How is Santiago a hero in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, the protagonist, fulfills the definition of the Hemingway code hero since he possesses honor, courage, and endurance in an existence of misfortune, stress, pain, defeat, and even death.

Critics agree that Santiago is the most developed of Hemingway's heroes since he is heroic from the beginning of the narrative. Despite his failure to catch even a single fish in eighty-four days, the old man is an honorable fisherman who still goes out each day. He does not complain; instead, he reminds himself of his hero, Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees, who suffered from excruciatingly painful bone spurs as he played baseball. 

Santiago also endures:

His hope and confidence had never gone. But now they were freshening as when the breeze rises....He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride. 

While he is out on the ocean's water in his modest boat, Santiago thinks of the sea as la mar, using the feminine form as the Spanish who love the sea call it. He also respects the turtles and the hawkbills, who display "their elegance and speed."

As he ventures far out to sea in his boat on the eighty-fifth day, Santiago remains hopeful of catching a big fish. He still has faith in his expertise as a fisherman as he baits his hooks and makes certain that no part will not smell of sardines and be "sweet and good tasting" to a large fish. Moreover, Santiago has tremendous courage as he fights to bring in the huge fish he finally hooks. He struggles for hours, holding the line just with his old hands, one of which is bleeding from the quick pull on the line as the great fish tried to escape. During the long effort of pulling in the fish, Santiago talks to himself to bolster his spirit as he endures pain:

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

Santiago perseveres. After hours of heroic effort, Santiago tells the fish, "I'll stay with you until I am dead." Finally, he hauls the fish in and ties it to his boat. Then, he finds that he has a new challenge as other sharks come and feed on the fish after it is bitten into by a Mako shark. Unfortunately, by the time Santiago nears land, the sharks have consumed all the meat on the large fish. "He knew he was beaten now finally."

Nevertheless, the old fisherman has the skeleton as proof that he did not go another day without a catch. Thus, his actions have been honorable, and he again proves his manhood:

And what beat you, he thought. 
"Nothing," he said aloud. "I went out too far."

Santiago has bravely gone to sea for days, and he has bravely faced death. In the end, as Santiago dreams of the lions, it is evident that he is not defeated in mind, even though he knows he has greatly injured his old body, having tasted copper in his throat as he spat during his long struggles.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist of The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, is an old fisherman named Santiago. At first there does not seem to be much about him which one might consider heroic; throughout the course of the novel, however, Santiago demonstrates many heroic qualities.

First, he is a man who takes pride in what he does. He is not a boastful man, full of excessive pride; in fact, he is quit humble. For Example, when Manolin says Santiago is the best fisherman, the old man humbly disagrees with the boy. Santiago does demonstrate pride in his fishing. He refers to the sea and the fish in loving terms *using the feminine name for the sea), unlike the other, younger fishermen who see the sea and the fish as nothing but profit. When he is unable to bring the marlin home intact, he is not depressed; on the contrary, he is content with the personal pride of accomplishment, knowing he is still good enough and strong enough to catch a great fish.

Most importantly, though, it is Santiago's perseverance which makes him a hero. He is old, he no longer has the boy (or any other apprentice) to help him fish, and he has gone out fishing for the last eighty-four days without catching a fish. He goes on the eighty-fifth day and spends three days bringing in a giant marlin despite every adversity. “I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.” He is resolved and he accomplishes his task; we somehow know that even if he had gone another eighty-four days without catching a fish, Santiago would still have gotten in his boat every day and tried.

While Santiago is a poor old man in the eyes of the world, he is a heroic figure because of the pride he takes in his profession and his perseverance. 

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The Old Man and the Sea

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