Describe the major conflict of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Hemingways's The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago's struggle is not just against nature.  Rather, his conflict is primarily an existential one, for he struggles to prove that he is yet a man, who can exist on his own.  Calling the sea "La Mer," Santiago perceives his struggle as one of male dominance.   His rival is the big fish, the marlin, the male fish who "takes the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it." Santiago's struggle with the fish is one to prove his manhood and conquer the weakness of his aging.

"Fish," he said softly, aloud. "I'll stay with you until I'm dead."

Moreover, Santiago represents the authentic man, the ethical hero for whom fishing defines his life.  His catch of the great fish involves his method as much as the initial act of hooking the fish. Santiago's struggle and his male tenacity against the strength of the male fish, according to critic Carl Davis,

 remains a concise expression of what it means for Hemingway to live and act as an individual in the modern world.

In the novella, the boy acknowledges Santiago's heroic authenticity:

“And the best fisherman is you.’’

“No. I know others better.’’

Que va,’’ the boy said. “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.’’

When Santiago comes ashore, defeated in his catch by the sharks, he still has his life and imagination. The men admire the size of the fish Santiago has been able to capture while he dreams of the lions, yet unconquered. 

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lentzk's profile pic

Kristen Lentz | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The central conflict in Ernest Hemingway's famous novella The Old Man and the Sea is man versus nature.  Santiago, the old fisherman, combats the forces of nature daily in his attempts to catch fish to provide for his living.  The conflict in The Old Man and the Sea focuses on Santiago's intense struggle to catch and land an enormous fish (a marlin).  Hemingway uses Santiago to represent 'every man' and humanity's ongoing struggle to bend nature to our will.  Santiago ultimately proves unsuccessful, but even though he is defeated by nature, his irrepressable sense of spirit leaves him dreaming of future conquests.

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