A Man Can Be Destroyed But Not Defeated

"Man can be destroyed but not defeated."  How is this exemplified in The Old Man and the Sea?

That "man can be destroyed but not defeated" is exemplified in The Old Man and the Sea through Santiago's valiant battle to keep the sharks from his giant marlin. He loses the struggle but is not defeated, because he fought with all his strength and courage.

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This statement by Santiago means that a man is defined by how faces what life throws at him, not by what happens to him. What is most important in life is living to the fullest extent of one's courage, capability, and integrity, no matter what the outcome is. If one does one's best, even personal destruction is victory, not defeat.

This is exemplified in Santiago's valiant fight with marlin and the mako sharks that threaten to eat it. Though an old man all alone facing the fight of his life with the giant marlin, Santiago never flinches from the task but gives it his all. His hands are raw and in pain, and after a long, long battle, he is spent and exhausted, but he never gives in until he finally defeats the worthy opponent. Later, when the sharks smell the blood and descend on the marlin, Santiago fights them with all his might and skill and feels a sense of pride when he kills one and chases others off.

The sharks win in the sense that they are able to eat all the flesh of the marlin, leaving Santiago, who has not caught a fish in months, with nothing to sell. Nevertheless, Santiago has not been truly defeated, because he put his full spirit into the battle with his adversaries.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea is the quintessential Code Hero because he begins the narrative with all the elements of such a hero, although he is old and poor. He is not defeated, because he never gives up on bringing in a fish, and Santiago does not lose his pride.

Despite his failures, he sets out in his boat after having caught no fish for eighty-four days. Nevertheless, Santiago is confident that he will catch a fish that he can sell. 

[H]is 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.

In his desire and courage, Santiago ventures out into the very deep water, where he hooks a marlin. Although he has nothing but his hands to hold the line, Santiago is strong, and he battles the marlin for days. Despite losing his harpoon, Santiago fights against the fish with his knife and his old hands. When the Mako shark comes and eats the flesh of the marlin that is tied to the side of the boat, Santiago continues to fight for the marlin, talking to himself. Nevertheless, the shark takes much flesh from the marlin.

"He [the shark] took about forty pounds and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others [sharks]."

 "But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
. . . But I must think, he thought. Because it is all I have left. That and baseball. I wonder how the great DiMaggio would have like the way I hit him in the brain? It was no great thing, he thought.

Later on, he thinks, "I killed him in self-defense. . . . And I killed him well." But Santiago also tells himself that he has not killed the fish just to eat; he has killed it "for pride and because you are a fisherman." So, Santiago is not defeated, because he still has his pride in being a good fisherman. When he returns home in an exhausted state, he lies down on his bed and dreams of the lions, who also have pride.

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The idea that man can be destroyed but not defeated from The Old Man and the Sea could be explained or paraphrased as:

  • A man can be killed, but as long as he doesn't quit he can't really be defeated.

Santiago goes fishing day after day even though he is on a "losing streak," as we might say today.  He hasn't caught a fish for a very long time.  He survives only because the boy brings him bits of food.  But he doesn't quit.  He continues to fish everyday and continues to try.  His "spirit" is not broken.

More specifically, Santiago hooks the marlin and does terrible battle with it.  He is an old man but he uses his strength and wits to defeat the fish, at the cost of great physical suffering.  Again, he doesn't quit.  Even after he defeats the marlin and then must fight the sharks, he continues the battle.  His spirit remains strong.  He doesn't get the fish home in the kind of shape he needed to earn money for it--he fails, technically.  But a man who keeps fighting is not a failure. 

This is Hemingway's modern view on the warrior.  Hemingway is too modern and worldly and intelligent to pull the old cliche of the warrior giving it all he can and being unrealistically victorious.  The "good" or "right" or "just" doesn't always win.  The knight in shining armor doesn't always carry the day.  But Santiago can fight, nevertheless.  This makes him noble, like the marlin.  And it makes him undefeated. 

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