The Old Man and the Sea Summary

The Old Man and the Sea summary

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:

  • An aging Cuban fisherman has lost his beloved young apprentice Manolin as a result, though the unhappy Manolin continues to bring Santiago 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, and though Santiago fights off several, 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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

For eighty-four days, old Santiago has not caught a single fish. At first a young boy, Manolin, shared his bad fortune, but after the fortieth luckless day, the boy’s father tells his son to go in another boat. From that time on, Santiago works alone. Each morning he rows his skiff out into the Gulf Stream, where the big fish are. Each evening he comes home empty-handed.

The boy loves the old fisherman and pities him. When Manolin has no money of his own, he begs or steals to make sure that Santiago has enough to eat and has fresh baits for his lines. The old man accepts his kindness with a humility that is like a quiet kind of pride. Over their evening meals of rice or black beans, they talk about the fish they had caught in luckier times or about American baseball and the great Joe DiMaggio. At night, alone in his shack, Santiago dreams of lions on the beaches of Africa, where he had gone on a sailing ship years before. He no longer dreams of his dead wife.

On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago rows out of the harbor in the cool dark before dawn. After leaving the smell of land behind him, he sets his lines. Two of his baits are fresh tunas the boy had given him, as well as sardines to cover his hooks. The lines sink straight down into deep dark water. As the sun rises, he sees other boats in toward shore, which is only a low green line on the sea. A hovering man-of-war bird shows him where dolphins are chasing some flying fish, but the school is moving too fast and is too far away. The bird circles again. This time Santiago sees tuna leaping in the sunlight. A small one takes the hook on his stern line. Hauling the quivering fish aboard, the old man thinks it a good omen.

Toward noon, a marlin starts nibbling at the bait, which is one hundred fathoms down. Gently the old man plays the fish, a big one, as he knows from the weight on the line. At last, he strikes to settle the hook. The fish does not surface. Instead, it begins to tow the skiff to the northwest. The old man braces himself, the line taut across his shoulders. He is skilled and knows many tricks; he waits patiently for the fish to tire.

The old man shivers in the cold that comes after sunset. When something takes one of his remaining baits, he cuts the line with his sheath knife. The fish lurches suddenly, pulling Santiago forward on his face, cutting his cheek. By dawn, his left hand is stiff and cramped. The fish has headed northward; there is no land in sight. Another strong tug on the line slices Santiago’s right hand. Hungry, he cuts strips from the tuna and chews them slowly while he waits for the sun to warm him and ease his cramped fingers.

That morning the fish jumps. Seeing it leap, Santiago knows he has hooked the biggest marlin he has ever seen. Then the fish goes under and turns toward the east. Santiago drinks sparingly from his water bottle during the hot afternoon. Once an airplane drones overhead on its way to Miami. Trying to forget his cut hand and aching back, he remembers the days when men had called him El Campeón, and he had wrestled with a giant man in the tavern at Cienfuegos.

Close to nightfall, a dolphin takes the small hook Santiago has rebaited. He lifts the fish aboard, careful not to jerk the line over his shoulder. After he rests, he cuts fillets from the dolphin and also keeps the two flying fish he finds in its maw. That night he sleeps. He awakes to feel the line running through his fingers as the fish jumps. Feeding line slowly, he tries to tire the marlin. After the fish slows its run, Santiago washes his cut hands in seawater and eats one of the flying fish. At sunrise, the marlin begins to circle. Faint and dizzy, he works to bring the big fish nearer with each turn. Almost exhausted, he finally draws his catch alongside and drives in the harpoon. He drinks a little water before he lashes the marlin to the bow and stern of his skiff. The fish is two feet longer than the boat. No catch like it has ever been seen in Havana harbor. It will make his fortune, Santiago thinks, as he hoists his patched sails and sets his course toward the southwest.

An hour later, Santiago sights the first shark. It is a fierce Mako, and it comes in fast to slash with raking teeth at the dead marlin. With failing might, the old man strikes the shark with his harpoon. The Mako rolls and sinks, carrying the harpoon with it and leaving the marlin mutilated and bloody. Santiago knows the scent will spread. Watching, he sees two shovel-nosed sharks closing in. He strikes at one with his knife lashed to the end of an oar and watches the scavenger slide down into deep water. He kills the other while it tears at the flesh of the marlin. When the third appears, he thrusts at it with the knife, only to feel the blade snap as the fish rolls. The other sharks come at sunset. At first, Santiago tries to club them with the tiller from the skiff, but his hands are raw and bleeding and there are too many in the pack. In the darkness, as he steers toward the faint glow of Havana against the sky, he hears them hitting the carcass again and again. Yet the old man thinks only of his steering and his great tiredness. He has gone out too far and the sharks have beaten him. He knows they will leave him nothing but the stripped skeleton of his great catch.

All lights are out when he sails into the little harbor and beaches his skiff. In the gloom, he can just make out the white backbone and the upstanding tail of the fish. He starts up the shore with the mast and furls the sail of his boat. Once he falls under their weight and lays patiently until he can gather his strength. In the shack, he falls on his bed and goes to sleep.

There the boy finds him later that morning. Meanwhile, other fishermen, gathered about the skiff, marvel at the giant marlin, eighteen feet long from nose to tail. Manolin returns to Santiago’s shack with hot coffee, and the old man wakes up. The boy, he says, can have the spear of his fish. Manolin tells him to rest, to make himself fit for the days of fishing they will have together. All that afternoon, the old man sleeps, the boy sitting by his bed. Santiago is dreaming of lions.

The Old Man and the Sea Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Old Man and the Sea is in many ways Hemingway’s most controlled piece of writing. Short and direct, it is the story of Santiago, who essentially is alone throughout the story. Manolin, the boy who usually assists him, has been ordered by his father not to work with the old man after Santiago goes for forty days without a catch. Manolin still comes to see the old man, but he no longer sails with him.

The story opens on the eighty-fourth day since Santiago has caught anything. He survives on the food that Manolin buys him from the money he steals or begs from tourists. Manolin also makes sure that Santiago has bait. As they eat their meager repast, Santiago and Manolin reminisce about happier days, remembering good catches and Joe DiMaggio and other pleasant things from their past.

That night, Santiago dreams of tigers rather than of his wife, now some time dead. He wakes to set out for his eighty-fifth day of fruitless fishing. Fishing is all he knows, so he has no choice. The details of the morning and of the sea are flawlessly presented. Hemingway transports his readers to Santiago’s small boat. Through Santiago’s eyes they see the man-of-war birds flying over a school of dolphin leaping in the aim to snag flying fishes. They are moving faster than Santiago can go, so there is no hope that he will change his luck by catching a dolphin.

As the morning wears on, Santiago hooks one small fish. He is encouraged by this tiny triumph, taking it as a sign that his luck might be changing. His baited line is deep below the surface, a full hundred fathoms down. He waits. The sun beats down hotly upon him as it inches toward its zenith. Then, around noon, something takes the bait. Santiago knows from the feel of the line that he has hooked a big fish.

Rather than coming to the surface, the hooked fish tows Santiago’s boat in a northwesterly direction, continuing this action into the night. Santiago braces himself for a night of struggle, drawing the line across his shoulder. He eats small pieces of the raw tuna he had caught earlier. At a sudden jerk on the line, Santiago’s right hand is gashed across the palm. His fingers cramp. He waits for the sun to warm him.

The next morning, Santiago sees his marlin for the first time. It leaps in the air, and Santiago knows the dimensions of the contest in which he is engaged. He has never seen a larger fish. As the day wears on and the sun beats down, Santiago is hard-pressed to stay awake. He hallucinates, recalling ways in which he has shown his strength in the past. He husbands his water supply carefully, not knowing how long he will be at sea.

Before sunset, he hooks a small dolphin and two flying fish that will sustain him for a while. When night falls, he sleeps fitfully, the lines secured around him. The marlin has a spurt of action and pulls the line through Santiago’s hands, again lacerating them—giving him his stigmata, if one wishes to pursue a Christian interpretation, as some critics have. As the night wears on, the marlin tires. By midmorning, Santiago is able to draw the fish to the skiff and secure it to the side. He fantasizes about his triumphant return to the Havana harbor, dreaming of having made his fortune by catching this fabulous fish. It is then that the mako sharks begin circling, lunging in to tear flesh from the noble marlin. Santiago is no match for them.

By the time Santiago gets to the harbor long after sunset, little is left of his catch. He disembarks, seeing that only the backbone and tail of the marlin remain. He carries his mast and sails on his shoulders, stumbling in exhaustion as he goes, reminiscent of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary. Other fishermen surround the skiff the next day, marveling at the eighteen-foot length of Santiago’s catch, even though all its flesh has been torn off. Unfeeling tourists going into a restaurant see the remains and wonder what they are, having no idea of their meaning. Santiago sleeps much of the day away, dreaming of lions.

In many ways, The Old Man and the Sea marks the culmination of Hemingway’s creative endeavors. The book, reflecting Hemingway’s consistent use of everyday language and avoidance of abstraction, is at once realistic and impressionistic. Although it is filled with symbolism, the symbols are neither heavy-handed nor artificial. Over and above these strengths, Hemingway in this novella is in greater control of the unities of time, place, and character than he is in any of the other works except For Whom the Bell Tolls. His small cast of participants—essentially Santiago and Manolin, with very little even of the latter—allows him to explore deeply the recesses of a person’s inner being, with no distraction from other human influences.

Obviously influenced significantly by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Hemingway’s small classic makes its impact in quite a different way. Hemingway, as has been noted earlier, might be called a minimalist. In calling him that, however, one should probably qualify the statement further to indicate that in his minimalism, Hemingway becomes an essentialist. He is in search of essences, much as the ancient Greek philosophers were. In The Old Man and the Sea, he gets in touch with the quintessence of human existence. Santiago, a humble fisherman, is a genuine hero. responding with grace to the pressures upon him and emerging victorious in ways that few protagonists in modern literature have.

The Old Man and the Sea Overview

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Overview

The Old Man and the Sea is one of the most popular and moving works of the twentieth century. When The Old Man and the Sea...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Summary

The Old Man and the Sea Unlucky Boat

The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, who alone in his small boat faces the most difficult...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea The Truly Big Fish

Early one morning the old man rises, shares coffee with the boy, and sets out for the far reaches of the fishing grounds. He passes all the...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Destroyed But Not Defeated

Now many miles out to sea, the old man lashes the great fish to the side of his skiff and sets his small sail for home. After about an hour...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Chapter Summaries

The Old Man and the Sea Day 1 Summary

Santiago is an old man, worn and weathered by the sun and by life, but his eyes are still hopeful and spirited. He is a fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish; he is seen as the worst kind of unlucky. After forty days, the young boy who was fishing with the old man was forced to go to another boat. Now Santiago fishes alone. Each day as the old man’s skiff arrives, the boy feels sad for him and helps him carry his gear from the dejected-looking boat: “The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.”

Today the boy is hopeful that he can fish with Santiago again, but Santiago knows the boy’s father will not allow it. As they walk, the boy reminds the old man about the time he...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Day 2 Summary

Day 2

The moon is still shining as Santiago dresses and walks to the boy’s house to wake him. After the boy carries the gear, which he has helped do since he was five, they have coffee. Santiago is confident this will be the day he will catch a fish. While the boy, Manolin, gets the sardines and baits, Santiago enjoys his coffee, the only sustenance he will have for the day. Other than a bottle of water, the old man brings no food with him on his boat. Eating bores him; water is all he needs.

Manolin returns and Santiago is ready to fish. As he rows he hears others silently rowing as well. He hears the hissing of the flying fish, his “principle friends in the ocean.” He feels sorry for...

(The entire section is 1171 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Day 3 Summary

As the sun rises, Santiago wishes the fish would surface, but he is still moving and strong. Perhaps he should put some pressure on the line so the fish will jump and fill his air sacks so he cannot go deep to die. Though he loves the fish as his brother, he vows to kill him. A small bird comes to visit. Then the fish jerks the old man to the bottom of the boat again; only because he is braced does the old man keep from losing the line. He is tired and sore, but he is still strong. Both man and fish are feeling the strain, and the rope has cut Santiago’s hand. It is only a surface wound but he trails his hand in the water to stay the flow of blood. The fish has slowed his pace. Santiago stands to stretch and brace himself once...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Day 4 Summary

As the sun rises for the third time, Santiago begins to coil the rope as the marlin circles. The fish slowly makes large circles and is making steady progress upward. The sweat pours from the old man, and he is determined that he will not “fail myself and die on a fish like this.” He promises a hundred more Hail Marys and a hundred Our Fathers but he cannot say them now. He is not as strong as he would like to be; he is tired and a bit faint, but he knows the fish is tiring, too.

The marlin’s circle brings him near the boat, and Santiago cannot believe it is so big. The fish is now circling only thirty yards away. The old man knows he will be able to harpoon his brother the marlin soon, and he reminds himself to...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)

The Old Man and the Sea Day 5 Summary

As he had come each morning since Santiago left, the boy comes to the old man’s home this morning. The weather is not good for fishing, so Manolin is free to spend his time with his mentor and friend. Santiago is sleeping, but the boy sees his mangled hands and cries as he goes to get him some coffee. As he passes the skiff, he sees a group of fishermen gathered around the carcass. One man is actually in the water measuring it: eighteen feet. They ask Manolin how Santiago is, and the boy says he is sleeping and must not be disturbed. The owner of the Terrace prepares some hot coffee for Manolin to take to the old man, and he praises Santiago’s amazing fish and congratulates the boy on his two fish caught yesterday. Manolin is...

(The entire section is 403 words.)