What was Hemingway's purpose (e.g. to teach) in writing The Old Man and the Sea?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The Old Man and the Sea is often regarded as Hemingway's definitive work on the code hero.

Hemingway once said, "Don't tell me what it [life] means; just tell me how to live in it." If any single work of Ernest Hemingway's provides the blueprint for how to live life, The Old Man in the Sea is such a work because Santiago is a fully drawn code hero.

The code hero is defined by Hemingway as

...a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful.

From the beginning of this novella, Santiago has already attained his status of hero. So, rather than becoming a hero, Santiago becomes the paradigm by which others can be measured. 

  • Stoicism

From the beginning of the narrative, Santiago demonstrates his stoicism. He admires Joe DiMaggio, a phenomenal baseball player who played with bone spurs in his feet, enduring tremendous pain for the sake of his team. Also, despite not catching a fish in more than two months, Santiago remains stoic, going out each day with hope.

  • "Grace under pressure"

When Santiago does catch a fish, it is a very large one and he has only the most basic equipment with which to fight it. Nevertheless, he reminds himself of times in which he succeeded in order to give himself confidence. As his hands begin to hurt, he encourages himself:

My hand is only cut a little and the cramp is gone from the other. My legs are all right. And now I have gained on him in the question of sustenance.

Throughout his struggle with bringing in the fish, Santiago never gives up. Nor is he afraid of death.

  • Individualism 

Santiago lives an authentic life, never asking anyone to help him. When he catches a fish after months of failure, he fights the great fish in what may be a losing battle but finally brings it in, successfully tying it to his boat. Then, the sharks eat his catch. Despite losing all the fish's meat to the sharks, Santiago returns with proof of his catch and attains fulfillment as he underscores again his manhood. 

  • Bravely facing death

In the end, it is evident that he is not defeated in mind, although something in his chest "was broken." But because he has been brave throughout his ordeal and has faced death, Santiago is able to dream of the lions as he sleeps in exhaustion.

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litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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. 

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copelmat | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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"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.

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alexb2 | eNotes Employee

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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.

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timbrady | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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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.

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kwoo1213 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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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!