Hemingway’s Fish Story Classic

Hemingway_review_20191130Ernest Hemingway. 2003. The Old Man and the Sea (Orig Pub 1952). New York: Scribner.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What do you do to relax? Has your mode of relaxing changed as you have grown older? Although I mostly vacation now with a good book and a quiet place to read it, when I was young my favorite pastime was fishing with my grandfather. For me, it was time outdoors with him; for him, fishing meant a freezer stocked with healthy meat to get through the winter.


In his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway introduces us to a man much like my grandfather, who fishes to put food on the table and, because it is not going well, must live off the charity of others, particularly his young companion. In Hemingway’s first paragraph, we read:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”(9)

So the old man is not only hungry, he is alone and being treated as a pariah in the fishing community in Havana, Cuba. Sword fishing is a dangerous profession for a young man; for an old man working alone, the risk can be life-threatening between the unpredictable weather, normal challenges of old age, and the wiles and brute strength of large game-fish. This is one determined old man.

The Father-Son Relationship

The relationship of the old man and the boy is special, like a father with his son. We read:

“Can I go out to get sardines for you tomorrow?

No. Go and play baseball. I can still row and Rogelio will throw the net.

I would like to go. If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve in some way.

You bought me a beer, the old man said. You are already a man.” (12)

The boy started fishing with the old man at age five. Interestingly, neither the old man nor the boy are given a name until late in the book suggesting that Hemingway is inviting us to see ourselves in these characters.

Character Self-Image

The old man’s hero is the New York Yankee baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio—when I knew him, he had retired from baseball and became the spokesman for Mr. Coffee, an electric coffeemaker. Writing in 1952, the year before I was born, we read in Hemingway:

“Tell me about the baseball, the boy asked him.

In the American League it is the Yankees as I said, the old man said happily.

They lost today, the boy told him.

That means nothing. The great DiMaggio is himself again.” (21)

Just like the old man has not caught any fish in the three months, DiMaggio is having a bad day. From the many references to DiMaggio, we are left to believe that the old man sees himself as the Joe DiMaggio of sword fishing.

Plot Overview

The old man sails deep into the ocean. Late in his voyage, he hooks a large sword fish who drags his boat out to sea for three days. Later, the fish tires and the old man pulls him in cutting his hands on the fishline. He harpoons the fish that is longer than his skiff and lashes it to the boat. Before his can reach Havana, sharks devour all but the head of the fish leaving him nothing to sell to replace fishing gear destroyed or lost in his fight with the fish and the sharks. Invigored by the fight, the old man motors on and the boy disobeys his parents to return to fish with him.


Ernst Hemingway (1899-1961) grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. After high school he became a journalist and later a war correspondent. The Old Man and the Sea received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1953. It was later made into a feature film in 1958 starring Spenser Tracy.[1]


Ernst Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is a literary classic. I enjoyed it as a holiday read over Thanksgiving. Because Hemingway died of suicide, this book’s focus on the frustrations of old age is often linked to his ongoing depression. That is an unfortunate inference about this jewel of a book written when Hemingway was in his prime as an author.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway.

Hemingway’s Fish Story Classi

Also see:

Fukuyama Understands Identity 

Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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