Is The Old Man and the Sea a tragic story? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is not a tragedy in the classic sense as defined by Aristotle in which a man of noble stature undergoes  a change, or reversal, in fortune and falls from a state of happiness to one of misery; moreover, the  hero's misfortune is a direct result of his own act that is criminal in nature. In addition, this act is called hamartia, an act committed in ignorance of some fact or even for the sake of some greater good.

Nevertheless, if the reader employs the broad definition of tragedy as defined thusly,

A play, film, television program, or other narrative work that portrays or depicts calamitous events and has an unhappy but meaningful ending,

Hemingway's narrative can, then, be considered tragic in a modern sense:

  • The old, poor fisherman Santiago, who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish sets out in his boat to catch a big fish; when he does so, however, he must endure a strenuous struggle to bring it in to his boat; then, he must  return it safely to shore with him. It is this struggle that comprises the majority of the narrative; in this struggle, Santiago exhibits all the traits of the Hemingway Code Hero, such as "grace under pressure":

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.

(Still, the "code hero" Santiago is not a tragic hero in the true sense, and the novella is not a classic tragedy.)

  • Santiago exhibits great courage in the face of adversity. In order to regain his pride and the respect of others, Santiago knows that he must act alone. So, he fights the great fish in what may be a losing battle. And, despite losing all its meat to the sharks, Santiago returns with proof of his catch and attains fulfillment as he underscores again his manhood, having proven his courage and strength to have caught such a great fish. In this sense, Santiago demonstrates the noble nature characteristic of a hero.
  • Although the ending in sorrowful, it is meaningful. Bravely, Santiago has acted, and bravely he has faced death. In the end, as Santiago dreams of the lions, it is evident that he is not defeated in mind, even though he has greatly injured his old body since something in his chest "was broken." Santiago's dream of the lions as he sleeps is symbolic of his renewal of his manhood and his courage to go out another day. Thus, the ending of the novella becomes meaningful as Santiago, like his hero Joe DiMaggio, endures and survives, and he derives meaning from the end of his struggle with the sea which has defeated him. 
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The Old Man and the Sea

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