The Old Man and the Sea Questions and Answers
by Ernest Hemingway

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What does Santiago dream about in The Old Man and the Sea?

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Octavia Cordell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Santiago dreams about his boyhood, and the time he served on a ship that sailed the coast of Africa. Specifically, he dreams

of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains. He lived along that coast now every night and in his dreams he heard the surf roar and saw the native boats come riding through it. He smelled the tar and oakum of the deck as he slept and he smelled the smell of Africa that the land breeze brought at morning.

The dream world of the ship is a kind of haven for Santiago. It is a dream of a real place, a real time in his life, but somehow altered, made more perfect, more clear.

Usually when he smelled the land breeze he woke up and dressed to go and wake the boy. But tonight the smell of the land breeze came very early and he knew it was too early in his dream and went on dreaming to see the white peaks of the Islands rising from the sea and then he dreamed of the different harbours and roadsteads of the Canary Islands.

It’s interesting that Santiago “usually” was awakened from his dream by the smell of the land breeze, but on this morning, the morning of his big adventure, he senses it is too early to wake when he smells the breeze and continues to dream, this time, of the Canary Islands, and particularly in detail about the “harbors and roadsteads” of the islands.

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy.

In a sense, the lions stand for or remind him of himself as a boy, young and strong. But the lions also remind him of his own boy, who helps him fish and talks baseball with him. There is a carefree quality to the lions, which he strives to retain even as an old man. Santiago’s fight with the fish is not particularly fraught with symbolic meaning; instead, he defeats the fish because he is strong and experienced (as he says, he knows a lot of “tricks”). Like the lions playing on the beach, Santiago has a certain carefree quality that comes from concentrating only on the problem at hand – maybe that’s the best way to understand his “code,” if there is one. So it comes as no surprise that at the end of the story, after his tremendous battle, he goes to bed and dreams again of the lions.

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Bruce Bergman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Santiago dreams of lions and of a coastal region of the Canary Islands of Africa. 

The day before the central action of the novel takes place, Santiago says good bye to the boy and goes to sleep. His dreams are described in some detail in this section then referred to again at the close of the novel. 

"He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains."

This episode of dreaming goes on longer than his usual dreams and takes place in greater detail as Santiago recalls the specific "harbours and roadsteads of the Canary Islands." 

Why is this section significant? Santiago's change in his pattern of dreaming includes a mention that he "no longer dreamed of storm, nor of women" and the extended duration and detail of his dreams serve to suggest that Santiago is subtly prepared for return to paradise (or heaven), a place that is definitively peaceful.

After waking up on this day, Santiago undertakes an epic and very special day of fishing. An interpretation that this is his last day of fishing is made available in part by the repeated mention of the lions of Santiago's dreams. His own strength and tenacity, symbolized by the lions, are still a part of his character but are now only shadows of what they once were -- memories of a viral and beautiful life.  

"Santiago is still able to plan his next fishing expedition and to dream again of the lions who perhaps represent to him the strength and the freedom of youth" (eNotes). 

The difference of his dreams from his norm in the early passage of the novel also indicates that the day to come will be a special day, somehow, perhaps, connected to the glory and spirit of the past. Santiago's day of fishing is certainly special. He catches a great, great fish. But he also achieves something on a deeper level, which is highly personal (like the dream) and difficult to share with others. 

Further Reading:

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Edith Sykes eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Santiago dreams about many different things in the book.  On page 5, "he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, now he lived along that coast every night in his dreams." (pg. 5)

On page 22 of the book, Santiago talks about dreaming of porpoises, lions and of being home in the village all this is going on while he has the marlin on the line and it is dragging the boat.

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bri2011 | Student

He dreams of the lions on the beach in Africa, as he lived there when he was a young boy.