The Old Man and the Sea is the last short novel of Ernest Hemingway published during his lifetime. The following is the analysis of a simple story which is filled by thoughts and philosophy of a man who spent his entire life at the sea and struggles for his life will ill luck, big fish, sharks and the sea itself. Events of the novel take place at Cuba, approximately in September 1950.
The Old Man and the Sea starts with a description of an old man, Santiago, a fisher who spent eighty-four days without any fare. Local fishermen had already defined him as “salao”, a pathetic loser. Of course, it is offensive for Santiago who spent all his life at the sea and travelled a lot while being young. He also is an excellent and skillful fisherman, he just did not find a big fish worthy of selling for a long time. At first a boy, Manolin, was helping him, but after forty days without fare his parents forbade him to attend the old man, so now he works with another fisherman. The boy has a kind of affection to Santiago and they meet in the evening to share some talk and food.
As Santiago has nothing to sell, he has no money to buy a decent meal, so the boy buys him a beer, and helps him to carry his fishing gear to the shabby shack, where they are talking about the baseball and old man’s favorite player, famous Joe DiMaggio. The old man has nothing to eat, so Manolin fetches him a free dinner from Terrace café owner, Martin. The old man tries to cheer up the boy and himself, telling that tomorrow he will go far into the sea and catch a big fish. Manolin asks Santiago to wake him up tomorrow, so they will go to the shore together.
Next day Santiago wakes the boy and they stroll to the shore. The boy brings him coffee, not aware that this would be the only food for Santiago for the whole day. He also brings him some fresh sardines for baiting. The old man and the boy ease Santiago’s boat into the water and so, in the morning darkness, the fishing starts.
Santiago rows far into the sea. At first, he can hear other fishermen in the dark but soon he is all alone, facing the sea. While others call the sea “el mar” (a Spanish masculine), old Santiago always calls it “la mar” (a Spanish feminine), showing his respect and love. The long experience allows Santiago to row almost effortlessly, letting the current to do a third of work instead of him, preserving his scarce force for future fight with a big fish. He sets his baits, silently proud of his skills and ability to keep his lines at the right angle. He had no luck in many days, but today is a new day, so anything can happen. The morning light hurts his eyes, but being optimistic Santiago at once reminds himself that his sight is still good and keen. Such demur for each sad fact is habitual for him, for he is the man who does not give up.
He spots a man-of-war bird, chasing the flying fish, and follows it. Neither he, nor man-of-war have any luck in their fishing, so Santiago simply continues his journey, hoping for a big fish that should swim somewhere. Later he catches a tuna fish, a ten-pound albacore, and says aloud that it would make a good bait. This leads to his musing about talking aloud when he is alone in the sea, for this can be taken as a sign if his insanity.
But he is sane, of course, and nobody hears him. The talk in course of fishing is used only when it is necessary, so even when he went for catch with Manolin, they were talking just a little. But now he allows himself this small luxury, because he bothers no one, and envies the rich people who are able to take radio-receivers with them and listen to reports about current baseball games. At this Santiago interrupts himself, because he has to be focused on his fishing. He also notices that now he is too far in the ocean and can barely see the tops of highest hill on the shore.
A sudden dip of one of the sticks to which the line is tied signalizes that there is a fish in the depth, taking a bite of a fat sweet-smelling bait. Santiago is a skillful and sensitive fisherman, so he waits patiently for fish to take the whole bait, a bundle of sardines and a tuna with a hook in it. While waiting he thinks about how big this fish should be, living at such a depth. He prays that this fish would take a bait, and when the nibbling stops once or twice, Santiago desperately searches his mind for clues that would hint him about the fish’s next action – did is just take a break in its feeding or did it wonder somewhere into the sea? But the fish returns to the bait and Santiago prepares the reserve lines, allowing it to take the hook. At last, the fish is hooked and the old man takes all its weight at his back, pulling the line. The fish starts to tow the boat farther into the ocean.
This is going to be a hard and long battle: the fish is big and strong. After four hours of towing the boat and struggle with Santiago’s line it shows no signs of tiredness; the old man even did not see it still and can only wonder about its size and possible behavior. The old man drinks some water and tries just to endure the further confrontation. He can no longer see the shore but thinks that in the night, when the struggle would be over, he can return to Cuba easily, for Havana lights would be visible.
But as the night falls, the fish continues to move on its course. The old man has nothing to do but to hold the line. He wraps a sack around his shoulders to make himself a little warmer and to form a cushion of the sort, to ease the pressure of the line on his back. Understanding that the struggle will continue for an uncertain time, Santiago forces himself to eat some raw tuna meat, in order to keep himself strong. During the night some other fish takes one of the baits but the stick splinters so Santiago even did not see what he might have caught. He abandons all other lines and baits in order to keep the big fish and yearns for the boy – he could help him to fight it.
But the boy is not here and Santiago reminds himself to stay concentrated. This cannot last forever, and he vows that he will stay with this fish until he is dead, and then realizes that the same is fair to say about the fish too. As the morning light appears, the old man realizes that the fish is swimming on the shallower depth than before, so maybe it will jump and the air sacks along its back would be filled with air and it will not go into depth to die. Santiago even tells the fish that he loves it and respect it very much, but he will kill it before this day would be over. At least he hopes so.
As time passes, the old man’s left hand starts to cramp. He is disgusted, for the cramp is the most humiliating thing that can happen to a man when he is alone. If the boy was here, he thinks, he could help and massage the cramped hand. Santiago eats the remaining tuna meat, hoping that it would help his hand to recover.
Suddenly the fish jumps and the old man sees it for the first time. It is a huge marlin, two feet longer than the boat, and it is beautiful, shining with shades of violet, with a sword-like nose, and scythe-like tail. Santiago understands that he should not show his full strength to the marline, for if he was a fish, he would run forward until something broke, but fishes are not so intelligent as people who kill them, though they have more nobility and ability.
Santiago had never caught such a big fish alone, so he is prepared to a really hard task. Now all he can do is to wait for fish to slow down or die. He even starts to say prayers, though he is not a religious person. Later he decides that he should catch some small fish, to have something to eat. He is determined to catch the marlin, no matter what sufferings await for him. He wishes that fish would go to sleep for a while – so that he would be able to sleep too, and probably would see lions in his dreams. He even wonders a little about the fact that those lions are the main thing that he so often dreams of.
In the evening the cramp fades away, so old Santiago is able to move the marlin’s weight and ease the pain caused by the tense line a little. Now he is very tired and tries to think about baseball and a competition with “the great Negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks”, long ago, when he was nicknamed El Campeón, The Champion. He spots a plane in the sky and wonders about the look of the sea from above. Later, just before the nightfall, he catches a dolphin (note that this word here means a fish called dorado, not a mammal) and rebaits a line. His left hand is much better and the right one is cut lightly by rope, or so he tells the fish and himself, but Santiago realizes that he is very tired and have to get some sleep. At last he composes himself enough to gut the dolphin and finds two fresh flying fishes in its stomach. He eats a half of his fare and sleeps a little. After two dreams, he even sees his favorite lions.
His sleep is interrupted by the series of fish’s jumps. The line is racing out, burning and cutting his back and hands. If the boy was here, he would wet the rope, but the old man is alone. The struggle continues; the marlin makes at least ten jumps. Only at dawn it starts to go in circles, which means that it gets tired at last. Next two hours Santiago works hard, pulling the line in. Black spots are dancing in front of his eyes, but he attributes them to his weariness. He does not want to die; same goes to the marlin: it bangs the hook-carrying wire with its sword. After some time it resumes its circling; Santiago is nearly fainting again. He pours some water on his head and wants to take some rest, but resumes pulling the line. At last, when the fish turns and starts to pull again, he falls into his boat, exhausted.
A trade wind starts to blow. Santiago is glad about it, for this wind will help him to struggle with the fish, and will bring him home. He doesn’t think that a man can be lost in the sea, and Cuba is a long island, so he would never miss it. The marlin passes under the boat and Santiago cannot believe his eyes – it is so huge! He prepares his harpoon and tells himself to be calm and strong. He continues to pull the line in, ignoring the vertigo. He is dehydrated and tired, and once even thinks, “Come on and kill me. I don’t care who kills who.”
But he immediately tries to get his composure and clear head again, for it is the issues of his survival. At last he stabs the great fish with his harpoon and almost fades at this. The victory is his. He killed the fish he used to call a brother. Now he has a slave work to do: to lash the fish to the boat and bring it to the shore. After lashing the huge fish, he heads home. Santiago drinks a quarter of the remaining water and catches some small shrimps in a bundle of seaweed. As the boat heads back to Cuba, the old man looks at the fish, still incapable to believe that he killed it.
A whole hour passes before the first shark arrives, attracted by the scent of blood. It is a fast and fearless species called “mako” and Santiago can do nothing to prevent its attack. But he can kill it and the strike of his harpoon is successful. The mako is gone and so are forty pounds of the fish’s meat and the reliable harpoon. Santiago immediately crafts a new weapon of an oar and a knife. He cuts a small piece of fish’s meat, tastes it and finds that it is good. But its taste would inevitably attract more sharks.
In two hours a couple of them arrives. Two shovel-nosed sharks attempt an attack and Santiago kills them both, but they take at least a quarter of his prize with them, choosing the best meat. New attacks follow and Santiago fights with sharks in every way he can but they leave him and the fish alone only when there was nothing to eat anymore. In course of this battle, Santiago feels a strange coppery taste in his mouth. It’s a bad sign, but he boldly spits into the ocean telling sharks to eat it and dream that they have eaten a man.
It is long after midnight when Santiago reaches the shore. Everybody is asleep at this time, so there is no one to help him. The old man tries to bring a mast with a sail into his shack, falls, lies for a while, than seats, looking at the empty road, and renews his labor. He has to take a rest five times before he reaches the shack. Here he drinks some water and finally gets an undisturbed sleep.
He is still asleep when the boy comes into the shack in the morning. He had checked the shack every morning, but today he slept longer than usual, because the wind had grown strong and boats were left ashore. He checks if the old man is breathing, sees his hands and starts to cry silently. He goes to bring some coffee and cries all the way along.
Fishermen gather around Santiago’s boat; one of them measures the marlin’s skeleton with a rope. It is 18 feet long, “there has never been such a fish”, as Martin puts it while giving Manolin hot coffee with lots of milk and sugar. He asks if the old man needs anything else and offers the boy to drink something, but Manolin just asks everyone not to disturb Santiago. He waits for the old man to wake up and gives him coffee. Santiago tells the boy that he was defeated and explains about sharks.
Manolin tells him that a fisherman called Pedriko would take care of the boat and gear. Santiago suggests that Pedriko should take the fish’s head for baits and asks Manolin if he wants to keep its sword. Manolin says that he wants to keep it and, answering the old man’s question, tells that Santiago was searched for by coast guard and planes. The boy says that since now they will go fishing together, because the old man has lot of things to teach his apprentice. And now, while the coast wind blows, the old man will have some time to heal his hands and have a rest. Santiago tells him about the pain in his chest and strange coppery-tasting liquid that he spat. The boy offers to bring him a clean shirt, promises to fetch some newspaper and leaves, crying again.
At the shore a group of tourists arrive and one woman notices the marlin’s skeleton. She asks the waiter about it and he tries to explain, but manages only the words “Tiburon. Sharks,” so tourists think that the skeleton belongs to a shark.
The old man in his shack falls asleep again, guarded by the boy, and dreams of lions.
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Santiago, whose name is mentioned only several times, is an old skillful fisherman who had seen much better days. It is not his fault that he is now alone and seemingly had lost his luck. He stubbornly tries to catch a big fish that he would be able to sell, so tunas and dolphins are not enough for him. The old man is not educated but possess a philosophy of a sort, so he envisions the big fish as his brother, unable to find words for the “predator-prey” cycle, but understanding it perfectly. He manages to use his skills and nature’s gifts with maximum ability, he is a fighter, capable to accept the inevitable with dignity.
And even while the author hints at his upcoming death (note those black spots in front of his eyes, the cramping of his left hand and, what is the most alarming, the pain in his chest and coppery, i.e. bloody taste in his mouth), Santiago behaves as a man who needs only a good rest and some time to recover; his dignity does not allow him to be weak. His epic battle with the marlin and the subsequent victory would rejoice any fisherman, for this catch would bring a fair amount of money, but for old Santiago who thinks about himself as the one who was born for this craft, it is even more important, because his reputation and dignity is now restored; he is not unlucky anymore.
Manolin or “the boy”, as he is referred in the novel, is a teenage apprentice of old Santiago. He had been fishing with the old man since he was five, but at the novel’s timeline is working for another fisherman, because his parents consider Santiago to be unlucky and forbid the boy to fish with the old man. Manolin is upset, because he loves the old man and sees his as a wise and experienced tutor. He is eager to learn everything that the old man is able to teach him.
In case if the reader had missed this in scenes of their conversations, the boy’s efforts to feed the old man and care for him, even boy’s tears when he sees the condition of Santiago, sleeping in his shack, Hemingway depicts a short but iconic scene where Santiago offers the marlin’s sword for boy to keep. This looks and sounds in almost medieval fashion: an old master handing over a symbol of his mastership and wisdom to a young apprentice and heir.
Relations between Manolin and Santiago work on several levels: young – old, hope – despair, apprentice – master and, of course, son – father, because the old man is a childless widower and the boy is his only companion at the dusk of his long life. It is Manolin (diminutive of Manuel, the Redeemer), who does not allow Santiago to feel himself “unlucky”, even when sharks had robbed the old man of his victory.
Of course, the great marlin is not a mere fish and shark food. It is an enemy, worthy of Santiago’s steel, proverbially and literary. Santiago acknowledges this by his admiration and respect to the huge, strong and beautiful sea creature. To him this marlin is like a dragon for a knight, this parallel is clearly visible in setting and style of Hemingway’s narration, simple, direct and beautiful as a crude but colorful stained-glass window can be.
It is the prize, and while Santiago considers it as a catch that can feed him for a long time, he also understands that this huge marlin is his luck, a glorious and full-blooded evidence of his excellent skill in a work he was born to do. Sharks take its material value, but the measuring of skeleton shows that this fish was 18 feet long, it is the largest fish the villagers had ever seen; so, while Santiago would not receive any money for his epic battle, his staggering endurance and wounds, the restored dignity and reputation are his now forever.
The Old Man and the Sea is a multi-level text, where themes are naturally emerging from each other. The simplest example are relations between Santiago and Manolin that can be considered as tutoring, support, encouragement and so on. More interesting is the theme of Santiago’s attitude to the sea. He refers to it as “la mar”, using the feminine form of the word, while other fishermen call it “el mar”.
Thus, Hemingway marks the controversial nature of the sea, a source of nourishment and hurricanes and sharks at the same time. Santiago loves the sea, he spent all his life in it, he knows it and learns from it, but he also is careful and wary, marking seasons of good and bad weather, looking for winds and signs of hurricanes. The important point is that he is not afraid of it, because everyone is a predator and prey at the same time, and the one once who was a hunter would eventually become a nourishment for other creature.
Listing of themes of The Old Man and the Sea would be incomplete without themes of pride and endurance that thread the whole text. Santiago’s battle with the marlin is the most prominent illustration of these, but a careful reader would notice such small moments as Santiago’s lie about having the food at the very beginning, for example. The old man is nearly starving, but he loathes begging – why should he, when he is an excellent fisher and someday he would catch a big fish? He just finds more ways to carry on, this stubborn and proud strange old man.
He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains. He lived along that coast now every night and in his dreams he heard the surf roar and saw the native boats come riding through it. He smelled the tar and oakum of the deck as he slept and he smelled the smell of Africa that the land breeze brought at morning.
Note how the old man’s dreams emphasize his loneliness and isolation: he dreams of sights, sounds, smells but not of people.
“I told the boy I was a strange old man,” he said. “Now is when I must prove it.”
The thousand times that 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.
I wish he’d sleep and I could sleep and dream about the lions, he thought. Why are the lions the main thing that is left?
Tired and exhausted, Santiago is in dire need of help, but understands that there will be none. So he just wishes to sleep a little and see his favorite lions – a common symbol of pride which he values so much. Note the sentence about the need to prove himself worthy again; Santiago is humble enough to acknowledge that his previous deeds are insignificant now.
For an hour the old man had been seeing black spots before his eyes and the sweat salted his eyes and salted the cut over his eye and on his forehead. He was not afraid of the black spots. They were normal at the tension that he was pulling on the line. Twice, though, he had felt faint and dizzy and that had worried him.
Santiago is strong and durable even without taking his age into account, but at the same time, he is wary enough to note that something is wrong and this something can lead to his defeat and even death; it is a simple but beneficial skill for those who face a challenging situation alone.
“They beat me, Manolin,” he said. “They truly beat me.”
“He didn’t beat you. Not the fish.”
Here Manolin’s words are echoing the opinion of the author himself: Santiago won his greatest victory and sharks had taken only its material evidence.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
These two short sentences are the essence of the old man’s philosophy.
The Sea is an embodiment of Nature. Santiago and other fishermen see themselves as a part of it and respect this source of nourishment and potential menace, for the sea is the force beyond anyone’s control.
Marlin is the symbol of victory and reward in many senses. The parallel to Herman Melvil’s “Moby Dick” is clearly visible, but the attitude of Santiago to the marlin and the one of Captain Ahab to the white whale are quite different: Santiago sees a worthy enemy with whom he has much in common, his equal, while Ahab is blindly chasing his prize.
Santiago’s journey is also symbolic in many ways, from the fight of a man with circumstances, measurement of one’s durability and to reinterpretation of epic plots and New Testament.
When Santiago arrives to the shore, the following scene is full of religious symbols: carrying of the mast (cross bearing) and stops on his way to the shack (stations of the cross); the old man underwent his ordeal and finishes his [life] journey after completing his mission.
From Santiago’s conversation with Manolin, who is impersonating youth and hope, the reader learns that there was a search of an old man. The search went on for three days and in the end Santiago is found by Manolin in his shack, sleeping. This is a clear re-enactment of resurrection of Christ, so in spite of pitiable state of Santiago, this is his true spiritual recovery: now he is a man he used to be all his life, again.
According to Ernest Hemingway, the novel is based on true events, at least partially: being an avid fisherman himself, Hemingway had caught his share of marlins and witnessed shark attack at his prize at least once, in 1935. Gregory Fuentes, a mate at his boat, Pilar, had supposedly served as inspiration for Santiago.
The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952. In 1953 the novel was awarded with Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and in 1954 the Nobel Prize in Literature followed.
The novel was adapted into a movie in 1958 and into a mini-series in 1990.
Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899 – 1961) was an American writer and journalist with a prominent economical style. His life could be a book itself, with its travels, adventures and tragic ending.
Hemingway’s biography includes occupations as an ambulance driver in Italy in period of the World War I, working as a staff writer and editor in Toronto and Chicago, a life in famous Latin Quarter at the beginning of 1920’s and in exotic places like Key West Island, Cuba and Caribbean, fishing and hunting, travels over Europe and Africa, reporting on Spanish Civil War, visiting China, witnessing the D-Day in Normandy and participating in the liberation of Paris.
A hereditary mental illness, possibly hemochromatosis, led this talented and buoyant man first to nervous breakdown and later to suicide in the summer of 1961.