How does the author in The Old Man and the Sea use descriptive language and other literary devices to create the setting?

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clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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Hemingway makes great use of imagery when he describes Africa in the eyes of the old man's dreams. He appeals to the reader's senses (sight, sound, and smell in particular) and paints us those mental pictures with words that make his writing so unique.

". . . he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and long golden beaches and the white beaches so white the hurt your eyes. . . He lived along that coast now every night and in his dreams he heard the surf roar and saw the native boats. . . He smelled the tar and oakum of the deck . . . and he smelled the smell of Africa. . ."

He also uses personification when speaking about the ocean. It makes the ocean more like a character so the reader can get a more personal feel of their experience and their surroundings (setting).

"Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is very kind and beautiful . . ."

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andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Setting refers to the time, place and conditions, be they social, economic or political, in which an event, scene or story occurs. In this way the reader is informed of the context in which the action is to occur. The setting also plays a role in determining the mood in which events transpire. Without a setting, therefore, most of what is written becomes meaningless.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway does not always directly tell the reader what the setting is but, by the use of very descriptive phrases and imagery, he allows the reader to infer where the action takes place and paints a picture of the atmosphere in which his tale unfolds.

From the outset, the reader realizes that the events will unfold in a maritime setting. We are informed of:

  ...an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream.

Here we can determine that the novel will in some way relate to fishing and the reference to the Gulf Stream makes it clear that it is set in a coastal area next to the Atlantic Ocean, since the stream (current) stretches from Mexico to the tip of Florida and then flows along the eastern coast of the United States.

...after forty days without a fish...

This makes it obvious that the story is set in a fishing village since the suggestion is that fishing is the main activity. This is confirmed by the fact that "...the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week."

One can infer from the text that the old man was not having much success with his fishing and that the boy was his assistant. Furthermore, this implies that the boy's family was dependent (either wholly or partly) on him for their survival. This creates the image of a society who relied on nature's bounty for their existence. The atmosphere, in this context then, must be one filled with both desperation and joy, depending on the failures or successes of the characters' ventures.

The author also uses figurative language to create an image of what kind of weather conditions the characters have to endure. In the extract below, he uses personification to indicate the harsh effect exposure to the sun had on the old man's skin. By calling it "benevolent" he is intimating that the cancer is not harmful, but rather like a kind person.

The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.

The word "tropic" provides a further clue about the setting. This suggests a warm to hot climate since these are the weather conditions associated with such regions.

The author also uses simile (direct comparison using "like" or "as") to suggest a blue ocean because tropical beach oceans are generally deemed to be light blue:

...his eyes and they were the same color as the sea.

Instead of giving the readers direct descriptions of the actual conditions, Hemingway cleverly uses descriptions of his characters to allude to the environment (both physical and social) in which the novel is set. 

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morrol | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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The first literary element that Hemingway uses to create setting in "The Old Man and the Sea" is imagery. Imagery is used to create a visual picture or sound for the reader. In the quote, "He heard the trembling sounds as flying fish left the water," the reader can hear the tremble of the fish splashing out of the water. This reveals the nautical setting of the book. The author also uses point of view to convey the setting. "The old man can feel the morning coming..." is in third person present tense. The use of present tense seals the events in the "now" position. This keeps the reader involved with the characters as the action takes place. The story is not something that happens in the past: It is something that is always happening.

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malibrarian | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

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In describing Santiago's boat, Hemingway says,

"The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."  Beautiful but sad imagery to show Santiago's poverty.

Concerning the climate/location, we get a description of Santiago himself:

"The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks."

And rather than coming out and saying, "This story takes place in the Caribbean Sea," Hemingway mentions fish being taken to market in Havana (Cuba).

All of these examples were in the first three pages of the story.  Another close, careful read will give you even more examples to work with.  Good luck!

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