The Old Man and the Sea, although usually called a novel, is not divided into chapters; yet, at 27,500 words it is too long to be called a short story. Efforts to split it into recognizably separate parts are haphazard at best, because its simple action moves along a time line of morning, noon, sunset, midnight, and dawn, which is then repeated, and with little reminiscing by the protagonist and no interpolations by the author.
The action may be arbitrarily, but perhaps helpfully, divided into introduction, three dramatic sections, denouement, and coda. In this introduction, the reader learns that for forty days Santiago fished off Havana in the Gulf Stream, aided by his friend and admirer Manolin, and then for forty-four more days alone, all without success. In part 1, the action begins. On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago rows his skiff “far out” and at noon hooks an enormous male marlin. In part 2, the fish is so strong that it tows Santiago’s skiff northwest into the night and beyond. The following afternoon, the old man first sees his quarry when it suddenly surfaces. All through the second night, it tows the old man, whose hands are cut and whose back is strained. It circles at dawn, and Santiago harpoons it at noon and lashes it alongside the skiff. In part 3, a mako shark attacks and devours part of the marlin. Santiago kills the shark, but his fear that more sharks will follow the bloody wake is soon confirmed by their awesome appearance. In the denouement, the scavengers complete the ruin of his prize, leaving only the marlin’s skeleton, which he brings to shore. Bone-tired, he sleeps again in his shack. In the coda, Manolin brings Santiago coffee next morning, and the two determine to fish again.
Most of the time, Santiago is the only person whose words and thoughts are recorded. When he talks aloud to himself, as he often does, Ernest Hemingway puts his exact words within quotation marks. At other times, his unspoken thoughts are recorded but without the use of quotation marks and with the pronouns “he” and “I” used without evident distinction.
The Old Man and the Sea displays the classical unity of time, place, and action—with a distinct beginning, long middle, and end. It comprises three days and nights, occurs mostly on the vast sea, and presents one sequence of events. It is knit together by skillful foreshadowing, largely through Santiago’s repeated refrain of going out too far, his frequently calling his quarry his “brother,” his thoughts about baseball (especially his hero Joe DiMaggio), and his dreaming about playful lions that he saw long ago on African beaches. Manolin is involved in the action only in the first several pages and in the last few pages of the story. Thus, the novella has a sonata form, with Manolin constituting the short first and third motifs and a man pitted against the sea and its creatures as the more elaborate second motif.