Hemingway's Craft in The Old Man and the Sea

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From: The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama
Publisher: Everett/Edwards, Inc.
Reprint In: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 36. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,865 words

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[(essay date 1970) In the following essay, Grebstein analyzes Hemingway's craft in The Old Man and the Sea, commenting on the structure, symbolic patterns, language, and narrative technique in the novella.]

The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, was the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to appear in his lifetime. Although several years of creative effort remained to him before his death in 1961, the writing of those years is not likely to either enhance or materially alter his reputation--at least in the opinions of Carlos Baker and Philip Young, who have examined the writer's unpublished papers. If this is indeed the case, The Old Man and the Sea will probably solidify its position as the final boundary of Hemingway's career, just as In Our Time marks its beginning. The judgment of the Nobel Committee, which singled out The Old Man and the Sea for special praise in its award of the 1954 Literature prize to Hemingway, has proved to be unusually percipient.

Nor have critics neglected the work. Soon after its publication it became the subject for serious and generally sympathetic commentary, continuing to this moment. Some have hailed The Old Man and the Sea as Hemingway's affirmation and reconciliation of man and nature; others have interpreted it as Hemingway's reiteration of man's tragic or ironic defeat by insuperable forces. The story's allegorical dimensions have also been examined, especially its use of Christian symbolism and the parallels between Santiago's ordeal and Christ's, or that of a mythic quest-hero. An early and persistent reading holds that the novella poses a parable of Hemingway's own literary fate, with himself as the gallant fisherman and his career as the splendid marlin devoured by bloodthirsty shark-critics. In sum, The Old Man and the Sea would not seem to be a neglected work.

Nevertheless, while the story's themes, characters, and dominant symbols have been carefully examined, as in the recent study by Bickford Sylvester which also reviews the various critical interpretations (PMLA, 71:130-38, 1966), many of the work's vital elements of structure and some of its most effective techniques remain unnoticed. This despite the common agreement that Hemingway's narrative art has never been better than in The Old Man and the Sea. I am convinced that much of the hostility to Hemingway, seemingly more virulent and frequent with each passing year, and the oft-heard and influential view of him as a minor writer of narrow range and scanty achievement, derive from too much emphasis on his ideas, his world view, the "meaning" of his work. However important the Hemingway "Code" and the Hemingway "Hero" have been to our literary imagination, we are a little tired of hearing about them. Literature will owe more to his technique than to his vision of life; after him the writing of prose narrative was not the same. It is the craft, then, of The Old Man and the Sea that this essay proposes to treat.

One of the characteristic effects of Hemingway's good work is that of wholeness, completeness, symmetry. What has usually been attributed to the Hemingway Code, the sense of rigid control over painful or turbulent feelings, is as much an attribute of form--of a violent pattern of action contained within a strong but unobtrusive structure. This structure must never be ignored in the reading of a Hemingway narrative, yet, surprisingly, one finds relatively little attention to it.

First, the essential design of The Old Man and the Sea can be compared to that of the drama, for the narrative moves through three distinct phases of action which are symmetrically proportioned in relation both to one another and to the whole. In the first part, or act, Hemingway establishes the old man's relationship with the boy, Santiago's uniqueness and potentiality for tragic stature, the ethical values to be tested, and the voyage out to sea. This part occupies almost exactly one-fourth of the entire work. The second section, act two in the drama, is introduced by Santiago's twice-repeated "yes" and begins at the moment when the great marlin takes the fisherman's bait. It proceeds to describe the harrowing combat between man and fish, and concludes with Santiago's killing of the marlin. This section is virtually twice the length of the opening phase and occupies the middle half of the work. The concluding section, the dénouement, completes the symmetry for it is the same length as part one. It narrates the voyage back, the destruction of the marlin by sharks, and the old man's reconciliation with the boy. Thus the story comes full circle. This sequence of action, then, in its proportional arrangement, comprises the work's basic architecture. However, this is hardly its only structural principle. The large frame is reinforced by other, more intricate designs.

Among the essential symbolic patterns which support the structure of The Old Man and the Sea, as of other Hemingway narratives, is the movement from inside to outside, or, conversely, from outside to inside. This movement sometimes applies literally as the progression from in-doors to out-of-doors (or the reverse), from nature to dwelling or dwelling to nature, as in "Indian Camp," `Three-Day Blow," "An Alpine Idyll," and many others. In some instances the pattern has only two phases, in others three, with the action returning to the place or sphere of origin. The inside-outside pattern has many ramifications, of course, which break through the literal naming and which inherently convey deep emotional associations and values: in here--out there, home--abroad, familiar--strange, tame--wild, predictable--unpredictable, and so on.

Furthermore, the values which gather around each of these polarities are themselves ironically ambivalent, alternately desirable or repugnant, good or evil. For example, in "Indian Camp" the out-of-doors--especially the lake which Nick Adams crosses to and from the Indian settlement--represents the seeming peace, serenity, and infinity of untrammeled nature, which the naive boy contrasts with the dark hut where a woman has screamed in the agony of childbirth and a man has cut his throat. The symbolic possibilities of the contrast are manifold: Eden before and after the Fall, marriage and single life. Yet the placid lake which assures Nick of his immortality is but a mirror of his innocence. It may be immortal; he, of flesh, is not.

In The Old Man and the Sea the same pattern applies but in a slightly different form. Here the movement is from shore to sea to shore, and we have at once a credible imitation of life (is this not the way of fishermen?) and the archetypal associations which sea and shore inspire. Carlos Baker has rightly insisted that the simultaneous creation of a vivid surface reality and strong symbolic undercurrents is fundamental to Hemingway's method and among his greatest achievements. This is in part what Hemingway meant when he spoke of the "iceberg principle," a famous but not wholly understood phrase.

But these associations, as I have noted, are more complex than they may seem at first. Irony and symbolism, E. M. Halliday reminds us, are often inseparable in Hemingway. Shore means home, safety, comradeship; it is the locale for the story's portrayal of the love between Santiago and Manolin. It represents peace, rest, even perhaps an ultimate destiny, in two senses: first in the untranslatable but portentous image of lions playing on African beaches, second in the possibility that (as Bickford Sylvester argues) Santiago returns to die. The shore's negative or hostile function is emphasized when we recall that here Santiago lives in total poverty and is mocked by other fishermen, and that here, at the end, obtuse tourists mistake the marlin's skeleton for a shark's--the very monster which destroyed it. If the shore is thus the affirmative symbol of the closest human relationship Santiago has ever known, it also represents corrupt and confused standards of judgment.

Just as Hemingway establishes paradoxical values for the land, he bestows even more ironically ambiguous meanings upon the sea. As the vast arena for Santiago's struggle with the great marlin, it is that sphere in which man becomes most intensely alive, most severely tested, most heroic. The sea is beneficent, the source of peace and nourishment, and of inexpressible grandeur. But it is a trap, too, the element populated by deceptively beautiful yet poisonous creatures such as the Portuguese Man-of-War, and by the vicious sharks. The sea succors and exalts man even as it overwhelms and ruins him. This is what Santiago means when he says repeatedly in the book's concluding section that he has gone out "too far." The sea becomes, finally, the obective correlative for the abstractions we name Nature, Fate.

Thus the work's narrative pattern and frame, the land-sea-land movement, embodies also the polarities of its meanings: the known against the unknown, the human against the infinite. Furthermore, Hemingway strengthens the principal narrative pattern by interweaving two other sub-patterns, which serve to reduplicate the three-part structure: together-alone-together, darkness-light-darkness.

In the together-alone-together design the narrative opens with its depiction of Santiago's intimate comradeship with the boy, takes him out to sea alone, then closes with the renewed and intensified love of the boy, who resolves henceforth to defy his natural father and always accompany his spiritual father. Whatever one's interpretation of the significance of Santiago's solitary trial against marlin and shark, affirmative, negative, or ironic, the final phase of this design seems to allow little ambiguity; from his aloneness on the sea Santiago is restored to human love on shore. We surmise, too, that other fishermen will no longer mock him for his bad luck. The secular prayer the old man utters recurrently during his exhausting contest, "I wish I had the boy," is fulfilled at the story's end. He will have the boy for as long as he lives, and the boy--as he did at the beginning--is keeping him alive, with food, admiration, and hope. Structure becomes parable; our children extend us.

The second related pattern, darkness-light-darkness, is clear enough in its literal or realistic appearance but contains subtle implications. That is, as fishermen do, Santiago sets out before dawn, captures his fish in daylight (though not of the same day), and returns to port at night. Because the quest itself begins and ends in darkness, the response elicited would seem to be tragic, with darkness functioning first as foreshadowing and then confirmation of failure, loss, defeat, or, at the extreme, the fisherman's death. In darkness also the sharks complete their savage work, as we associate darkness with bestiality and sin. Yet here is the paradox. That the marlin is first hooked and then killed in daylight, that the first shark attacks when the sun is still high, as in daylight Santiago begins to question the ethics of his actions, all suggest that slaughter and moral awareness occur simultaneously and that both are forms of illumination. Indeed, Santiago's reflections upon the joy, the pride, and the evil of killing, ideas stated in full consciousness (in broad daylight, as it were) rehearse a life-long preoccupation of Hemingway's and perhaps his most profound and disturbing literary idea. The killing of the fish, another of Hemingway's deaths in the afternoon, and the old man's thoughts about it remind us of Hemingway's overt statement of that idea in the opening pages of the earlier book: that for him the most intense, the truest art, occurs in the presence and with the inspiration of violent death.

The narrative and symbolic pattern of light-darkness can be studied in further detail, for it serves in the story both as simple external frame and as internal imagery. As frame, the story begins and ends in daylight, from the late afternoon of the eighty-fourth day Santiago has gone unlucky to the afternoon three days later, when the tourists comment ignorantly while Santiago sleeps exhausted. More important, Hemingway uses a recurrent imagery of light and darkness. The sun on the sea hurts Santiago's eyes but it also warms him and helps unclench his crippled left hand. He dreams of white and gold beaches where the lions play. He is fed by white turtle eggs and gold and silver-sided fish. The moon and stars are his friends, and he associates the great fish with the celestial bodies. He knows he cannot be lost at sea because he will be guided by the glow of lights from shore--related, too, to the land-sea symbolism. But silver is also the color of extinction, as the marlin changes from its regal and vibrant blue-purple of life to the pale hue of death: "the color of the silver backing of a mirror." The sea, in contrast, is always and only dark. In fact, the word assumes almost the significance of leitmotif. I count "dark" (or darkness) used thirty times in the story, usually in connection with sea or water, yet never obtrusively. It works as a subtle form of incremental repetition, underscoring the sea's inscrutability, its archetypal mystery, for example in Santiago's thought: "The dark water of the true gulf is the greatest healer that there is."

We must consider, finally, the techniques by which Hemingway portrays his hero, and here again there appears a kind of ambivalence. That is, Hemingway commends Santiago to our affection and admiration; at the same time, he carefully foreshadows the story's tragic or ironic outcome and demonstrates the protagonist's frailties as a man. Hemingway's method is dual: first, he establishes the old man's attributes through a series of contrasts and associations which convey both strength and weakness, innocence and guilt; second, the writer makes his hero intimately familiar to us by his skillful use of a particular narrative perspective.

It was noted earlier in this essay that one of the important functions of the story's opening section is to elevate the fisherman to heroic stature. The most obvious means is direct statement, and three such assertions occur in the work's early pages. Hemingway tells us that Santiago's eyes remain "cheerful and undefeated;" the hero says of himself, "I am a strange old man;" the boy utters the highest tribute: "There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you." These statements convince us, despite their honorific content, because they are balanced against Santiago's age, scarred hands, tattered shirt, and simple humility of speech. Even more persuasive and revealing, however, are the characteristics suggested by the difference or contrast between the old man (and his relationship with the boy) and other men.

Santiago is unlucky; others, such as the boy's present master, are lucky. The boy's father "hasn't much faith;" the boy and the old man do. The boy's present master has poor vision, does not allow the boy to help him carry the boat's equipment, and fishes close to shore. The old man has keen eyes, welcomes the boy's help, and goes far out. Other men speak of the sea as neutral or enemy; Santiago feels the same kinship with it one has with a woman. The old man drinks shark liver oil for its healthful properties; other men hate it. The old man talks to himself for company; others have radios. Santiago fishes correctly and precisely; other men tend their lines carelessly. He thus becomes a kind of natural aristocrat of fishing, as his idol DiMaggio is a true prince of baseball. Even the old man's white lies to the boy contribute to his nobility, for he wishes no pity or charity; and the very poverty of his shack enhances the nobility of his character and the magnificence of his dreams.

Yet it must be shown that Santiago is a flawed mortal, one of the race of Cain, born to kill his brothers and to suffer. Hemingway reminds us of the hero's human imperfection by emphasizing the theme of treachery, betrayal, deception, from the start. It begins innocently enough with the old man's mention of his "tricks" as a compensation for his waning physical strength. Although this means simply his craft, his skill and intelligence as a fisherman and man's principal claim to superiority over other animals, the word itself has a sinister and negative connotation which Hemingway deliberately plays against its surface sense. The same word is repeated a few pages later, and here Hemingway establishes as the corollary for man's tricks the cruelty and unpredictability of the sea, nature, and the unknown agency ("they") which makes some creatures "too delicately" for survival. From this point on in the story recurrent emphasis is given to deception, betrayal, and treachery, especially man's treachery. It was "treachery" to pursue the great marlin in the deep water beyond the usual range of fishermen, as it is "unjust" to kill him. Santiago's left hand behaves traitorously throughout much of the combat with the fish. Though men hunt fish for food, Santiago concludes that they are unworthy of their prey. And once the old man has conquered the fish, the mode of conquest becomes a cause for shame. "I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm," Santiago thinks as he begins the voyage home with his dead fish-brother. The connection between trick and treachery, between intelligence and sin, is now unmistakable.

In consequence, the return to shore can be compared to Santiago's penance for his crime, though full expiation is not possible because the fish is dead. The sharks, evil in themselves, assume the ironic function of moral agents: they inflict the necessary punishment. Their appearance comes sufficiently as a suprise to intensify the story's action, yet it has been foreshadowed. Subconsciously we have been waiting for them. In the novella's opening pages sharks are associated with vile smells; they are mentioned again, twice, on the voyage out, and once more after Santiago has hooked the marlin. Both their participation in the action and their moral function are specifically given when, late in the second day of the combat, Santiago says, "If sharks come, God pity him and me." And, finally, their appearance produces in him the same response as one suffering the tortures of crucifixion: in answer to the boy's question at the story's close, "How much did you suffer?" Santiago answers, "Plenty."

At last, regardless of profound symbolism and fascinating ambiguities, we must know the old man; we must share in his experience. The chief method by which Hemingway joins us to him--even more, by which we enter into him--is the masterly use of that narrative mode called "selective omniscience." In this mode, properly employed, the artist retains the objectivity and freedom of the omniscient, third-person, outside narrator, but takes advantage of the immediate and intimate responses--the "I am there" sense--of the first-person, inside narrator. The writer achieves this through careful selectivity and consistent focus upon one (or a few) of his characters, subtly integrating his voice and vision with theirs. Although Hemingway did not invent this mode, he refined it early in his career and used it with peculiar skill. Furthermore, he is able to avoid detection in his shifts from third-person to first-person narration, or, to say it another way, avoid discordance in his various narrative voices, by using essentially the same linguistic structures, the same level of language and diction, that his characters would naturally employ. Interior monologue thus becomes almost indistinguishable from outside narration. It is a technique that Scott Fitzgerald, for all his superb talent, never wholly mastered. Although a complete study of Hemingway's use of this technique would require more space than available here, a brief explanation is essential.

With a single exception (when we dip quickly into the mind of the boy), the third-person mode is scrupulously maintained during the book's first twenty pages which treat events on shore. We know the contents of Santiago's thoughts by Hemingway's statement of them but we do not share in them directly. However, once Santiago is alone and rows out to sea we enter into his mind with increasing frequency, sometimes moving from outside to inside with the traditional Hemingway cues, "he thought," "he said," sometimes gliding over directly from third person to first person. In other words, we get to know Santiago better when we have him alone. The initial instance of Santiago's voiced thought is indicated by quotation marks; after that the author uses no typographical markers except for what is actually spoken aloud. Thus to the reader third-person and first-person narration seem visually the same, as they do aurally. Likewise, the seams of the narrative, the transitions in voice, are kept from intruding upon the reader's attention. For example, here is a typical passage:

The fish moved steadily and they travelled slowly on the calm water. The other baits were still in the water but there was nothing to be done.

"I wish I had the boy," the old man said aloud. "I'm being towed by a fish and I'm the towing bitt. I could make the line fast. But then he could break it. I must hold him all I can and give him line when he must have it. Thank God he is travelling and not going down."

What I will do if he decides to go down, I don't know. What I'll do if he sounds and dies I don't know. But I'll do something. There are plenty of things I can do.

He held the line against his back and watched it slant in the water and the skiff moving steadily to the northwest.

This will kill him, the old man thought. He can't do this forever. But four hours later the fish was still swimming steadily out to sea, towing the skiff, and the old man was still braced solidly with the line across his back.

Surely the passage appears simple enough and wholly characteristic of Hemingway, yet this seemingly transparent and artless prose employs, in sequence, four distinct narrative modes. It begins with third-person narration, but with the writer occupying the same point in time, space, and outlook as his character. It then shifts to direct utterance, set off by conventional punctuation and introduced by a conventional phrase. Next, however, there is a passage of interior monologue without any cues, followed immediately by another brief passage of outside narrative, followed in turn by a passage which integrates cued interior monologue and third-person narration.

Even in this kind of purely rational analysis of narrative technique, which allows nothing for the momentum of previous action, for the reader's already initiated identification with the protagonist, or for the rhythms of the language (note the repetitions in the passage, and the use of parallelism and balance in the sentence constructions), Hemingway's craft impresses us as remarkably right, totally congruent to its subject. It has been said before but it cannot be said too often: no one has written better about such things than Hemingway.

What is true of The Old Man and the Sea is true at large. Who does not know Hemingway's writing? Yet who can profess to understand exactly how it is made, or unriddle the secrets of its special magic? We want to know more, for at its best, as in The Old Man and the Sea, it partakes of the miracle of enduring art: that it can never be exhausted by critic or reader, but that it renews itself and its audience perpetually.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420024358