The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea book cover
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What happens in The Old Man and the Sea?

In The Old Man and the Sea, an aging Cuban fisherman struggles to make his living. He hasn’t caught anything for 84 days and has lost his apprentice, Manolin. He finally catches an enormous marlin, but sharks gradually eat it as he attempts to bring it back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea summary key points:

  • Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, has lost his beloved young apprentice Manolin. Manolin, although unable to continue working for Santiago, continues to bring him food and bait.

  • On his 85th consecutive day without catching anything, Santiago takes his boat far out into the Gulf Stream, where he finds good omens and hooks a marlin so large that it begins to pull his boat.

  • Santiago struggles with the marlin for two days, during which time he comes to respect and admire the great fish despite his own injuries and exhaustion.

  • On the third day, Santiago manages to harpoon the marlin—the largest he has ever seen—and secure it to the side of his boat. It will fetch an enormous price.

  • On the return journey, sharks begin to circle his boat, and though Santiago fights off several sharks, his great marlin is reduced to bones by the time he returns to the harbor. Manolin cares for him, and they make plans to fish together soon.

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Initially appearing in a special November 1951 issue of Life Magazine, The Old Man and the Sea was published in book form in 1952. It encompasses the exploits of its title character—the old, impoverished, but admirable Cuban fisherman Santiago—over the course of three days. While Santiago is not the novel’s narrator, the tale is related from his perspective and through his consciousness.

At the novel’s start, we are told that Santiago’s luck had gone bad, that he had not caught a marlin or any other fish for eighty-four days. So poorly had he fared that his young protege, the boy Manolin, had been forced to leave his mentor to work on another boat. Nevertheless, Manolin’s affection for the old man was so strong that he would beg or even steal to provide him with good bait, the boy relishing the old man’s stories of past adventures and his knowledge of American baseball and its primary hero, the great Joe DiMaggio. Long a widower, the old man no longer dreamed of his wife but of lions roaming on a beach.

On the eighty-fifth day, the old man went out into the Caribbean waters around Cuba alone, and in short order he caught a large marlin. The old man waited for the fish to surface before tiring, but this did not happen. When night fell, his small boat was pulled far out to sea by the fish. On the next morning, the old man saw the marlin jump and realized that landing such an enormous fish would mean a protracted struggle. The old man buoyed himself by eating bait and remembering his youth when he wrestled with “giant” men in the taverns of Havana. But with another day’s passage the old man’s energies were virtually exhausted, his hands deeply cut from holding the rope attached to the marlin. With his remaining strength, Santiago was about to bring the marlin in, but he found that it was too large to fit in his boat and he was forced to tie his catch to the boat’s side. It was then that the sharks began to appear. First, a large Mako shark ripped a huge chunk of flesh from the catch. The old man fought the shark off, but the smell of blood in the water drew others. By nightfall of the second day, the sharks had ripped the marlin to pieces. All the old man could do was steer his boat toward the lights of Havana.

Upon reaching the shore, the old man carried his gear, falling several times from exhaustion. At the pier, his fellow fishermen marveled at the skeleton of a fish larger than any that they had ever seen. The old man was greeted by Manolin, who urged him to rest and to prepare for another day’s fishing when they would again go out together. The novel ends as the old man falls asleep, with the boy at his side, and again dreams of lions on a...

(The entire section is 1,825 words.)