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.