In Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, why does Santiago want to kill the fish so badly even though he pities it?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Old Man in the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, is the story of an old man named Santiago who was once, and possibly still is, a great fisherman. He was once good enough to be a mentor to a young boy named Manolin, but he now he has become "unlucky." When Santiago finally catches a marlin, Santiago is not just battling to catch a fish but also to preserve his pride. 

It is fair to say that Santiago pitied the fish and did not want to kill it, but he had to do it for the sake of saving his own pride. As he battles the great fish, "his brother," Santiago says, "Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who." That is the attitude of healthy pride rather than arrogance.

Throughout the entire three-day battle with the fish, Santiago remembers the strength he once had, compares himself to his hero, Joe DiMaggio, and thinks about how he must still be a role model for the boy. Santiago's desire to save his pride is not the same as boasting and being prideful. He must catch this fish to save his dignity, something he has very little of in any other area of his life. 

He owns virtually nothing and would not even have anything to eat most of the time is Manolin does not bring him food. Despite that, the boy admires and loves the old man and wants desperately to fish with him again. Perhaps that will happen if Santiago can prove himself. He has to show Manolin, and the others, "what a man can do and what a man endures."

When Manolin tells Santiago "'the best fisherman is you,'" the old man is humble and denies it. He is not a man who must show the world what he is capable of; if he were he would have arrogantly displayed the marlin carcass and bragged about the size of the fish he he caught but, sadly, could not keep. Instead, Santiago goes to bed, exhausted. Back at the Terrace, 

among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas [was] a great long white spine with a huge tail at the end that lifted and swung with the tide while the east wind blew a heavy steady sea outside the entrance to the harbor.

The old man did catch the fish. Though he nearly ruined his body and was sorry his brother the fish had to lose his life, Santiago preserved his pride and dignity as a man and a fisherman. 

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The Old Man and the Sea

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