Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway
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What does the marlin symbolize in The Old Man and the Sea?

The marlin in The Old Man and the Sea symbolizes grace, courage, nobility, perseverance, and devotion. In many ways, the fish symbolizes Santiago, who calls him "my brother." The marlin is also a symbol of the Santiago's last act of greatness.

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The marlin symbolizes both a dream come true and a massive hurdle that must be overcome.

Having not caught any fish in 84 days, Santiago was desperate for his luck to change. With fishing being his livelihood, 84 days without a catch had been extremely dire for Santiago—so dire that...

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The marlin symbolizes both a dream come true and a massive hurdle that must be overcome.

Having not caught any fish in 84 days, Santiago was desperate for his luck to change. With fishing being his livelihood, 84 days without a catch had been extremely dire for Santiago—so dire that he had had to part ways with his faithful protege, Manolin. As a result, the unexpected catch of this behemoth-sized marlin could have made all the difference, both to Marlin's bottom line and to his reputation as a fisherman.

The struggle which lay ahead, however, soon became apparent. Santiago had already endured a long day's fishing by the time the marlin came along, and he was already tired. Add to this exhaustion the struggle of holding the rope attached to the marlin, and you can imagine how intense the struggle became. Over and above this, he soon had to face the realization that, rather than getting to take his whole marlin back to shore, he was essentially providing a "meals on wheels" service for passing sharks. He proves tenacious, however, and drags what is left of the carcass all the way back to shore, symbolizing his determination in the face of hardship and adversity.

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The marlin in The Old Man and the Sea is a worthy adversary for the old man. Like Santiago, he symbolizes grace, courage, devotion, nobility, and perseverance. Santiago says of the giant marlin that he battles:

Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

In many ways, the marlin is a symbol of the old man himself. Both are calm, noble, courageous, and persevering, as well as devoted.

The devotion of the marlin is shown in a story the old man recalls of clubbing a female marlin to death while her mate was nearby. The male marlin stayed near her even after her death, earning the respect of the old man and the boy, who was with him on that fishing venture.

The marlin is also a symbol of Santiago's one last act of greatness. Santiago has to use all his strength and wit to catch this fish. When he gets into position, Santiago:

lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down...and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.

Like Santiago, the marlin will not give up the fight easily. He rears into the air, showing all his length and width and beauty. Santiago, emphasizing their symbolic relationship, calls him "my brother."

The marlin is also like Santiago in being at the mercy of the sharks of the world, who will stop at nothing to pick the creature clean. Santiago and the marlin are the noble creatures of the earth who maintain their grace and integrity in the face of evil.

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In the book The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago finds himself reeling in a female Marlin, one of the most prized fish to catch in the ocean. Santiago sees this fish as a portrayal of tenacity, perseverance, and commitment because of his experience with it.
The Marlin’s mate stays with the fish during the struggle, giving encouragement and helping it to resist the fisherman, which is a display of the fish’s commitment and devotion until the end. Additionally, the fish put up so brave a fight that it is impossible to forget the perseverance and resolve it showed in trying to resist capture. This tenacity and perseverance endear the fish to Santiago and remind him of himself and the strength he has had to show to endure the hard life of a fisherman.

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In The Old Man And The Sea, the marlin symbolizes pride, honor, courage, resourcefulness and endurance.

In the story, Santiago relates a time when he caught a female marlin. He states that the male marlin always lets the female feed first. Unfortunately, at this particular point in time, the female marlin gets hooked by Santiago in its process of feeding. The old man relates that the male marlin never left his mate's side even after she is caught. At last, when the female marlin is hoisted onto the boat, the male marlin makes one last jump to see her before he dives down into the ocean. The marlin's honor and loyalty to his mate impresses Santiago.

As Santiago battles the giant marlin, he comes to admire the marlin's resourcefulness, endurance, and courage. The marlin fights relentlessly and persistently, circling round and round, battling Santiago for every inch of line. Despite its wound, it refuses to surrender in defeat while it is still breathing. When Santiago finally manages to plunge the harpoon into the marlin's flesh, the giant fish jumps into the air in a brilliant death flight. Its courage and tenacity wins Santiago's admiration.

Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or a more noble thing than you...Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

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The marlin can have several symbolic meanings depending on how the story is read. At the simplest level, the marlin is an enormous fish that Santiago catches through determination. Going deeper, the marlin represents an ultimate, a perfect goal that comes once-in-a-lifetime, and so for Santiago catching it represents the culmination of his entire life.

I want to see him, he thought, and to touch and to feel him. He is my fortune, he thought.
(Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Google Books)

Another interpretation of the marlin is that it is Santiago's reclamation of his reputation; he has had hard luck recently and some of the other fisherman make fun of him, but he remains confident that his skills have remained strong and his luck will change. Another interpretation is that the marlin is the final obstacle in a man's life. It proves almost too strong for Santiago, but he defeats it with willpower; had he been weaker, the marlin would have killed him with its strength.

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Most perceptive readers will feel that Hemingway is telling his own story through the humble fisherman inThe Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway was getting old and hadn't written a successful novel in a long time. The marlin can be said to represent the inspiration he badly needed for a new novel. Hemingway was quite a fisherman himself and could emphasize with the poor fishermen like Santiago who had to catch fish in order to survive. The sharks that devoured most of the big fish could be said to represent all the critics and imitators and competitors Hemingway had had to deal with in his lifetime. Hemingway admired courage, and he displayed courage as a writer even as he was getting old and losing the imaginative powers he had possessed in abundance earlier in his career. Hemingway went out on his motor launch nearly every afternoon while he lived in Cuba. It would have been natural to think about a fishing story while he was fishing for marlins himself.The Old Man and the Seawas a spectacular success.

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