How does Hemingway develop the theme of luck vs. skill in the novella?The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As an existential struggle, Santiago's story incorporates the concept of chance working against the experienced fisherman. Having lost his fisherman's luck, Santiago has gone eighty-four days without having caught fish.  Nevertheless, he feels that his eighty-fifth day will be lucky although he does not take the boy out with him because the boy is not his and because Manolin's parents have "a lucky boat."

But, while Santiago speaks of luck, it is skill upon which he relies,perceiving it as of greater importance.  Even Manolin recognizes the paramount importance of skill as he tells Santiago,and Santiago concurs.  When Manolin says

"There are many good fisherman and some great ones.  But there is only you."

Santiago responds,

"I may not be as strong as I think,...But I know many tricks and I have resolution."

Thus, Santiago emphasizes his fishing skills as of the most importance. And, it is his belief in his skills that helps Santiago catch his bait fish.  However, he calls upon luck as he calls upon the fish to eat his bait:  "Eat them, fish.  Eat them."  But,Santiago is careful because "he knew that if you said a good thing, it might not happen."

Still, Santiago is stalwart in his faith in his skill and he perseveres when he catches the marlin that he has sighted.  He gauges his every move and conserves his strength as much as possible, knowing that he is far out to sea. Even when a Mako shark bites into his fish, Santiago does not relinquish his faith in his skills as a fisherman, making every effort to return with at least part of the great fish. 

Later, as Santiago "knew that he was beaten ...finally and without remedy," he returns the skiff, and he blames his misfortune on lack of a fisherman's good sense: 

And what beat you, he thought.

Nothing, he said out loud. "I went out too far."

While Santiago has hoped many times for luck, in the end, he is convinced that being a successful fisherman depends more upon one's skill than chance.  Yet, he tells the boy not to go out with him because he has "no luck" and he retreats to the dream of his youth, the dream of the lions in Africa, his dream of hope because luck is a good thing to have even if one has skill. 

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The Old Man and the Sea

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