What is the role of the sea and all its inhabitants in The Old Man and the Sea?Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, the sea acts both as antagonist and ally in Ernest Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea, as it is a force against which Santiago must reckon, but at the same time it provides for him and gives him solace.  His knowledge of the sea insomuch as how to navigate, where to catch fish, and how to survive upon its waves and how to maintain his hold upon a fish plays a keen role in Santiago's venture to catch a big fish after eighty-four days.  Still, unlike the other fishermen who use buoys and motors in order to conquer the sea and call the water the masculine el mar, Santiago perceives the ocean as la mar with the Spanish denotation of the noun as being feminine.  While he may speak badly of the sea, it is always as a woman that he speaks of her because he loves her.

They [the other fishermen] spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy.  But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, 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. 

Essentially, for all the villagers who live off the sea, it is part of their lives, and in this sense, the sea is a measure of their lives.  For, when they are successful on the sea, the villagers prosper and have respect; on the other hand, when they fail at sea, they suffer domestically and lose the respect of the other villagers.  Perhaps, Santiago considers the sea as a woman because men are often measured by their relationships with their wives.  If he no longer has her love, he loses; if he no longer loves her, his life lacks imagination and dreams.  He is truly alone.

Santiago is defeated at sea, but his love for la mer will take him out to sea again, for he yet retains the ability to love and to dream:

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again.  He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him.  The old man was dreaming about the lions.

Defeated by the sharks, disrespected by the fishermen, Santiago, like the sea, will return to the shore and venture forth again because he yet loves la mer and he yet has the imagination to dream.

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The Old Man and the Sea

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