Is Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea a hero?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Indubitably, Santiago is the quintessential Hemingway code hero. The author himself has defined this hero:

a man who lives correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a world that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful, and always painful.

The distinction of Santiago from other Hemingway code heroes is that he has already attained his status of hero from the beginning of the narrative. So, rather than becoming a hero, Santiago becomes the paradigm by which others can be measured. 

  • Grace under pressure

Santiago exhibits "grace under pressure" from the beginning, exhibiting honor, courage and endurance. He is an honorable fisherman, although he has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. He does not complain; instead, he talks to the boy about his hero, Joe DiMaggio, who endures terrible pain as he plays baseball with heel spurs. He still has "faith" and does not complain about his poverty. When the boy offers to get him four fresh fish, Santiago asks only for one.

His hope and conficenccce 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.

Of course, while he is in his boat for days catching the great fish and struggling against his exhaustion, age, the elements and the sharks, Santiago always thinks about what he is doing, and he exhibits tremendous courage and endurance as he argues against his pain. For instance, when his body begins to feel the strain of trying to capture the marlin, he thinks,

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.

He honorably respects the fish; he knows he has gone out too far, past the boundaries that fish have set for man: "The fish is my friend, too." In awe of the dignity of the fish, Santiago remembers how a female fish that he once caught had a mate that followed it for a long time, finally jumping into the air where it could see the dead female in the boat. Then, it went deep into the water and was gone.

  • An individual who is free-willed¬†

Santiago lives his llfe as a fisherman; even though he has failed on eighty-four days, he does not talk of his failure, he does not quit. He constantly repeats his process of going out in his boat each new day as he attempts to prove himself until the untimate defeat.

On the day that he does catch a fish, Santiago faces the challenges before him freely and bravely by himself because he knows that in order to regain his pride, 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. This is why he dreams that night of the lions.

  • The true measure is how death is faced

Although Santiago loses the battle, he certainly has proven himself as a fisherman and a man of courage and strength to have gone out so far and caught such a big fish with only his hands. Bravely, he has done all this, 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 as something in his chest "was broken."

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literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Defining a character as a hero depends upon an individual reader's definition of what a hero is. One could apply Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero to Santiago (of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea). Another may define Santiago as a hero based upon how the community reacts to the skeleton of the marlin. Still others may not define Santiago as a hero at all.

If applying Aristotle's definition of a tragic hero, one may define Santiago as a hero based upon his hamartia (tragic flaw) of hubris (extreme pride). His pride forces him to travel farther than any of the other fishermen in his village. Although Santiago succeeds at landing a prize-worthy marlin (one which measures 18 feet), he fails at bringing the marlin back to the docks. Instead, he returns with a skeleton and badly damaged hands (the necessity of a fisherman). His pride has forced him to this point.

A hero tends to be based upon the characteristics a society desires. This idea is seen in the Anglo-Saxon's epic hero. If one were to apply this concept to Santiago, it could be supported that he is a hero. Santiago is praised for his catch, and other fisherman gather around this enormous "fish." The fishing society would exalt Santiago as a hero.

Other readers may not believe that Santiago is a hero at all. A "true" hero would have fought off the sharks and brought the marlin in to the pier. By failing to bring in the giant marlin, Santiago has failed.

Essentially, defining him as a hero is left to the individual reader. Each reader will examine the text and find support regarding Santiago's heroic status (or lack of). It simply depends upon how one interprets Santiago and his marlin.

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