).


  4. I’ve long loved Hemingway’s short stories (I read Hills Like White Elephants for the first time in my first year of undergrad and fell in love with it, I must have read it a hundred times over at least). More recently, I tried reading one of his novels – The Sun Also Rises – and I was… underwhelmed, to say the least. That was a couple of years ago, though, and I’ve had a few people recommend The Old Man And The Sea to me, as apparently Hemingway was a very different writer by then. Your review gives me hope, it sounds far more up my alley than a few rich dudes get drunk in Spain and whine about not being able to make love to the women they want to… 😐


  5. There are times when I really enjoy Hemingway and times when I cannot read him. I liked A Farewell to Arms when I read it fairly recently, and I remember liking For Whom the Bell Tolls when I read it in high school – it is on my reread list for when the mood strikes. I had mixed feelings about both Across the River and Into the Trees and A Moveable Feast–parts were wonderful and parts were dull and self-indulgent.

    I read Old Man and the Sea forever ago, and I think I will do a reread. Like you, I expect to be pulled into the story.


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