There's life in the old sea-dog yet

The Old Man and the Sea

To what extent can nature writing function as a novel form: that is, how can observing the natural world and man's interaction with it reveal to us the inner life of an individual? As the novel recovered from Victorian baroque only to be plunged into Joyce's gothic intricacies of the human condition, could a novelist dig deep yet still remain on the surface, in the empirical?

Spanning as it did a period from the end of the first world war to after the middle of last century, Hemingway's entire oeuvre seems like a response to these questions. His direct, declarative style eschews any sort of internal viewpoints, even with the first-person narrative of For Whom The Bell Tolls, and yet it is the plainness and directness of his approach that is so powerful. In The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway's deliberately simple tools are at their keenest and smoothest, joining together perfectly to tell the story of an elderly fisherman on an epic odyssey, the trip that will either break his run of bad luck and no fish, or confirm it and reduce him effectively to a beggar. Three days at sea, and yet Hemingway takes only a hundred short pages to reveal to us every inch of the protagonist's humanity. By the end of the novel we live and breathe this old man, his fascination with baseball, his sore and bleeding hands, the core of indefatigability in his salt-dried soul.

In writing so powerfully and yet so plainly, Hemingway has confirmed that one needn't hear a character's unspoken words, or be told explicitly about their emotions, to understand them through their actions and reactions. The one rhetorical device he uses to plug the gaps is making the old man talk to himself---or, at any rate, to the great fish he fights---but even this is believable, within context. It's clear that Hemingway was deeply in love with Cuba and its people, and The Old Man and the Sea is his paean to a simpler way of life, a perfection that the cultured novelist could never truly attain.