This short work is deceptively simple on the surface but very puzzling deeper down. It narrates basic events in generally short sentences and with a minimum of figurative language; simultaneously, however, it raises many questions without providing enough evidence for conclusive answers.
Santiago combines pride and humility. He performs heroically, conquers the marlin, but then loses it. Therefore, he is not a triumphant hero returning to his admiring people. Tourists even mistake the marlin’s skeleton for that of a shark; furthermore, it is not preserved but instead waits to be washed back out to sea as “garbage.” Nor does the hero have a heroine to comfort him, his beloved wife being long dead. He has no son to carry on, although he treats Manolin lovingly and often wishes that the boy were with him on this mission. The old fisherman is partially a Christ figure: His wounded hands pain him as though they were nailed to a piece of wood; toward the end, he carries his mast like a cross and stumbles under its weight; and, once home again, he sleeps in a cruciform position with arms out and palms up. Yet, Hemingway disavowed any consciously developed symbolic or allegorical import in this work. Furthermore, Santiago often tries to pray but puts off such attempts and regards himself as an unsatisfactory Catholic.
The marlin is another source of puzzlement. Why is its maleness emphasized? Hemingway, notoriously macho, may be suggesting that a female quarry would not be sufficiently challenging to his hero. On the other hand, Santiago calls the sea la mar (the feminine form in Spanish), which Hemingway depicts as a creative, loving, but often cruel mother. He makes much, here and elsewhere, of his heroes’ being “destroyed but not defeated.” Also, his heroes, when they win, must take nothing. Santiago killed the marlin, but he can never sell its meat for the $300 that he hoped to gain. He reveres his prize but despises the sharks and attacks them with commendable if unavailing ferocity. Yet, after all, both marlin and sharks are explicitly said to function precisely as designed.
The subject of free will thus enters. Winds, clouds, water, birds, and fish, all colorfully depicted by Hemingway, are linked parts of the great chain of marine life. What Santiago calls the marlin’s choosing to dive deep is obviously instinctive, as is its subsequent surfacing. Surfacing causes its air sacks to fill and thus prevents its diving soon again, in turn predictably causing it to circle and hence be harpooned and killed. Santiago says both that he was born to fish and that he chooses to fish. To the degree that he has free will, his flaw—determining to go out too far—is a tragic one. Yet, perhaps he was fated to do so. Hence, being a partly naturalistic figure, he is an incomplete hero; the sentimental aura cast about him further diminishes him in the eyes of some critics.
The Old Man and the Sea has autobiographical overtones. Hemingway was an accomplished deep-sea fisherman and provides the reader with many details concerning the art of capturing marlins. (His big-game hunting and attending bullfights are obviously related activities.) It is not farfetched to equate Santiago’s marlin with Hemingway’s decades-long effort to write, to pull from the depths of his being, a vast book about the sea. Santiago’s story was planned as a segment of a four-part novel, of which only it and Islands in the Stream, appearing posthumously in 1970, were completed. In this ambitious aesthetic adventure, the author tried to go too far. It may be added that the sharks ravaging the marlin can be likened to Hemingway’s critics—ever eager, in his almost psychotic view, to pick his writing apart. Just as Santiago calls his enemy his brother, so Hemingway, in capturing on the printed page an artwork of his creation, may be presenting his readers with aspects of his hidden self. This possibility has teased psychoanalytically inclined critics.