The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemmingway
Contributed by Harvey Landy

For The Old Man and the Sea, the best context to understand its creation is not just historical, but more specifically biographical. In 1952, Hemingway completed the deceivingly short, but rich novel, which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. The novel also played an important role in gaining him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Despite this success, the author took his life with a shotgun only six years later in Ketchum, Idaho at the age of sixty-two. As his last novel written before his death, The Old Man and the Sea requires a proper understanding of the values and experiences of Hemingway in order to unlock the wealth of meaning a simple story of a Cuban fisherman, the open sea, and a gigantic fish. 

Instead of attending college, Hemingway entered WWI as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, where he was decorated for heroism and severely injured. During the Spanish Civil War, he traveled to Spain to support the Republicans against General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists. With the outbreak of WWII five years later, Hemingway made his way to London as a journalist, flew several missions with the Royal Air Force, crossed the English Channel with American troops on D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and participated in the liberation of Paris. These years on the battlefield were filled with experienced he would never forget. War was for Hemingway a potent symbol of the world, which he viewed as complex, filled with moral ambiguities, and offering almost unavoidable pain, hurt, and destruction. To survive in such a world, and perhaps emerge victorious, one must conduct oneself with honor, courage, endurance, and dignity. To behave well in the lonely, losing battle with life is to show "grace under pressure" and constitutes in itself a kind of victory. This theme is clearly established in The Old Man and the Sea.

Even in his personal life, Hemingway thrived in physical competition. He loved Spanish bullfighting, a spectacle he saw more as a noble, but tragic ceremony than as a sport. While in Cuba, he fished for days in the coastal waters in search of the elusive marlins. He also enjoyed big-game hunting, participating in expeditions throughout Africa and Europe. Always willing to compete in games of strength like arm-fighting and wrestling, he delighted in simple struggles of will, endurance, and power that pitted two worthy rivals against one another. The respectful, even intimate, rivalry between Santiago and the great fish is an excellent example of the one-on-one competition that Hemingway viewed as heroic, graceful, and sometimes beautiful. 

But Hemingway became increasingly distanced, disenchanted, and eventually depressed with the world around him. In 1960, Fidel Castro’s revolution forced the author out of Cuba and back into the States. Despite the novel’s acceptance and success, he continued to feel alienated, isolated, and anxiety-ridden. He was twice hospitalized for depression in the United States, where he received electroshock treatments. Only two days after returning home, however, Hemingway committed suicide. The Old Man and the Sea would be the last novel published in his lifetime.

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