What are some literary elements in The Old Man and the Sea?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In what is considered by many to be his crowning achievement, Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea depicts a man's struggle with Nature as well as within himself. In this novella, Hemingway uses several literary elements such as the following:

  • Personification

When Santiago sets out to catch a fish after eighty-four unsuccessful days, he is yet hopeful. Once upon the sea he reflects upon his name for it, la mer, a personification of the sea as a woman:

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.

  • Metaphor

Because he perceives the ocean as a woman, Santiago feels himself in conflict for survival with her as she withholds food from him. Thus, his struggle against the sea becomes a metaphor for life's struggle for survival as well as the conflicts between the sexes.

  • Symbolism

Because he carries the mast to his boat on his shoulder like a crucifix and lies on his cot with outstretched arms, and his hands bleed as he struggles with the line after having caught the marlin, Santiago is viewed as a Christ-like figure. The boy Manolin is viewed, then, as a disciple for he brings Santiago food and he wants to learn from the old man.  

On his second day at sea, Santiago sees the Portugese men-of-war and is reminded of his respect for the bravery of the turtles.  In addition, the old fisherman perceives himself as much like the turtles; they are symbolic to him of his inner self:

Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs.

  • Fable-like qualities

In a fable there are mythical creatures, forces of nature, and inanimate objects that are given human qualities.  Not only the sea, but the marlin become anthropomorphized so that the narrative can stress a moral.  Santiago's persistence against the forces of nature and his hope present the moral to never surrender to adversity.

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The Old Man and the Sea

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