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...
(The entire section is 667 words.)