The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: a wonderful fable on human courage, persistence and hope

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. In limba romana: Batranul si marea

Published in 1999 by Vintage, 112 p (first published in 1952).

I haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea until now; I kept putting it on my reading lists but I have always ended by choosing something else instead. I thought it would be an agony to read pages and pages about a man and a fish. But it is marvelous. It is profound, complex and brings hope. I like Hemingway’s style, the simplicity of his language on one hand and the craft of his literary discourse on the other.

Hemingway and a marlin in Cuba
Hemingway posing with a marlin in Cuba. Source:

Written in 1951 and published the following year, The Old Man and the Sea was the novel that brought Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. It is the story of Santiago, an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream in Havana. After 84 days of going on the sea and catching nothing, he is seen as a salao, the worst form of unlucky, and Manolin, the boy who had been with him, has to change boats and go with the luckier fishermen.

Santiago was a dreamer; he loved the sea, fishing was his life and he was certain that better days were about to come. He was not strong anymore but had confidence and courage.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated… He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.

On the 85th day, before sunlight, he took again his skiff and had his baits out, drifting with the current. By noon, a marlin was caught in one of his lines. Strong and stubborn, the fish pulled the skiff and Santiago spent two days and two nights holding the line, refusing capitulation. A man can be destroyed but not defeated he would say. In spite of his hunger, thirst and exhaustion the old man was captivated by the agility and beauty of the fish:

The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water poured from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full lengths from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out… But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.

‘The fish is my friend too’, he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try and kill the stars.’ Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.

Weak and a little delirious, talking aloud to forget about his loneliness, Santiago used his last energy and killed the marlin, the supreme victory for him as a fisherman. But on his way back home sharks attacked the skiff and devoured his beautiful pray. He could no longer look at the fish since he had been mutilated; he felt like he himself had been damaged and thought that nature punished him for having killed the marlin.

The last pages of the novel are very emotional, revealing the essence of the old man. His life principles are simplistic but his perception of nature and its elements is majestic. His friendship with the boy, baseball and fishing outline his everyday life but the sea is the one that makes his heart beat.


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