The Narrative Techniques and Style of the Language in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Generally speaking, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea may be seen as a culmination of his long-drawn experiment spanning over 25 years and speculations towards finding out the means through which the “closed literature” can be converted into “an open one”, that is, to universalise the significance of the themes. He was very much aware of the danger in and difficulties with “closed literature” which in its factual texture, so lightly woven, presents such opacity of vision that the reader is unable to see through it any larger implication and that he may even “find himself squirming with aesthetic claustrophobia”. Hemingway revolted against these stylistic limits which factualistic naturalism necessarily imposes on the sensibility of an artist. In Death and the Afternoon he asserted that the writer of prose ought to aim at “architecture, not interior decoration”; in other words, to provide the particular kind of fenestration through which the reader is able to catch glimpses of larger implications of the world. Compared with his contemporaries, for instance, Faulkner, Hemingway deliberately avoids elaborations of technique through which the modernists chose to present the complexity and disjunctions of modern experience and loss of value in their interpretation. There can be found little in his works in the way of those large presentational strategies by which they created the impressions of flux and plurality of contemporary consciousness, but that consciousness is there in Hemingway’s works.

Very clearly in his career Hemingway discovered the reductive principles which can ensure the concentration of subject, place and mood, and enumerations of the world which can ensure unbeatable definiteness of detail and guaranteed precision of effect. The novel The Old Man and the Sea opens up with such an informal, simple, relaxed yet forceful description that the reader is immediately caught up in the story:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and e had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish. In the first forty-five days a boy had been with him. But after forty days...the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally a salao, which is the worst form of unlucky...”

Hemingway has deliberately chosen to maintain the stricktest objectivity, to remain in the background so that the reader may have free entry to a story which is extraordinarily centred around a dominating self whose sensations and reflections correspond to the patterns of the story.

But it must be noted that a novel or any work of art does not simply communicate only by style or tone any more than men live only by utterances of the logical intellect. In the Old Man and the Sea the authorial voice is recognised and reinforced by the conviction, sporadically renewed, that it connotes rather than denotes. It has been rightly pointed out by Harvey Breit that in this novel Hemingway has fused “...under a sustained pressure the opposite elements of experience and vision, of prosaic event and dramatic or poetic insight.” On the surface, the novel is a story about a fisherman on the sea, but going into the deeper, the experience is inexorably transposed onto archetypal experience of human beings; for the novel deals with the universal tragic process of human endeavour with its material defeat and moral triumph:

“The Thousand times he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”

Hemingway’s originality is that the reader is never lost in the jargon of thought; the effect is achieved instantly and easily. In this way, Hemingway has succeeded in wiping out the shadow, which according to T.S. Eliot falls “between the idea and reality, between essence and descent.”

What arises out of such stylistic device in presenting the story is its parable-like aspect, the impression which is traceable in part to echoic resemblance between the language of the novel and that of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible played a great role towards forming Hemingway’s style. But it does not mean that he consciously copied the language of the Bible. In fact, the language is not purely biblical; but it shares with the scriptures two characteristics: first, stylised vocabulary and movement long familiar to readers of King James or the Douai translations, and secondly what D.H. Lawrence once called the essence of poetry—“a stark reality, bare rocky directness of statement.” It is this latter quality that brings the story of Santiago closest in tone to the scriptures.

In this novel, Hemingway, as in other novels, has succeeded in avoiding the temporariness of the contemporary language, which contains not only the slang of the current movement, but also faddism, technical jargon, trickery and fashionable ornaments. Hemingway’s language is, as a critic observes, “the language of seed time and harvest, bread and wine, heat and cold, the rising up and going down of the sun, and the slow turn of the seasons.” Finally, though The Old man and the Sea is a novel, it contains certain essential qualities—the confines, the reduction to fundamentals, the purity of design—all of which combine together to make it classic tragic poem in prose. And Santiago indeed proves to be a tragic hero who, in his combat of endurance, first with the marlin and then with the sharks, epitomises the basic human tendency to act against the laws of nature to achieve the impossible. Like an ideal tragic hero, as Aristotle formulated, Santiago has hamartia, the flaw of excess, which he himself confesses to the skeleton of the marlin: “I went too far out.” But despite his limited achievement, the hero symbolises the indefatigable spirit of human hear towards the reorientation of a poetic truth:

“A man can be destroyed, not defeated.”

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