Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

The novelist Ernest Hemingway was famous for his celebration of rugged masculinity and in The Old Man and the Sea (1952) he applies this attitude to telling a story about a man in old age.  He tells the story of a formidable but old fisherman who fears how old age can compromise a man by depleting and degrading his prowess.  Appearing to be unable to do the things he used to do, he suffers a loss of respect by his community, by the family of his protégé and, most importantly, he is losing his self-esteem. However, by drawing on his reserves of strength, his capacity for endurance, his wit, his will and his lifetime of accumulated skills, he ventures far from the shore to catch a big fish, a marlin, which turns out to be the biggest fish caught by anyone in that fishing community.  Even though he fails to bring home this great catch intact, due to scavenging sharks that attack the carcass, he has proven to himself and to others that he has still ‘got it’.  

As well as reflecting the author’s concerns about the effects of old age and the value of confronting them, he also laments the displacement of traditional (or old) modes of production by modern industrialised practices.  In this case it is the marginalisation of traditional fishermen, with their time-honoured skills and appreciation of nature, by the soulless industrial fishing trawlers and their crews that strip the ocean of fish rather than seek to harvest the seas while living in balance with nature.  In addition, he praises the small community’s capacity to share to help those who are down on their luck, thereby practising a kind of socialism.  He also admires lifestyles that appreciate the intangibles that make life more meaningful, like love, dignity and respect, rather than a spiritually empty materialism. 

In this story, Hemmingway also positively acknowledges mankind’s place in nature and in the cycle of life, paying special attention to the role of the hunter or the fisherman.  This is because he believed that hunting and fishing were part of the cycle of life.  This cycle refers to the view that all creatures live off other creatures, with each creature preying on other creatures for sustenance until that creature becomes prey itself.  Importantly, Hemmingway presents in this story his concept of rugged masculinity where men had to repeatedly prove their manhood through feats of courage and skill, especially by pitting themselves against nature and by hunting its formidable beasts. When the old man feels he can still live up to these standards, he can rest easy. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: The Old Man and the Sea meaning, The Old Man and the Sea themes, The Old Man and the Sea analysis, The Old Man and the Sea notes