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Hemmingway might not have wanted the story to be allegorical, but many people will see it as a kind of fairy tale. Basically, the story is about persisting against impossible odds. It’s about not giving up.
I agree that it's hard to miss the idea of perseverance in The Old Man and the Sea. I also love the relationship Hemingway created between Santiago and Manolin. The teacher/pupil relationship which they have is delightful and moving. As a mentor, Santiago passed on his love of fishing as well as the sea and the "brothers" who live there to a young boy. Manolin was destined to be a fisherman; instead of being a man who fishes for a living, like Manolin's boss, this young boy will always have a true love for what he does. That's a gift which Hemingway highlights in this novella.
"The Old Man and the Sea" is clearly an allegory designed to tell a good story and also to teach a lesson. In addition to being a lesson on the importance of never giving up on one's dreams, there is also a poignant story about a seasoned fisherman modeling the kind of reserve, fortitude, cunning, and intelligence it required to haul in the kind of catch Santiago manages to do. Although he isn't able to bring the fish to shore, nevertheless he proves his merit as a fisherman and is clearly a model for the young boy to emulate the rest of his life.
I tend to agree somewhat with Tim Brady, I think the story is kind of about "how to be a man", with the ultimate message that even if you do things the right way-- work hard, don't give up, exercise dignity and perseverance, etc. you might still end up with nothing.
This story reminds me of Camus' "The Plague." It's always risky to try to attribute a "purpose" to an author's work, but if I dared, it would look something like this: life may not give you what you hope for; life may not even give you what you "deserve"; the plague may come unannounced and wreck its havoc. None of that is important, because for the most part these are things you have no control over; try as you may, you will never reduce the world/experience to something that can be explained rationally. What is important is how we deal with life, how we maintain our dignity when life takes away the fish or delivers the plague. We can alway have our dignity, we can always remain in solidarity with each other.
A teacher once described Hemingway's position in words that I have always remembered. He said of Hemingway's interpretation of the world something like this: "Don't tell me what it means; just tell me how to live in it."
I find a lot of this in Hemingway's works. I may not agree with the actions of his characters, but I can see why and how they are acting in this light.
I believe that one of Hemingway's purposes was to remind us that one must never give up on one's dreams. Santiago persevered despite great odds and physical injury in his quest for the giant Marlin; he never gave up, despite being old, injured, and "beaten" by the waves and sun. Another purpose, I believe, is that old age doesn't mean the end of one's life, and it doesn't not mean that one must stop pursuing one's dreams. Santiago is living proof of this!
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