Ernest Hemingway’s most famous book is his simplest and he uses that simplicity to tell a very specific narrative with broad metaphorical applicability. In the micro, The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, the titular old man, who spends days at sea catching a giant marlin. In the macro, it’s a story of, well, almost anything you want it to be.
The Old Man and the Sea is a beautiful novel and part of that beauty lies in the combination of Hemingway’s trademark minimalistic prose with his narrative decision-making. The arc of Santiago’s story takes us from the fisherman’s lengthy professional drought through his extensive struggle to catch the marlin and then, having conquered, through his return to shore as sharks destroy his catch. In the text, Hemingway concerns himself mostly with minutiae like how many coils of rope Santiago has or how he’s holding the line to keep it from breaking against the marlin’s strength. By setting his story around a man isolated against competing forces and focusing on the details, Hemingway creates a perfect template for metaphor and allows the reader to hang whatever canvas of meaning they want over the story’s frame.
You can make compelling arguments that The Old Man and the Sea is about what separates man from beast or what joins them, that it’s about the intrinsic strength of man or how such strength must be cultivated, that it’s about humility in triumph or pride in defeat, that it’s about entropy or endurance. One of my favorite moments comes at the book’s close when a pair of tourists see the remains of the marlin strapped to Santiago’s boat and mistake it for one of the sharks that destroyed it; that passage alone can be endlessly applied as metaphor to misunderstandings of context and content. It’s subtle and understated and universal. And that about sums up the entire book. The Old Man and the Sea can be anything because it is, in a way, everything.