The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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When Santiago says that the ocean is feminine, how does that characterize Santiago and the ocean?

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Jonathan Beutlich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Santiago describes the ocean as feminine.

But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

Exactly what that says about Santiago is very much up to reader interpretation. Santiago is a sailor and/or fisherman. He spends a great deal of time on the water, and many nautical things tend to be feminine. Sailors routinely refer to ships as feminine creatures. Earth itself also tends to be feminine when it is called "Mother Earth." In Spanish, the words for ocean and sea are masculine words; however, it is not unheard of to see "la mar," and that will make it feminine. In the same paragraph as the above quote, Hemingway has Santiago explain why the feminine is being used.

He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her.

Santiago is a man, so it makes sense to have him be in love with a woman. The ocean is his other half. It completes him. As a fisherman, he can't exist without the sea. They are each part of a pair, and that is a typical portrayal of a man and woman that together make a couple. I don't think his usage of the feminine makes him a misogynist in any way. He recognizes his difference from the sea in the same way that he recognizes his differences from a woman, but he knows that he is more complete being near her/it.

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caledon eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought."

There are a few insights we can make from this, although it helps to contextualize them with the rest of Santiago's behaviors, such as his careful and patient fishing techniques.

There are many interpretations of Hemingway's characterization of this relationship, but they might generally be categorized as follows:

  • Santiago believes the ocean, like women, is unpredictable and dangerous and incapable of controlling itself.
  • Santiago believes the ocean, like women, is governed by powers that he cannot understand or match.

Both of these interpretations can be considered evidence that Santiago recognizes and adapts to the differences between men and women, or that he's a misogynist and thinks women are capricious and dangerous and more like children than adults. I think the reader is free to interpret this aspect of the relationship as they choose.

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