Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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What lesson does Santiago learn about death in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea?

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This type of question has always struck me as odd. Santiago is an old man, and he has been fishing his entire life. Fishing and killing fish is nothing new to him. The cycle of life is nothing new to him, and I'm quite certain he has probably known other fishermen that have died while out fishing. I hesitate to say that Santiago learned anything about death during the events of this story that greatly enhanced his knowledge about that particular topic.

What I do think is that Santiago's experience in this book gave him further evidence to support what he already knows. Santiago knows that the fish have to die to support his living, and he knows that he will eventually die of starvation if he doesn't catch fish to feed himself or financially support himself with. Santiago also knows that the world is filled with predators other than himself. That's why the warbler will get preyed upon by the hawk. It's why the sharks ruin his prize catch. Death is inevitable, and events of the story highlight this; however, Santiago's adventure also highlights one other important detail about death. Death might be inevitable, but that doesn't change the fact that all of creation, including Santiago, will fight tooth and nail to put death off as long as possible. This is why the marlin fights so hard and why Santiago fights back and fends off the sharks just as tenaciously.

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Santiago struggles valiantly when fishing on the seas. He pulls in a mighty marlin and has to fend off multiple sharks as they attempt to attack and kill the fish. After the grueling affair, Santiago is left weak and wasted, with his hands bleeding and his body fatigued but with a sense of satisfaction and a new appreciation and understanding of life and death.

Santiago is an old man, and as he approaches death, he begins to fear his mortality. But he learns a lesson from the marlin. He realizes that death is inescapable, which, while morose, is comforting in that he knows that he doesn’t need to struggle or fear it. However, after watching the valiant struggle of the marlin, he also realizes that it is vital to fight until the end in order to draw every last ounce of experience out of life. As Santiago says to himself at one point, man is not made for defeat, so he resolves to fight and live fully until his dying day.

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Santiago is an old man, near to death, when he goes far out in the water fishing. As he defends his marlin unsuccessfully against the attacks of multiple sharks, he learns several things about death. First, he learns that death comes to every living creature. It is part of the cycle of life that includes all of us. The important aspect of death is not death itself, as that is inevitable. What matters the most is that the man of honor struggle against death as long as possible. As Santiago says:

"But man is not made for defeat," he [Santiago] said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

This sense that one must fight to the last animates Santiago in his battle against the sharks. He loses against them--they eat the marlin--but that doesn't matter. What counts is that he gave his all in the fight against them. As he states:

I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try it as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller.

He further decides:

I'll fight them until I die.

This determination to fight to the bitter end is what makes death worthwhile. While Santiago does not die at the end of the novel, he can in the future die in peace, because he has fought the good fight with courage and fortitude.

Beyond this, Santiago determines that "everything kills everything else in some way." This reinforces the idea that we are all part of a natural cycle of life and death. As he is in his boat, Santiago dwells on how he has lived by killing other creatures: that is what a fisherman does. Death feeds on life. Santiago also determines that because he loved the marlin, it was "not a sin to kill him."

The most important thing Santiago learns is to put death into the perspective of a larger picture of a cycle of life in which what counts is not whether or not you die, but how hard you fight.

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