Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh, karsh.orgThe Old Man and the Sea

By Ernest Hemingway

Original Publisher: Charles Scribner & Sons

Current Publisher: Scribner

Josh Weil writes: 

Like many readers, I first encountered Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea when I was a kid. In high school, probably, junior high, maybe. It’s a book so deeply ingrained in so many readers’ memories by now that I’m not going to bother here with a plot summary (old man has bad luck catching no fish, then big luck catching biggest fish, then sad luck…etc.) or the lit-class stuff (biblical references, authorial representation, blada-blada…). I want, instead, to speak about what the book means to me as a writer. It might well have been the first Hemingway I ever read. I don’t remember exactly what I thought of it then, though it must have snagged something deep in me because after that I was ravenous for anything the man wrote, and I read nearly all of it. It was the most powerful influence on me at a time when I was just beginning to form my own sensibilities around telling stories with words. 

After that first hit in high school, I didn’t read The Old Man and the Sea again for fifteen or twenty years, not until just a few days ago, when I cracked it open and stretched out a few hours by the woodstove slowly savoring the novella sentence by superbly crafted sentence. I know it’s often referred to as a novel, but I’m going to call it a novella. Not because it clocks in at less than 30,000 words, but because I think it is as perfect an example of the form—of what separates a novella from a short story or a novel—as any I’ve ever read. Focused intensely on one clear element, there’s no room here for wandering, for tangents, for the looseness of line, or for multiple lines, that might make a novel. And yet the novella is also dependent on the depth, the drilling down into that one focused storyline, that a short story wouldn’t allow.

In some ways this plays into the great strengths of Hemingway’s that we’re all taught about in high school—the unrelenting focus, the lean prose. And maybe that’s why he was so successful with the form. I know many writers and readers who admire Hemingway’s shorter work—the stories, especially—more than his longer work. The pressure that the short form places on narrative was a good fit for Hemingway’s natural tendencies. But part of why The Old Man and the Sea is so powerful is that the novella form allowed Hemingway’s work to breathe a little more without taking the pressure completely off. In his novels, when that intense pressure was lifted a little—as it has to be (or at least the intensity is changed) with a three or four hundred-page work—Hemingway seems to have felt the need to replace it with a different kind of intensity: a heightened drama, a largeness of event, that sometimes feels to me like it’s bordering on melodrama. That’s a shame, because that one weakness too-often translates into people dismissing his longer work as a whole. 

Some of my favorite stories by Hemingway are big books; they just aren’t his big books of fiction. In his nonfiction—Green Hills of Africa and The Dangerous Summer in particular—he delves deeply into moments, allowing himself to pause, to loosen the binds a bit, and yet, because he’s not trying to create a fictional sweeping drama, those moments feel utterly honest (as all his best work does); you don’t feel them trying to support the coming kaboom of an orchestrated climax. With the novella, he’s able to hit the sweet spot, letting his writing open up a little the way it does in his novels but still keeping the story small in scope (if large in theme), pressurized and focused.

An example: a little more than a quarter into the story, just a few pages before the event that will yank the story forward harder than any yet (the Marlin taking the old man’s hook), Hemingway chooses to devote a paragraph to the description of a Portuguese man-o-war:

The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest thing in the sea and the old man loved to see the big sea turtles eating them. The turtles saw them, approached them from the front, then shut their eyes so they were completely carapaced and ate them filaments and all. The old man loved to see the turtles eat them and he loved to walk on them on the beach after a storm and hear them pop when he stepped on them with the horny soles of his feet.

I can feel the pressure released just a little there, and it’s one of my favorite moments, the kind of moment that broadens my understanding of the character and the world he lives in; the kind of moment there might not have been room for in the more compressed short story form.

It’s one of the moments when I feel Hemingway doing what we’re told in literature classes that he doesn’t do. Much like the way his writing is often referred to as ‘journalistic.’ I have always disagreed strongly with that description of his voice. Partially that’s because the rhythms he uses in his sentences shape them to such a clear voice, a voice whose very primacy belies the label ‘journalistic.’ And those rhythms are as poetic and lush as any writer’s I’ve ever read.

Here he is writing about Santiago—the protagonist of The Old Man and the Sea—after he’s fallen asleep in his skiff:

After that he began to dream of the long yellow beach and he saw the first of the lions come down onto it in the early dark and then the other lions came and he rested his chin on the wood of the bows where the ship lay anchored with the evening off-shore breeze and he waited to see if there would be more lions and he was happy.

Just listen to that sentence roll. The refusal to let it rest, the forcing it onward with ‘and’ after “and,” the denial of the pause that would come with punctuation, carries, for me, some of the breathless urgency and poeticism of a writer to whom we’re told Hemingway should bear no resemblance: Faulkner.

Hemingway’s descriptions—and there are few writers who can match his eye, the vividness and beauty of how he describes the world he sees—also push back against the idea that his writing is always pared down to the essential, stripped of any lushness, even dry. “Just before it was dark,” he writes, “as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket, his small line was taken by a dolphin.” The mention of the dolphin taking the line is the journalistic element. Everything else is pure poetry.

I’d submit that it’s the form of the novella that allows Hemingway the freedom to let that poetry in more frequently. And, similarly, it allows him to avoid the pitfalls of his novel writing: while the dramatic arc is drawn classically, the ending is complicated and purposefully unsatisfying in a way that the grander demands of a novel usually resist but that a short story invites. Again, the novella allows him the best of both worlds—the classic arc of a novel without the expectation of the classically cathartic climax, the full journey of a long work wrapped up with the fine-tipped precision of a short story.

It’s that combination that makes The Old Man and the Sea so powerful, that affected me so strongly when I first read it. It’s a way of thinking about story that was ingrained in me long ago, a sensibility I haven’t ever escaped. And, rereading this novella, I’m reminded once again of why I’m so drawn to the form of the novella, how magical it can be in the hands of a magisterial writer, how few writers try their hand at it, and how much there is to try for. There’s no better example of why than what Hemingway accomplishes in this great short book.

Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley, a collection of novellas that won of the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. A recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, his writing has appeared in The New York TimesGranta, and One Story, among other publications. He is currently the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. (Photo: Ben Weil)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Ralph Ellison for Invisible Man

Fiction Judges That Year: Saul Bellow, Martha Foley, Irving Howe, Howard Mumford Jones, Alfred Kazin

The Year in Literature:

  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: The Old Man and the Sea was the last work of Hemingway’s to be published in his lifetime.

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