On page 119 of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago finally knows that he is beaten. Why is his reaction not one of despair?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an old fisherman named Santiago. After being unlucky for so many days, Santiago has finally caught a fish. He considers this fish to be his brother, but that does not keep the old man from killing it. Once he does, however, he loses it to the sharks who attack the boat. His three-day battle ends with nothing but a carcass; despite that, Santiago does not feel despair.

The sharks have eaten everything; there is nothing left of the great fish. Santiago will take nothing home with him, and he will not be able to sell it or revive his reputation with it. Nevertheless, he is content. 

He knew he was beaten now finally and without remedy and he went back to the stern and found the jagged end of the tiller would fit in the slot of the rudder well enough for him to steer. He settled the sack around his shoulders and put the skiff on her course. He sailed lightly now and he had no thoughts nor any feelings of any kind. He was past everything now and he sailed the skiff to make his home port as well and as intelligently as he could. In the night sharks hit the carcass as someone might pick up crumbs from the table. The old man paid no attention to them and did not pay any attention to anything except steering. He only noticed how lightly and bow well the skiff sailed now there was no great weight beside her.

This contentment, as opposed to despair, comes from knowing that he is still a fisherman, that he is not unlucky, and that he is still strong enough to bring in a grand fish. It is true that he was unable to save it from the sharks because he was alone in the boat and went too far out; however, his mind and body persevered and he was a victorious fisherman. He is proud (as opposed to prideful) of what he did, and he knows things will be now better for him. He is happy not to have done any permanent damage to his boat:

She’s good, he thought. She is sound and not harmed in any way except for the tiller. That is easily replaced.

Santiago is also content, rather than feeling despair, because he is heading back to where and what he knows:

He could feel he was inside the current now and he could see the lights of the beach colonies along the shore. He knew where he was now and it was nothing to get home.

Santiago is going home without his great fish, but he is returning with self-confidence, pride, and renewed belief in his ability to be a fisherman. He is exhausted, but he does not despair. 

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The Old Man and the Sea

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