What is a summary of The Old Man and the Sea?

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e-martin | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The plot of the narrative in The Old Man and the Sea can be summarized very briefly; however, taking note of the details of the plot will be helpful in understanding the meaning(s) of the text. 

The story begins explaining that the old man, Santiago, has not caught a fish in 84 days and that the boy no longer is allowed to fish with him. Santiago prepares to go out to sea for a normal day of fishing, hoping that he will break his streak of bad luck. 

Santiago does hook a fish -- a great, big fish -- and struggles to reel it in. He does not succeed in bringing the fish into the boat but also does not give up. He fights against the fish for hours and hours. His hands are cut by the rope. His energy wanes, but his spirit remains strong. 

During the ordeal, Santiago thinks of many things. He thinks about his past and about his victories as an arm wrestling champion. He thinks about his place in the world and his relationship to the fish. He thinks about suffering, both in regards to the fish and in regards to himself. 

As the hours stretch on, Santiago talks to himself as a way to express his fishing expertise and as a way to maintain motivation as he tires.

"'You did not do so badly for something worthless,' he said to his left hand. 'But there was a moment when I could not find you.'"

When Santiago finally wins the battle with the great fish, he is still unable to get the fish into his boat and so has to lash the fish to the side of his skiff. In doing this, the fish is attacked by sharks. Santiago fights against the sharks, trying to keep them from destroying his great catch. By the time he reaches land, the great fish has been reduced nearly to a skeleton.

In his contemplation of what has taken place, Santiago realizes that he has broken his streak of bad luck and has proven to himself that he remains a great fisherman. 

"You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after."

Again, there is idea of existential place at work here (or one of natural order) that helps to connect the narrative to a theme of philosophically derived identity. Santiago's conflict in the tale is, on one level, all about catching a single fish and bringing it in. On another level, Santiago's conflict relates to the question of who he is in the world.

The book implicitly poses questions about what determines Santiago's identity and how this identity also determines his moral code. (There is a cyclical element to this way of approaching identity.)

  • Does his past as a champion arm wrestler and virile man continue to define him as an old man?
  • Does his relationship to the boy who is no longer his fishing companion continue to define him?
  • At what level of his being is Santiago a fisherman?
  • Is he a fisherman on such a deep level that it actually, metaphysically defines his identity and determine the nature and outcome of his life? 
  • How does Santiago's sense of the rules of good fishing inform his sense of self?

These questions point to the philosophical and/or metaphysical conflict of The Old Man and the Sea and hopefully help to illuminate some of the deeper issues at work in the text. This is a story about fishing but it is also a meditation on identity and how a person's history both does and does not constitute an identity. One's ideas make up a large part of one's identity as well. 

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