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The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Old Man and the Sea served to reinvigorate Hemingway's literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novella was initially received with much popularity; it restored many readers' confidence in Hemingway's capability as an author. Its publisher, Scribner's, on an early dust jacket, called the novella a "new classic," and many critics favorably compared it with such works as William Faulkner's "The Bear" and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.

Following such acclaim, however, a school of critics emerged that interpreted the novella as a disappointing minor work. For example, critic Philip Young provided an admiring review in 1952, just following The Old Man and the Sea's publication, in which he stated that it was the book "in which Hemingway said the finest single thing he ever had to say as well as he could ever hope to say it." However, in 1966, Young claimed that the "failed novel" too often "went way out." These self-contradictory views show that critical reaction ranged from adoration of the book's mythical, pseudo-religious intonations to flippant dismissal as pure fakery. The latter is founded in the notion that Hemingway, once a devoted student of realism, failed in his depiction of Santiago as a supernatural, clairvoyant impossibility.

Joseph Waldmeir's essay entitled "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man" is one of the most famed favorable critical readings of the novella—and one which has defined analytical considerations since. Perhaps the most memorable claim therein is Waldmeir's answer to the question—What is the book's message?

"The answer assumes a third level on which The Old Man and the Sea must be read—as a sort of allegorical commentary on all his previous work, by means of which it may be established that the religious overtones of The Old Man and the Sea are not peculiar to that book among Hemingway's works, and that Hemingway has finally taken the decisive step in elevating what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of a religion."

Waldmeir was one of the most prominent critics to wholly consider the function of the novella's Christian imagery, made most evident through Santiago's blatant reference to the crucifixion following his sighting of the sharks that reads:

"‘Ay,′ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood."

Waldmeir's analysis of this line, supplemented with other instances of similar symbolism, caused him to claim that The Old Man and the Sea was a seminal work in raising Hemingway's "philosophy of Manhood" to a religious level. This hallmark criticism stands as one of the most durable, positive treatments of the novella.

On the other hand, one of the most outspoken critics of The Old Man and the Sea is Robert P. Weeks. His 1962 piece "Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea" presents his claim that the novella is a weak and unexpected divergence from the typical, realistic Hemingway (referring to the rest of Hemingway's body of work as "earlier glories").[12] In juxtaposing this novella against Hemingway's previous works, Weeks contends:

"The difference, however, in the effectiveness with which Hemingway employs this characteristic device in his best work and in The Old Man and the Sea is illuminating. The work of fiction in which Hemingway devoted the most attention to natural objects, The Old Man and the Sea, is pieced out with an extraordinary quantity of fakery, extraordinary because one would expect to find no inexactness, no romanticizing of natural objects in a writer who loathed W.H. Hudson, could not read Thoreau, deplored Melville's rhetoric in Moby Dick, and who was himself criticized by other writers, notably Faulkner, for his devotion to the facts and his unwillingness to "invent.""

Aside from all else, however, some tend to believe that "The Old Man and the Sea," was nothing more than an allegorical representation of the enmity Hemingway felt towards the criticism of his most recent work, Across the River and into the Trees. Considering the fact that his previous novels had been embraced and even coveted by the world public, the abject disdain for his latest novel not only caused him great emotional pain, but also served as a bellows of a fire pushing him towards creating a new work of fiction which might capture the minds and hearts of the proletariat and critical public. The fact that the protagonist of "Old Man and the Sea," Santiago, is the only elderly protagonist whom Hemingway ever portrays, should be duly noted. The aged Santiago character lends insight into Hemingway's psyche at the time, and that he may have perceived himself, however martyr-esque, the beaten up old man who still felt a need to fight the good fight. And in the story, it is noticed that after a prolonged period of stasis, he finally makes the prodigal "big catch," only to see it snipped at and eaten away as he tried his best to bring it to fruition, both financially and personally.

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