Take the following ingredients: A story about an old fisherman who lets the big one get away, a previously made reputation, publication in one of America’s most widely read magazines, and a pungent writing style. Using these items, come up with a Pulitzer prize for literature, followed by a Nobel prize in the same field, and a best seller, too. Such was the improbable recipe followed by Ernest Hemingway in “The Old Man and the Sea,” one of the most widely discussed—and read—novels of the previous century.
Hemingway, the almost unbelievably romantic ex-foreign correspondent who created a virtual legend around himself, is said to have written the book merely to square some outstanding debts. Whatever his reasons for writing “The Old Man and the Sea,” the novelette projected him once again to the fore of American letters, a position he first attained in the 1920’s with the publication of “The Sun Also Rises.” As we’ve said, the plot of “Old Man” is a simple one, chronicling the fishing experience of an old man, Santiago, who had not caught a fish for 84 days.
Hemingway tells, in his typically vibrant and break-neck manner, of the hooking of a great marlin, which, after a tremendous, energy draining fight, the Old Man boats. Sharks, attracted by the blood, surround the boat, and though Santiago fights them off with a knife tied to an oar, strip the flsh of its flesh.
Santiago comes back into port with,a skeleton and a fish’s head. As a profound, socially constructive story, “The Old Man and the Sea” has been bettered by many works, but as a piece of narrative fiction, Hemingway has created a masterwork.