This might be the best novel ever written by an American author. The power of it's simple prose is stunning. The basic story line: old Cuban fisherman (Santiago), status in the village fading and experiencing a string of bad luck in his profession, risks all by alone taking his little skiff out into deep ocean in search of Marlin. After a mythic three-day struggle with a gigantic marlin, the old man kills the fish. However, at 18 feet, it is longer than the boat necessitating that he lash the beast to the outside of the skiff for the long trip back in to port. Sharks pick up the trail of blood oozing from the Marlin and devour it before he makes it back into port. He's left with only the skeleton of the Marlin when he makes port.
This book, Hemingway's last published during his lifetime, is different than all of the great man's works that proceeded it. I prize this short novella over all others from Hemingway's typewriter. He had been a reporter before becoming a novelist. The short sentence structure of a reporter's observations are hallmarks of the Hemingway style. But one finds apparent religious and other symbolism in this book not found to such an extent in the other works. Santiago dreams nightly of lions, the majestic Marlin is said to be noble and his friend, the ocean is a woman, Santiago is figuratively crucified through his struggle with the fish, Joe DiMaggio as metaphor for Santiago, the sharks. Oh yeah, after 40 days without catching a fish, the boy Manolin leaves him for another boat. 40 days alone in the desert = Jesus Christ.
In the past, hardly anyone ever suspected Hemingway novels of symbolism. Then, in The Old Man and the Sea, people saw symbols--the old man stood for man's dignity, the big fish embodied nature, the sharks symbolized evil (or maybe just the critics).
"No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in," says Hemingway. "That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better." He opens two bottles of beer and continues: "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true."
In a sense, Hemingway perhaps never fully faced up to the concept of soul in his writing. Religion is a subject he refuses to discuss at all.
From my point of view, the central character in nearly all of his novels is always an aspect of Hemingway himself. For more than a decade prior to the publication of Old Man, per Hemingway's critics, he had whiffed in his attempts at attaining the heights of his prior works. This book was Hemingway striking back at his critics who claimed his talents were gone. Santiago, glory faded, is Hemingway. The great fish Santiago chases mainly to reclaim his glory (redemption) with a secondary aim of providing income. The same is true of Hemingway's motives with this book. But, as Napoleon stated, "All glory is fleeting." The sharks (Hemingway's literary critics) will tear the flesh from the prize soon after he lands it in the boat. In fact, after initial good reviews, many critics did turn on Old Man criticizing the religious symbolism. Why are insane people allowed to write book reviews? I really doubt the symbolism was intended as anything deeper than the simple concepts above. No matter, the novel moved me like few works of fiction have.
Little known fact: Hemingway had three wives from St. Louis--Hadley Richardson, Pauline Pfeiffer, and Martha Gellhorn.