The story focuses on old Santiago and his two most important relationships: to a young boy, and to nature. Santiago has not caught a fish in many days when the story opens, and his young companion has been forced by his parents to fish on another boat. His love for the old man, however, prompts him to look after his needs nonetheless.
Santiago goes further out than usual and hooks a giant marlin. The major part of this brief and very spare work traces the three days that Santiago fights against this mighty fish. We see not only his courage, strength of will, and knowledge of his craft, but also his deep respect for and understanding of nature.
Santiago defeats the fish, which he addresses as a comrade and fellow-sufferer throughout the struggle, but loses his catch at the end to sharks. The old man returns to port exhausted and with only the skeleton of his great fish.
Hemingway suggests, however, that the old man cannot ultimately be defeated because he conducts himself with dignity and self-respect, no matter what the external circumstances. The young boy lovingly receives him back, heartbroken at Santiago’s suffering but glad for the vindication of the skills of his master.
The story lends itself to many symbolic interpretations. Some see it as an allegory of Hemingway’s life as an artist, laboring alone to realize the elusive prize of art, only to have his efforts torn apart by sharklike critics.
Others emphasize the distilled expression here of the famous Hemingway code: courage, endurance, suffering without complaint, and the like. If so, the code has been expanded somewhat to include humility, pity, loyalty, and love--though life is no less killing for these things.
Brenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.
Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.
Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s roots in previous Hemingway works and discusses Santiago as a “code hero,” as distinct from a “Hemingway hero.” Claims simple interpretation of the book’s symbols reduces their meanings.
Describe Hemingway's portrayal of Santiago's relationship with the sea.
Hemingway focuses on the connections between Santiago and his natural environment: the fish, birds, and stars are all his brothers or friends; he has the heart of a turtle, eats turtle eggs for strength; anddrinks shark liver oil for health. This connection with the sea and its creatures helps Santiago in the midst of his great tragedy. For Santiago, success and failure are two equal facets of the same existence. They are transitory forms which capriciously arrive and depart without affecting the underlying unity between himself and nature. As long as he focuses on this unity and sees himself as part of nature rather than as an external antagonist competing with it, he cannot be defeated by whatever misfortunes befall him.
Is Santiago a prideful man? Why or why not?
Hemingway's treatment of pride in The Old Man and the Sea is ambivalent. A heroic man like Santiago should have pride in his actions, and as Santiago shows us, "humility was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride" (14). At the same time, though, it is apparently Santiago's pride which presses him to travel dangerously far out into the sea, "beyond all people in the world," to catch the marlin (50). While he loved the marlin and called him brother, Santiago admits to killing it for pride, his blood stirred by battle with such a noble and worthy antagonist. Some have interpreted the loss of the marlin as the price Santiago had to pay for his pride in traveling out so far in search of such a catch. Contrarily, one could argue that this pride was beneficial as it allowed Santiago an edifying challenge worthy of his heroism. In the end, Hemingway suggests that pride in a job well done, even if pride drew one unnecessarily into the situation, is a positive trait.
How does Santiago embody Hemingway's ideals for manhood?
Hemingway's ideal of manhood is nearly inseparable from the ideal of heroism. To be a man is to behave with honor and dignity: to not succumb to suffering, to accept one's duty without complaint and, most importantly, to display a maximum of self-control. The representation of femininity, the sea, is characterized expressly by its caprice and lack of self-control; "if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them" (30). The representation of masculinity, the marlin, is described as 'great,' 'beautiful,' 'calm,' and 'noble,' and Santiago steels him against his pain by telling himself, "suffer like a man. Or a fish," referring to the marlin (92). In Hemingway's ethical universe, Santiago shows us not only how to live life heroically but in a way befitting a man.
In your opinion, is Santiago successful as a fisherman? Why or why not?
Hemingway draws a distinction between two different types of success: outer, material success and inner, spiritual success. While Santiago clearly lacks the former, the import of this lack is eclipsed by his possession of the later. One way to describe Santiago's story is as a triumph of indefatigable spirit over exhaustible material resources. As noted above, the characteristics of such a spirit are those of heroism and manhood. That Santiago can end the novella undefeated after steadily losing his hard-earned, most valuable possession is a testament to the privileging of inner success over outer success.
Discuss Santiago's obsession with being a worthy adversary for the marlin.
Being heroic and manly are not merely qualities of character which one possesses or does not. One must constantly demonstrate one's heroism and manliness through actions conducted with dignity. Interestingly, worthiness cannot be conferred upon oneself. Santiago is obsessed with proving his worthiness to those around him. He had to prove himself to the boy: "the thousand times he had proved it mean 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" (66). And he had to prove himself to the marlin: "I'll kill him....in all his greatness and glory. Although it is unjust. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures" (66). A heroic and manly life is not, then, one of inner peace and self-sufficiency; it requires constant demonstration of one's worthiness through noble action.
How does Hemingway imply that Santiago is a Christ-like figure?
Manolin has an almost religious devotion to Santiago, underscored when Manolin begs Santiago's pardon for his not fishing with the old man anymore. Manolin says, "It was Papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him," to which Santiago replies, "I know... It is quite normal. He hasn't much faith" (10). Manolin's father forced his son to switch to a more successful boat after 40 days had passed without a catch for Santiago; this is the amount of time Jesus wandered in the desert, tempted by Satan. Just as Christ resisted the temptation of the devil, Santiago resists the temptation of giving in to his exhaustion as he battles the marlin. "It was a great temptation to rest in the bow and let the fish make one circle by himself without recovering any line." But he is committed to beating the fish, to proving his strength is more steadfast, thinking, "He'll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don't even speak of it."
What is Santiago's view of his own sinfulness?
Throughout this final section, Santiago repeatedly apologizes to the marlin in a way that provides another way to read Santiago's sin. He says, "Half fish... Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went out so far. I ruined us both" (115). Santiago's transgression is no longer his killing of the fish, but going out too far in the ocean, "beyond all people in the world" (50). While the former sin helped account for the inescapable misery of the human condition, the latter focuses instead on avoidable misery brought about by intentional action. Santiago chose to go out so far; he did not need to do so, but in doing so he must surrender his prize, the marlin, to the jealous sea.
This understanding of Santiago's sin is strange because it seems to separate man from nature in a way which contradicts the rest of the novella. Going out too far is an affront against nature similar to the hubristic folly of Greek tragedy; he has courted disaster through his own pride. Nowhere previously in the novel was this apparent, though. The sea seemed to welcome him, providing him company and food for his expedition. There was no resistance from nature to his activities, except perhaps the sharks, but these were never made to be nature's avengers. This reading of Santiago's sin thus seems very problematic.
Describe the important aspects of Santiago's relationship with Manolin.
The relationship between Santiago and Manolin can be summed up in one sentence: "The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him" (10). Manolin is Santiago's apprentice, but their relationship is not restricted to business alone. Manolin idolizes Santiago but the object of this idolization is not only the once great though presently failed fisherman; it is an idolization of ideals. This helps explain Manolin's unique, almost religious, devotion to the old man, underscored when Manolin begs Santiago's pardon for his not fishing with the old man anymore. Manolin says, "It was Papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him," to which Santiago replies, "I know... It is quite normal. He hasn't much faith" (10).
Despite the clear hierarchy of this teacher/student relationship, Santiago does stress his equality with the boy. When Manolin asks to buy the old man a beer, Santiago replies, "Why not?... Between fisherman" (11). And when Manolin asks to help Santiago with his fishing, Santiago replies, "You are already a man" (12). By demonstrating that Santiago has little more to teach the boy, this equality foreshadows the impending separation of the two friends, and also indicates that this will not be a story about a young boy learning from an old man, but a story of an old man learning the unique lessons of the autumn of life.
Discuss the importance of the sense of sight to the characters in the novella.
Hemingway peppers the novella with numerous references to sight. We are told, for instance, that Santiago has uncannily good eyesight for a man of his age and experience, while Manolin's new employer is nearly blind. When Manolin notices this, Santiago replies simply, "I am a strange old man" (14). Given the analogy between Santiago's eyes and the sea, one suspects that his strangeness in this regard has something to do with his relationship to the sea. This connection, though, is somewhat problematic as it might suggest that Santiago would have success as a fisherman.
Santiago's statement that his eyes adjust to the sun during different parts of the day furnishes another example of the importance of sight and visual imagery in the novella. Santiago says, "All my life the early sun has hurt my eyes, he thought. Yet they are still good. In the evening I can look straight into it without getting the blackness. It has more force in the evening too. But in the morning it is just painful" (33). Given the likening of natural time cycles to human age, e.g. September as the autumn of life, it is plausible to read this passage as a statement of the edifying power of age. While it is difficult to find one's way in the morning of youth, this task becomes easier when done by those who have lived through the day into the evening of life.
How is the figure of Joe DiMaggio used to emphasize Santiago's respect for nature?
As he struggles against the marlin despite the pain he suffers, Santiago recalls the figure of Joe DiMaggio, identified at the beginning of the novella as a heroic paragon. "I must have confidence," thought Santiago, "and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel" (68). It is strange, though, that immediately after valorizing DiMaggio, Santiago immediately diminishes the baseball player's greatness by thinking that the pain of a bone spur could not be as bad as the pain of the spur of a fighting cock. He even concludes that "man is not much beside the great birds and beasts. Still I would rather be that beast down there in the darkness of the sea" (68). Nature, and the marlin especially, is privileged above even the greatest exemplars of human endurance.