The Old Man and the Sea

Book One of Our Literary Lenten Book Club

Cover of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is the first book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, how did the main character(s) encounter transcendence? and second, how did he respond?

A particular set of beliefs that embody the work of Ernest Hemingway, whose canon of works struggled with the pain of the lost generation, whose alcoholism, repeated marriages, and path of finding, losing and finding again the faith still ended in suicide. We may not hold the same beliefs or values as the author or the characters, but as the mature author struggle to reveal something true and good through his writing, we find a world we can understand.

The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. The Nobel Committee referenced it when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

It was the last major work of fiction written by Hemingway published during his lifetime. 

They described The Old Man and the Sea (1952) as

“the unforgettable story of an old Cuban fisherman’s duel with a huge swordfish in the Atlantic. Within the frame of a sporting tale, a moving perspective of man’s destiny is opened up; the story is a tribute to the fighting spirit, which does not give in even if the material gain is nil, a tribute to the moral victory in the midst of defeat. The drama is enacted before our eyes, hour by hour, allowing the robust details to accumulate and take on momentous significance. ‘But man is not made for defeat,’ the book says. ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”

“But on the other hand, he also possesses a heroic pathos which forms the basic element in his awareness of life, a manly love of danger and adventure with a natural admiration for every individual who fights the good fight in a world of reality overshadowed by violence and death. ”

How will this old man encounter the transcendent?

the sea, or la mar as the old man sees her

The academic answer centers on Hemingway’s reverence for masculinity. For Hemingway, a fighting spirit, to never admit defeat, equals a moral victory. This is the religion of Hemingway’s work and it is in this moral code most easily considered in The Old Man and the Sea.

I do not doubt his. In a letter, Flannery O’Connor wrote in her comical way

“[Faulkner] says that Hemingway discovered God in the Creator in this one. What part I like in that was where the fish’s eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him.”

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, by Flannery O’Connor

The fish was dead, its eye no longer alert to the things below.

The reader can feel the unity of the Old Man with the created things around him. He is one with it. In it, he feels transcendence. It humbles him. The world is bigger than him. We will never respond well in the sight of the Divine if we do not realize how small we are.

Old man on a fishing boat waving to birds

He has a passing understanding of God, but he does not link God’s creation to the Creator. He expresses his sorrow to the fish or his mistake, not to the one who made the fish and made it to live so long. The action all happens within the horizontal realm. 

If we take O’Connor’s observation at face value, we could consider that the encounter with transcendence comes not from the unity with creation, overtaking nature, or victory despite destruction, but rather, in being defeated, and then being taken. The man feels his unity with the fish, he feels his own defeat. When he returns to the shore, feeling utterly beaten, he does not die. The sharks of the world do not consume him. He returns to the goodness of the boy who loves him, who now chooses, regardless of his parents wishes, to care for the man.

And the man lets him.

His humility comes to this. The defeat in this world on the horizontal plane comes to this. “I will not leave you orphans,” Christ says in John 14:18.

This was Hemingway’s final work. The author himself, by taking his life, assumes a sort of defeat like the old man. But instead of the isolating decision to take oneself away from this world, the old man gives himself. He will not give up. He surrenders himself not to death, to some desperate end, but to the arms of one who loves him. If this act, which redeems the apparent failures of old age, is not a sign of transcendence, I do not know what is.

Do you agree? Disagree? Have another thought to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.


  1. Dara says:

    In being destroyed but not defeated—like pregnancy and birth in that you can be utterly destroyed but hope in the love for your baby afterwards, and unite to the transcendent in your suffering destruction but still choosing by the power of God and in the image of God as man to suffer for the hope of something greater. My body given up for you. Surrender for the sake of love. But the old man was defeated and destroyed, as Hemingway says, “the nail going through his hands and into the wood” is the old man’s way of the cross and death. Afterward he is home to one who lives him, who takes his burden and gives him rest, and he receives it and surrenders.

    1. What a beautiful reflection! Thank you for sharing. It’s a remarkable parrellel.

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