The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway) – Throwback 70

There are a few books in the world that carry the term classic, that are considered some of the greats in literature. And whilst many of these are older books, written more than a hundred years ago, The Old Man and the Sea stands out amongst them for being relatively modern, and for also not even being a full novel. This short novella very quickly became a bestseller and award winner, as well as revitalising the career of its author; all in a relatively small package.

The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an ageing fisherman who lives in a small coastal town in Cuba. Santiago is incredibly poor, and barely gets by as he hits a patch of bad luck, and begins to come back without catching any fish for the day. This bad luck extends and soon he’s failed to catch anything for more than eighty days. His only real friend, a young man who used to work on his boat with him, has had to leave to work on other ships, leaving Santiago to fish alone.

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As he reaches eighty five days without making a single catch, Santiago head out into the Gulf Stream, hoping to finally find something. Soon, Santiago manages to hook a huge marlin on his line, but is unable to bring it in. Thus begins a battle between the man and fish that lasts days, with Santiago slowly reeling the huge animal closer and closer to his small boat. After two days, with the ship having drifted further and further from land, Santiago finally manages to bring the fish in, and kills it with his harpoon. However, the fish is too big to bring on board, and he has to tie it to the side.

As Santiago tries to get back to land the blood from the marlin begins to attract sharks, and though he manages to battle away many, killing several, it’s not enough, and by the time he makes it home all that’s left is the head of the fish. With his giant prize eaten, Santiago returns home with nothing to show for his ordeal.

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There are many books that contain the message to never give up, to keep going no matter what to achieve your goals and come out on top. And whilst these are decent sentiments, and people should always strive to achieve, The Old Man and the Sea has a slightly different message; that even if you fight your hardest for something you can still lose.

Santiago battles against the marlin for days, he goes with little to no sleep, with barely any food or water, he cuts his hands open. And when he finally manages to pull in his catch he faces an even greater task, getting through the sharks that are drawn in. Fighting with harpoons, an oar, and just a knife, he kills shark after shark, showing a fierce dedication to protecting his prize, going further than any man should, and it’s all for nothing. Santiago doesn’t do anything wrong, he doesn’t make any particularly bad mistakes, but he still fails in the end. It’s an example of the famous Captain Picard quote “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” in action.

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The Old Man and the Sea teaches a lesson that few stories want to, that sometimes you fail no matter what. Most stories want a happy ending, or a resolution so bad that it’s catastrophic. But by the end of this book Santiago is just back to his normal life, carrying on after failing because that’s the human way. We can strive, and whilst we sometimes succeed we can also fail; that’s just a part of life.

The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s final book to be published during his life, and was printed in both book form and in the September edition of Life magazine. The first edition of the book was printed at 50,000 copies, but Life sold more than five million copies in just two days. The huge number of sales made Hemingway a celebrity once again, after his last full length novel, Across the River and into the Trees, was met with a poor reception.

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Many critics thought that Hemingway has peaked as a writer, and that his best work was long behind him. But The Old Man and the Sea changed that. Within just a few short years the novella received both a Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Hemingway would dedicate to the Cuban people. The book’s publisher printed it with the term ‘new classic’ on the cover, and most critics agreed with this statement, favourably comparing it to some of the greatest pieces in literature.

The Old Man and the Sea has gone on to become one of, if not the, most famous works of Hemingway, and has become a staple text for many schools across the world. It’s been adapted for the screen more than once, with a feature length film version, a television mini-series, and an animated short film which went on to win more than a dozen awards. Whether you experience this story through reading it, or via one of the various adaptations, it’s a story that’s sure to leave some form of lasting impression upon you, which is part of the reason it has become a important piece of literary history.

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