Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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What is the conclusion of the story The Old Man and the Sea?

The irony at the end of The Old Man and the Sea is that, though Santiago has finally caught a fish, it has been stripped bare by sharks. In that sense, the old fisherman has been both lucky and unlucky at the same time.

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In a novella like The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, the conclusion, also known as the resolution, is the final part of the story, where the writer resolves conflicts and ties up loose ends. The conclusion to this story begins as Santiago, the old man, sails back into his home harbor after his fishing expedition. To understand it, though, we need a quick summary of what has already occurred.

Santiago used to have a partner, a boy who would go fishing with him, but after many days of catching nothing, the boy's parents forbade him from accompanying the old man. As a result, Santiago sails his boat out all alone. He hooks an enormous marlin, and after a long, difficult struggle, he brings it in. However, it is too large to fit in the boat, so Santiago lashes it to the side.

Sharks attack the marlin carcass, and Santiago fights them as long as he can, but he loses his weapons and eventually can do nothing as sharks consume the marlin, leaving nothing but the skeleton, head, and tail. As he enters the harbor, he has been gone three days, and during that time, he has eaten and slept very little.

In the story's conclusion, Santiago wonders what beat him, but he decides that nothing defeated him—he just went out too far. He sails into the harbor late at night when everyone else in the village is asleep. He pulls the boat up as far as he can and then ties it to a rock. Putting the mast on his shoulder, he looks back at the huge skeleton of the marlin, which is a symbol of both his defeat and his triumph. He lost the meat to the sharks, but he fished and fought well and managed to make it back home alive.

Carrying the mast, he is so exhausted that he has to rest five times before he makes it home. This indicates that he gave everything he had in his struggle on the sea and held nothing back. He staggers to his shack and falls asleep.

When the boy, his former partner, finds him in the morning, he is still asleep. The boy weeps as he sees the wounds from the fishing line on the old man's hands. In the town, astonished men are measuring the length of Santiago's marlin. The boy gets coffee for Santiago and then sits with him until he awakens. He assures Santiago that he will start going out with the old man again, because he has a lot to learn from him.

We see, then, that in the conclusion to The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago's fish has been devoured; but after his terrific battle, he returns home safely. He is exhausted, but he has nothing to be ashamed of, because he has fought bravely and well. He loses his fish but regains his partner, the boy, who loves him very much.

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The Old Man and the Sea ends with Santiago asleep, dreaming of lions on the beaches of Africa, having just renewed his partnership with Manolin (which gives him the opportunity for a fresh start and a more successful and less lonely career). This is his usual dream, which does not vary in prosperity or adversity and takes place on dry land (albeit right on the edge of the land).

This is the conclusion in the sense of an ending, but it also reflects the most famous moral conclusion that Hemingway draws from Santiago's epic struggle at sea, that a man can be destroyed but not defeated. Santiago is not destroyed but he may appear defeated as he stumbles exhausted back to his home just before daybreak. However, he lives to fight another day, with the renewed strength of his partnership with Manolin, and ends the story at peace, dreaming his usual dream.

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What is the irony at the end of The Old Man and the Sea?

Truth be told, Santiago's seen better days as a fisherman. While younger competitors regularly bring their impressive catches into harbor, he's stuck in the middle of a long losing streak that's lasted for several months.

To be precise, it's been eighty-four long days since Santiago caught a fish, so can only imagine just how excited when he spots a nice big marlin swimming alongside his skiff. Turning back the years, Santiago uses every remaining ounce of skill and strength that he possesses to catch this enormous fish and tie it to the side of his boat.

Unfortunately, by the time the old fisherman has returned to harbor, his prize catch has been stripped to the bone by sharks. This is ironic, to say the least. Santiago may have broken his streak of bad luck, but thanks to the sharks he's ended up with nothing to show for his heroic exertions out there in the ocean.

In that sense, Santiago has been both lucky and unlucky at the same time. He's lucky in that, even at his age, he's been able to land a very big fish. But he's also very unlucky in that his prize catch has been eaten by sharks, leaving him with nothing.

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What is the irony at the end of The Old Man and the Sea?

It’s easy to consider the old man’s return home as a kind of triumph—even though he lost his catch, the old man still retains his dignity and is seen by others as a kind of hero. Actually, the end of the book is a bit more ambiguous. While it is true the other fishermen are amazed at the size of the skeleton lashed to Santiago’s boat, it is also true Santiago has no interest in the remains of the fish—he gives away the head for fish bait, and gives the boy the fish’s bill. Ultimately, the only evidence of Santiago’s ordeal becomes trash floating in the harbor, waiting to go out with the tide. When tourists see the skeleton and ask what it is, it is telling that the answer is misunderstood:

“What’s that?” she asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide. “Tiburon,” the waiter said. “Shark.” He was meaning to explain what had happened. “I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.” “I didn’t either,” her male companion said.

It’s only natural, I suppose, that the waiter cannot make himself understood: who could really understand or express the ordeal that brought that skeleton there? No one else, the boy included, can ever fully know what Santiago endured. But the final irony has to do with our desire as readers to assign a significance to Santiago’s struggle that Santiago himself does not see. When he sleeps at the end of the story, he does not dream of the fish or of his glorious battle, but of the lions he saw as a boy on a beach in Africa. Far from being the great hero, Santiago will, no doubt, wake up the next day and go fishing.

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What is the irony at the end of The Old Man and the Sea?

An additional irony (additional to the one pointed out by mwestwood above) comes in the observations made by a tourist couple in the closing passage of the novel. 

Sitting at the Terrace, the tourist spot the bones of the great fish that the old man, Santiago, caught and brought back (dead and decimated) to shore. They ask what it is and, failing to listen to the answer the waiter was prepared to give, conclude that the great dead fish is a shark. 

"I didn't know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails." 

This line presents a number of ironies. First and most superficially, the tail is the most identifiable detail of the fish that Santiago has caught. The fish is a marlin, best known by its tail. Secondly, the marlin caught by Santiago was eaten by sharks and so is made unrecognizable by the very type of fish that the tourists mistakenly believe the marlin to be. 

The more substantial irony of this moment comes in the idea that Santiago's accomplishment of catching such a gorgeous and grand fish is not clearly acknowledged by these people who do, nonetheless, manage to see that the fist is in some ways impressive. 

Like Santiago himself, the fish is no longer identified or known for its greatest attributes though these attributes are still present. Santiago's strength of will prevails in his struggle with the great fish. For the fish, even the skeleton of the tail is enough to impress the tourists. 

A connection between Santiago and his great catch is thus ironically solidified by people who never even see Santiago. His prowess as a fisherman is proven by the observation made by the tourists as they see only an echo of the skills and strengths and significance of Santiago's epic fishing day. 

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What is the irony at the end of The Old Man and the Sea?

Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea is the consummate Hemingway code hero as he achieves true existential meaning in response to his spiritual failure. When he returns with nothing but the skeleton of the marlin that he has caught, Santiago yet has evidence of his skill as a fisherman. Therefore, although he has brought in nothing but the bones of the fish, Santiago has won back his respect from the other fishermen.

"He was eighteen feet from nose to tail" the fisherman who was measuring him called....

"What a fish it was," the proprietor said. "There has never been such a fish...."

So although the fish is destroyed, by its death it has retrieved dignity and spiritual fulfillment for Santiago. Exhausted and defeated, then, Santiago ironically is victorious. He is a man "defeated, but not destroyed" and when he sleeps, he dreams as he has done as a child--he dreams of the lions.  

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What happens at the end of The Old Man and the Sea?

At the end of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man And the Sea, the titular old man, Santiago, accepts that his enormous fish has been lost after a battle with sharks that he could not win. He manages to get his skiff back to the harbor unaided and is able to secure it. However, he is struggling because his hand is hurt, he falls once, and he has to sit down several times as he makes his way to his shack. The skeleton of the massive fish he had caught is still attached to his boat, where the other fishermen find it in the morning and marvel at it.

The boy who was formerly Santiago's apprentice goes to find him; he warns the others not to wake him from his sleep and instead returns to take Santiago hot coffee. Santiago then tells the boy that he has lost his luck. However, the boy insists that he will now bring luck to both of them. He will help the old man get better, and then Santiago must teach him all he knows.

At the very end of the story, Santiago is sleeping and the boy is watching over him. It is implied that he may not live very much longer.

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