The Old Man and the Sea served to reinvigorate Hemingway's literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novel was initially received with much popularity; it restored many readers' confidence in Hemingway's capability as an author. Its publisher, Scribner's, on an early dust jacket, called the novel a "new classic," and many critics favorably compared it with such works as William Faulkner's The Bear and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
Gregorio Fuentes, who many critics believe was an inspiration for Santiago, was a blue-eyed man born on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. After going to sea at age ten on ships that called in African ports, he migrated permanently to Cuba when he was 22. After 82 years in Cuba, Fuentes attempted to reclaim his Spanish citizenship in 2001. Critics have noted that Santiago was also at least 22 when he immigrated from Spain to Cuba, and thus old enough to be considered an immigrant--and a foreigner--in Cuba.
Hemingway at first planned to use Santiago's story, which became The Old Man and the Sea, as part of an intimacy between mother and son. Relationships in the book relate to the Bible, which he referred to as "The Sea Book". Some aspects of it did appear in the posthumously published Islands in the Stream. Hemingway mentions the real life experience of an old fisherman almost identical to that of Santiago and his marlin in On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter (Esquire, April 1936).
Joseph Waldmeir's essay "Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man" is a favorable critical reading of the novel—and one which has defined analytical considerations since. Perhaps the most memorable claim is Waldmeir's answer to the question—What is the book's message?
The answer assumes a third level on which The Old Man and the Sea must be read—as a sort of allegorical commentary on all his previous work, by means of which it may be established that the religious overtones of The Old Man and the Sea are not peculiar to that book among Hemingway's works, and that Hemingway has finally taken the decisive step in elevating what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of a religion.
Waldmeir considered the function of the novel's Christian imagery, made most evident through Hemingway's obvious reference to the crucifixion of Christ following Santiago's sighting of the sharks that reads:
′Ay,′ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
One of the most outspoken critics of The Old Man and the Sea is Robert P. Weeks. His 1962 piece "Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea" presents his claim that the novel is a weak and unexpected divergence from the typical, realistic Hemingway (referring to the rest of Hemingway's body of work as "earlier glories"). In juxtaposing this novel against Hemingway's previous works, Weeks contends:
The difference, however, in the effectiveness with which Hemingway employs this characteristic device in his best work and in The Old Man and the Sea is illuminating. The work of fiction in which Hemingway devoted the most attention to natural objects, The Old Man and the Sea, is pieced out with an extraordinary quantity of fakery, extraordinary because one would expect to find no inexactness, no romanticizing of natural objects in a writer who loathed W.H. Hudson, could not read Thoreau, deplored Melville's rhetoric in Moby Dick, and who was himself criticized by other writers, notably Faulkner, for his devotion to the facts and his unwillingness to 'invent.'
Some critics suggest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in reaction against the overtly negative criticism he received for Across the River and into the Trees.