Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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Overview

The Old Man and the Sea is a short novel that tells the story of an aging fisherman named Santiago who catches an enormous marlin. 

  • Santiago takes his boat far out into the Gulf Stream, where he hooks a marlin so large that it begins to pull his boat. He struggles with it for two days.
  • Santiago harpoons the marlin and secures it to his boat. It will fetch a great price.
  • Sharks encircle Santiago’s boat, and his marlin is reduced to bones by the time he returns to the harbor. Santiago’s former apprentice cares for him, and they plan to fish together soon.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509

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.

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At the novel’s start, we are told that Santiago’s luck has gone bad, that he has not caught a marlin or any other fish for eighty-four days. So poorly has he fared that his young protege, the boy Manolin, has been forced to leave his mentor to work on another boat. Nevertheless, Manolin’s affection for the old man is so strong that he is willing to 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 dreams of his wife but of lions roaming on a beach.

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On the eighty-fifth day, the old man goes out into the Caribbean waters around Cuba alone, and in short order he catches a large marlin. The old man waits for the fish to surface before tiring, but this does not happen. When night falls, his small boat is pulled far out to sea by the fish. On the next morning, the old man sees the marlin jump and realizes that landing such an enormous fish will mean a protracted struggle. The old man buoys 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 are virtually exhausted, his hands deeply cut from holding the rope attached to the marlin. With his remaining strength, Santiago is about to bring the marlin in, but he finds that it is too large to fit in his boat, and he is forced to tie his catch to the boat’s side. It is then that the sharks begin to appear. First, a large Mako shark rips a huge chunk of flesh from the catch. The old man fights the shark off, but the smell of blood in the water draws others. By nightfall of the second day, the sharks have ripped the marlin to pieces. All the old man can do is steer his boat toward the lights of Havana.

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Latest answer posted January 20, 2020, 8:18 am (UTC)

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Upon reaching the shore, the old man carries his gear, falling several times from exhaustion. At the pier, his fellow fishermen marvel at the skeleton of a fish larger than any that they have ever seen. The old man is greeted by Manolin, who urges him to rest and to prepare for another day’s fishing when they will 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 distant shore.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1162

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.

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