Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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Explain the main theme of the novel using two plot actions as evidence.

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The Old Man and the Sea contains many themes. The first is the Honor in Struggle, Defeat & Death Santiago is characterized as someone struggling against defeat. But the old man refuses defeat at every turn: He lands the marlin after a brutal three-day fight, and he continues to ward off sharks from stealing his prey, even though he knows the battle is useless.  Because Santiago is pitted against the creatures of the sea, some readers choose to view the tale as a chronicle of man’s battle against the natural world, but the novella is, more accurately, the story of man’s place within nature. Both Santiago and the marlin display qualities of pride, honor, and bravery, and both are subject to the same eternal law: they must kill or be killed. Another major theme is Pride as the Source of Greatness & Determination.  Santiago exhibits terrific strength, bravery, and moral certainty; however, he also seems to possess a hero’s tragic flaw—in Santiago’s case this is pride.  Santiago is acutely aware of this flaw. After sharks have destroyed the marlin, the old man apologizes again and again to his worthy opponent. He has ruined them both, he concedes, by sailing beyond the usual boundaries of fishermen. Indeed, his last word on the subject comes when he asks himself the reason for his undoing and decides, “Nothing . . . I went out too far.”

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There are several important themes in The Old Man and The Sea, but probably the main one is an examination of the human condition. Hemingway is asking what it means to be human, and how our dreams and hopes are realized and/or destroyed.

Two plot actions that illustrate this are the two main tasks Santiago has; One is to land the fish. He uses all of his human intelligence and physical capabilities to catch the massive fish. This represents the struggle to achieve that most people feel. Second is the failed attempt to get the fish back to shore, as Santiago must again struggle to maintain what he has achieved and ultimately is unable to despite all his work. These two plot points provide an insight into the human condition. In the end, Santiago is still dreaming, even after having struggled and suffered to achieve his dream.

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