The Choice to Go “Far Out Beyond”
How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him. (Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1954)
The little book appeared in 1952 . . ., having first been published in a single issue of Life that sold over five million copies in forty-eight hours. Its impact was incredible. Sermons were preached on it, the author received a hundred laudatory letters every day, people kissed him, weeping, in the streets. His Italian translator could hardly translate for tears. (Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway and His World)
I have struggled with this review because I feel in some ways reviewing The Old Man and the Sea diminishes it. Just read it. Experience it. Absorb it. It is a graceful, beautiful, deceptively simple, heartbreaking work, true to life and to the Hemingway ethos. It was the last major work Hemingway completed, and it led to his receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
Some have criticized the novella because it is different from Hemingway's previous work. What's wrong with that? Hemingway was growing older; he was changing, as we all do, as he aged. Perhaps some of the things he saw as important as a young man no longer mattered to him as much. So he allowed these changes to drive him far out past where he had gone before. What mattered to Hemingway now? Let’s let him speak for himself.
+ He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride. (pages 13-14)
+ Now is no time to think of baseball, he thought. Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for. (page 40)
The tension inherent in man’s relationship with Nature
+ Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity. (page 75)
+ You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who. (page 92)
Unwillingness to give in to defeat
+ Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. (page 10)
+ Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs. (page 37)
+ “But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (page 103)
Like Hemingway, Santiago goes far out beyond where he has gone before. This decision leads to all the novella’s great lessons.
+ “[The fish’s] choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.” (page 50)
+ It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.
“Nothing,” he said aloud. “I went out too far.” (page 120)
I urge you to read this short book. In doing so you will have discovered one of the greatest works in American literature. And perhaps as you do so your spirit will sail beyond where it has gone before.
I know that it is the best I can write ever for all of my life, I think, and that it destroys good and able work by being placed alongside of it. (Ernest Hemingway, letter to Wallace Meyer, editor, March 1952)
"Hemingway at his best." Edward Weeks, Atlantic
"A great and 'true' novel, touching and terrible, tragic and happy." Harvey Breit, The Nation
"A tale superbly told." Robert Gorham Davis, New York Times Book Review
"As perfect a piece of work as Hemingway has ever done." Joseph Henry Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle
"Through Hemingway's matchless skill, a fishing story becomes a masterpiece." Henry Seidel Canby, Book-of-the-Month Club News
"His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator. . . . This time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It's all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further." William Faulkner, quoted in Modern Critical Interpretations: Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, edited by Harold Bloom