The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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How does Santiago show perseverance in The Old Man and the Sea?

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Karlie Krajcik eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Perseverance, defined by Merriam-Webster as "continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition," is one of the defining traits of Santiago, the main character of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. We see this from the very beginning of the book when we are informed that Santiago has gone 84 days now without catching a fish—but he is determined to go out and try again anyway, even without the help of his apprentice.

In its essence, this is a "man versus nature" story; Santiago is isolated on his boat, fighting against the willful, powerful marlin fish he has caught and the tempestuous ocean for almost the entirety of the short novel. The marlin may be hooked on the end of Santiago's line, but it is stronger than the man's small skiff, and instead of being pulled back to shore, the marlin pulls the boat farther out into the water. Santiago can do nothing but hold on, which he does for two whole days, until his hands are injured. In the face of his hurt palms, all Santiago has to say is, “And pain does not matter to a man.” The strength of Santiago's desire to achieve his goal and break his streak of bad luck makes even pain irrelevant to him. He carries on regardless, determined in his task—the very definition of perseverance.

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Santiago experiences many internal and external conflicts during his struggle with the marlin. The obvious external struggle is the struggle for life and death as he fights to catch the marlin. One of his internal struggles is his struggle between perseverance and giving up. During his battle with the marlin, Santiago uses different self-motivation techniques to bolster his resolve. He thinks of his friend Manolin and wishes for his company, which seems to give him strength. He considers whether his hero, Joe DiMaggio, would stay with the fish and persevere.

Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one? he thought. I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much? 

Santiago shows perseverance fighting the tremendous odds against him—a fish larger than he has ever caught that he is facing alone, with cuts on his hands and face and his own pain and tiredness. He exercises discipline and fortitude during his struggle with the marlin to keep going and catch the fish even though it takes days, and eventually returns home safely.

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