Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea: An Overview

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Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is a study of man’s place in a world of violence and destruction. It is a story in which Hemingway seems to suggest that, at least in the natural order, man can find his own dignity and beauty in learning to understand the mystery of human power that is at the heart of so much that appears violent and cruel. As such, it is a brilliant expression of the stoicism which characterized so much of Ernest Hemingway’s work as a novelist and a short story writer.

The novel deals with the concept of courage, but courage is objectified in the narrative. The novelist never seems to have had much faith in either concepts or ideals. Hemingway and his heroes simply turn their backs on a sick society and all efforts to cure it. They will have none of the sociological, the metaphysical, the spiritual—the World War had made a ghastly farce of all such pretentious activity. They fall back on primal instincts and emotions, reducing life to its simplest elements: physical sensations.(1)

The Old Man and the Sea presents a world in which man and beast survive and are at their best only when acting courageously. For “in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage.”(2) Santiago, the old fisherman, after hunting for eighty-four days, finally lands a giant Marlin. In his staunch belief that there is a big fish waiting for him, Santiago achieves respect and dignity. It is enhanced when he struggles with the great fish: “Christ, I did not know he was so big. I'll kill him, though,” he says, “In all his greatness and his glory.”(3) In the exercise of the physicality of both man and fish, Hemingway is demonstrating a kind of nobility that exists only in this world when two creatures achieve brotherhood in a trial of endurance which demands every ounce of strength and every skill they possess.

In the novel, life is portrayed as a constant preparation for the test that proves the worth of a creature. When Santiago wakens his young friend, he apologizes for getting him up so early. “It is what a man must do,”(4) the boy replies. Every one knows the price that must “be paid for dignity, self-respect, even fulfillment. Therefore, the physical combat takes on a certain heroic tone since it is the most fitting act any creature can perform in life. Santiago’s body is covered with signs of age and wounds from the sea; but these battle scars seem to be more in the nature of medals than sources of weakness or exhaustion:

When the boy came back the old man was asleep in the chair and the sun was down. The boy took the old army blanket off the bed and spread it over the back of the chair and over the old man’s shoulders. They were strange shoulders, still powerful although very old, and the neck was still strong too and the creases did not show so much when the old man was asleep and his head fallen forward.(5)

There is dignity, too, in the manner in which the old fisherman accepts the challenge of each new day’s hunts:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she was wild or wicked it was because she could not help that. The moon affects her, he thought.(6)

Santiago philosophically accepts whatever the sea offers, as he would countenance favor or rejection from a lovely lady. Thus, his struggle has a grace, a sympathy that can extend itself as indeed it does to the giant creature that will give him the greatest battle of his life.

The theme of man’s need for courage to achieve his own dignity and destiny permeates The Old Man and the Sea. The actualization of this ideal can even be seen in the moments when Santiago and the boy entertain themselves. They speak of baseball and the great DiMaggio and John J. McGraw. All of life to these simple fishing people is reduced to struggle and conflict. But there is graciousness in their acceptance of the grim reality and pride in their ability to bring the best of what they are to that struggle.

In a discussion of the Hemingway style, Ray B. Vest, Jr. quotes a criticism of the novelist’s approach: “The short simple rhythms, the succession of coordinate clauses, and the general lack of subordination—all suggest a dislocated, ununified world.”(7) In the opinion of this reader, such an accusation cannot be directed at The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago’s world is a very unified one; its singlemindedness is strengthened by the simplicity of the narrative which alternates between omniscient teller and dialogue between characters. There is a scriptural clarity in the work which seems to emphasize one aspect of reality in such a way that a feeling of symbolic truth touches the reader. The ritualistic implications of the lives Santiago and Manolin live grows from the novelist’s concentration upon single facts which are presented one after another. As the old man waits during the night and day of his vigil with the Marlin, he remembers an earlier test of strength with

the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each one was trying to force the other’s hand down on the table. There was much betting. . . . They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. . . . the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched.(8)

This passage is characteristic of what Robert Spiller has termed “a detachment as cool and impersonal as that of the soul regarding its useless body on the morning after death.”(9) The economy of language is here indicative of the economy of vision that is Santiago’s. He is not dull; he simply observes those things which entered into the experience of that great moment when he defeated the champion from Cienfuegos. Although speaking of Hemingway as novelist, Spiller might very well be referring to the fisherman when he notes that such “dispassionate compression is . . . the essential part of his attitude toward life.”(10)

If the style of Hemingway’s language in The Old Man and the Sea is relentlessly direct and simple, his narrative technique is equally clean and stark. As may be seen in the passage dealing with the hand combat with the man from Cienfuegos, the emphasis is upon the immediate struggle; what is intense is what the novelist focuses upon. But gradually, the attention is shifted to include other aspects of the scene which Santiago himself is gradually aware of. There is a clinical impassiveness about his manner in which each aspect of the surrounding reality is reflected within the fisherman’s consciousness. But it is most effective in establishing that pervasive mood of ritual and ceremony that so distinctly colors this work. It is noteworthy that Hemingway, with the exception of the final page, deals almost entirely with but two characters. Certainly this adds to the solemnity of the adventure. Even when Santiago is alone, and that is for a considerable portion of the novel, there is an effective balance of austere description and speech which the fisherman delivers to himself, the fish and his absent companion. These speeches maintain the simplicity of earlier descriptive passages, as well as underlining the intensity of the great combat that is about to take place.

The most significant element in the novel, however, is the author’s handling of symbol. “A symbol is something which is itself and yet stands for or suggests or means something else.”(11) Santiago, Melvin Backman indicates, is Spanish for Saint James who was an apostle, martyr and fisherman from the sea of Galilee.(12) In his depiction of the old man, Hemingway frequently presents him bound by the same ropes which hold the Marlin against the skiff. His lacerated hands, constantly torn by the coiled ropes, are pressed against the wood of his small craft; the image of a crucified figure maintains itself throughout much of the narrative. When Santiago returns home from the sea, exhausted after the capture and loss off his fish, he collapses under the weight of the mast he carries; when Manolin finds him sleeping later on, the fisherman is stretched out, face down, in a posture resembling the crucified Christ, perhaps, some martyr. The scope of the symbol, as the definition has suggested, allows for an area of freedom. Santiago is an old fisherman, first of all. However, in the selection of his name, the simplicity of his existence, the ceremonial quality of his work and the way in which he accomplishes it, Hemingway is surely suggesting, at the very least, a figure who brings a form of sanctity to a seemingly cruel and uncompromising world around him. In Santiago’s eyes, the cruel sea is a whimsical lady; the fish is his partner in the struggle for life and dignity; Manolin, the boy, is his equal.

The sea is many times used in literature as a symbol of quest, uncertainty, even death. The theme of the voyage is also a known literary device. However, in the opinion of this reader, Hemingway’s major symbol is the simple Santiago. He invests the man with some of those qualities already touched upon, and the fisherman, in turn, brings to all the violence and vulgarity of the reported incidents a transforming grace. Santiago makes man’s predestined failure a spectacle of grace. A struggle of endurance and a battle of wits becomes the joyous expression of a creature’s self-realization of divine gifts; a strong, hard-fighting foe becomes a brother and co-sharer in the dignity of human life, a dignity which diminishes in the ordinary course of events with every breath a man takes.


1. Herbert J. Muller, Modern Fiction: A Study of Values (New York, 1937) pp. 397-398.

2. Norman Mailer “The White Negro,” in Perspectives on Modern Literature, edited by Frederick J. Hoffman (Evanston, Illinois 1962) p. 222.

3. Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea (New York, 1952) p.66.

4. Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, p.28

5. Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, p. 18.

6. Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, p. 29-30.

7. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren Understanding Fiction as quoted by Ray B. West, Jr. “Ernest Hemingway: The Failure of Sensibility,” Modern American Fiction, edited by A. W. Litz (New York, 1963) p. 149.

8. Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, p. 69.

9. Robert E. Spiller, The Cycle of American Literature (New York, 1955) p. 204

10. Spiller, The Cycle of American Literature, p. 204

11. W. F. Thrall and Addison Hibbard, A Handbook to Literature, revised by C. H. Holman (New York, 1960) p. 478.

12. Melvin Backman, “Hemingway: The Matador and the Crucified,” in Litz, p. 212-213.


Backman, Melvin. “Hemingway: The Matador and the Crucified.” In Modern American Fiction: Essays in Criticism, edited by A. Walton Litz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 201-14.

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction, as quoted by Ray B. Vest, Jr., “Ernest Hemingway: The Failure of Sensibility,” Modern American Fiction: Essays in Criticism, edited by A. Walton Litz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. pp. 244-45.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” In Perspectives on Modern Literature, edited by Frederick J. Hoffman. Evanston, Illinois: Row, Peterson and Company, 1962.

Muller, Herbert J. Modern Fiction: A Study of Values. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1937.

Spiller, Robert E. The Cycle of American Literature; A Brief History of American Writers and Writing. New York: The New American Library, 1955.

Thrall, William Flint, and Addison Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature, revised by C. Hugh Holman. New York: The Odyssey Press, Inc., 1960.

The Deceptive Simplicity of The Old Man and the Sea

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From its publication in 1952, The Old Man and the Sea has played an important role in defining and confirming Ernest Hemingway’s position as a major voice in twentieth-century fiction. Long famous for his short stories and the early novels The Sun Also Rises in 1926 and A Farewell to Arms in 1929, Hemingway built his public image upon that of his wounded, isolated heroes. His passion for bull fighting, fishing, and big game hunting inevitably led him to dangerous places and activities. He covered the Spanish Civil War as a reporter and later served as a war correspondent during World War II. By the 1950s, he was at the height of his fame, living on a small estate or finca in Cuba and playing out his role as “Papa’’ Hemingway, the white-haired, white-bearded symbol of virility and intellectual heroism. With the publication of The Old Man and the Sea, a taut, technically brilliant short novel, his reputation as a master craftsman of prose narrative was reaffirmed. More importantly, however, the story of Santiago, the isolated old man who fights a great fish for three days, seemed to bring together all the major elements of Hemingway’s life and work. Indeed, it remains a concise expression of what it means for Hemingway to live and act as an individual in the modern world.

On first glance the most striking aspect of The Old Man and the Sea is its combination of compression and depth. Like many of Hemingway’s early stories, the novel takes full advantage of the author’s widely imitated prose style—a mixture of simple sentence structures, limited adjectives, and spare but suggestive description. As he himself explained in his examination of bullfighting in Death in the Afternoon, good writing should move like an iceberg, only one-eighth of which appears above the water. The writer who truly knows a subject should be able to leave much of the content unstated, and the reader will “have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.’’ Accordingly, The Old Man and the Sea offers a deceptively simple surface story of an aging fisherman who catches a great fish only to lose him to marauding sharks. The fable-like simplicity of the plot, however, suggests that the story may yield broader symbolic meanings.

One such symbolic interpretation of the novel focuses upon the ancient and often repeated pattern of a hero confronting a natural force. In this reading, Santiago the fisherman is more than just a poor Cuban hoping to break his streak of eighty-four days without a fish. He represents the skillful, courageous individual who willingly undergoes a test of character against an equally worthy opponent. The sea, the feminine and possibly maternal “la mar,’’ becomes the site of his encounter with nature itself. Far away from the other fishermen and even further from any sort of civilized society, Santiago must test his own strengths alone and without help. Not even the boy he has taught to fish can be present at such a moment. Like the bullfighter or the soldier in battle, the old man struggles as though against his own death. However, to catch his “brother,’’ as he calls him, is not to prove himself better than the fish, only its equal. Indeed, Santiago’s failure to save the dead marlin from the sharks serves to reaffirm his limits as an individual and remind him of the need for humility in the face of nature’s power.

Santiago’s actions suggest that he is more than just a courageous individual, however. He also shows great concern for the quality of his work and the precision of his actions. As tutor to the boy, he fills the archetypal or mythic role of the master craftsman who not only represents the height of artistic skill but also upholds the ethical standards of heroic action. He stands above the other fishermen both in terms of experience and skill, but he is also marked, set apart as the one for whom fishing has become more than just a livelihood:

“Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?’’

“I think they are equal.’’

“And the best fisherman is you.’’

“No. I know others better.’’

Que va,’’ the boy said. “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.’’

Like the “great DiMaggio’’ whose father was also a fisherman, Santiago stands alone in the level of his commitment to his craft and in his role as the hero who must test himself against his own frailty. His defense against the randomness of experience is precision. Unlike the other fishermen who let their lines drift with the current, Santiago keeps his “with precision. . . . It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.’’ The value of such a method is confirmed by the presence of the great fish. Just as Santiago goes “far out’’ beyond the lesser ambitions of the other fishermen, he finds the great fish not simply because he is a better fisherman but because, in a symbolic sense, he deserves it. His “religious’’ devotion to the precision of his craft has made it difficult for him to catch ordinary fish, reserving him instead for the extraordinary, mythic creature whose quality equals Santiago’s “purity.’’

Such a deep concern with the quality of Santiago’s actions reflects Hemingway’s own concern with style, both in writing and in behavior. In much of his work, heroic characters face dangerous and even impossible situations as a test of their devotion to an unwritten code or method of behavior. The more courageous the act, the greater its beauty, clarity, and ethical purity. The same can be said of Hemingway’s own prose style, which aims to reproduce the uncluttered grace and control of the bullfighter or the boxer. In fact, Santiago’s struggle with the great fish may also reflect Hemingway’s own difficulties in writing the story itself. The act of catching the great fish only to lose it in the end may suggest the combination of triumph and failure that comes with attempts at artistic perfection.

This fundamentally religious dimension to Hemingway’s thinking appears even more forcefully in the novel’s many allusions to Christianity and Christ in particular. The name, Santiago, for instance, is Spanish for Saint James, himself a fisherman, like Christ, the symbolic “fisherman’’ for souls. Also like Christ, Santiago undergoes a test and a type of “crucifixion’’ when the sharks attack the marlin: “‘Ay,’ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands into the wood.’’ Yet Santiago’s suffering does not appear to lead to any sort of traditionally Christian resurrection. At the novel’s end he is not reborn, literally or spiritually. Though he admits his fault in going too far out, he is simply tired and empty. He acknowledges his weaknesses but upholds the quality of his actions and his “brotherhood’’ with the fish: “‘Half fish,’ he said. ‘Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went out too far. I ruined us both. But we have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many others. How many did you ever kill, old fish? You do not have that spear on your head for nothing.’’’

The combination of triumph, endurance, and loss that The Old Man and the Sea offers says a great deal about the Hemingway of 1950s. Shortly after the novel’s publication Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953. The following year, he received the Nobel Prize for literature for his life’s work, though many acknowledge that the success of The Old Man and the Sea played a crucial role in the decision. About this same time, however, Hemingway suffered serious injuries in two separate plane crashes in Africa and was even reported dead by many newspapers. For the next seven years he lived in deteriorating health on his ranch in Ketchum, Idaho. In 1961, his ability as a writer severely compromised by his physical problems, Hemingway killed himself. Whether viewed as an act of courage or surrender, such a choice by the author of The Old Man and the Sea was no surprise. As the critic Earl Rovit speculates, “Having chosen to do battle with nothing less than eternity on a day-to-day basis, it may have been his way of complying with the rules insofar as the rules required the unconditional surrender of one of the combatants.’’

Viewed in light of Hemingway’s long-held interest in suicide, The Old Man and the Sea might also be the author’s way of thinking through the ethical and philosophical problems of taking his own life. In this respect, the fish, already a symbol of death in general, becomes the representation of the writer’s self, his identity as a living thing. To wrestle with and conquer this “other’’ identity suggests a measure of self-control, a way of reaffirming your strength as an individual. To lose such a conquest to the attacks of voracious sharks undermines any certainty the individual might have gained from such a victory. Thus suicide, as a method, suggests the ultimate sort of self-control, a removal to safety beyond the mouths of the sharks, an ironic self-taking that precludes the attacks of others.

It is in the context of such crucial issues that The Old Man and the Sea continues to evoke comments and questions from its readers. It presents a fundamentally human problem in graceful form and language, proposing not an answer to the limits of individual existence but a way of facing those limits with dignity and grace.

Source: Carl Davis, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Davis is an associate professor of English at Northeast Louisiana University.

A New Dimension for a Hero: Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea

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[In] the portrayal of Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea there is no uncertainty of being, no confusion of self and values. The old man is presented from beginning to end as one who has achieved true existence. His response to every situation is the response of a spiritually fulfilled man. The story, then, is not concerned with the familiar Hemingway search for values; rather it is concerned with the depiction of conflicting values.

Throughout five carefully delineated sections of the novel, the center of focus is always on the image of the old man. The first section concerns the old man and the boy; the second, The Old Man and the Sea; the third, the old man and the marlin; the fourth, the old man and the sharks; the fifth section returns to the old man and the boy.

In the opening section Santiago is shown to be something of a pathetic figure. He is old, alone, except for the friendship of a young boy, and now even dependent to a degree upon the charity of others for his subsistence. His situation is symbolized by the condition of his sail which was “patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” For eighty-four days he had fished without success and had lost his apprentice because the boy’s parents had considered him “salao,” “the worst form of unlucky.”

But almost at once the tone of the writing changes. Only in external appearances is the old man pathetic. Hemingway reverses the attitude toward the old man in a single stroke:

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

The contrast in meaning is evident: To be defeated in the business of fishing is not to be a defeated man. The theme begins and ends the novel; never, after the opening lines, does the reader regard Santiago as defeated. The point is made emphatic in the final conversation between the old man and the boy:

“They beat me, Manolin,” he said. “They truly beat me.”

“He didn’t beat you. Not the fish.”

And the old man, whose thoughts have been on a much more profound level of contesting, replies,

“No. Truly. It was afterwards.”

The novel’s concern, then, is with success and failure, more precisely, with kinds of success and kinds of failure. The central contrast is between the two fundamental levels of achievement: practical success and success in the achievement of one’s own being. Similarly the novel posits two kinds of defeat: Failure to compete successfully in a materialistic, opportunistic world where this only is the measure of a man and failure to maintain one’s being regardless of external defeat. Thus the real story concerns the meaning, in terms of fundamental human values, of human existence.

Almost at once we become aware that the misleading initial depiction of the old man as a somewhat pathetic figure is the direct result of viewing him only from the standpoint of his recent prolonged ill luck. Had Hemingway continued to present Santiago through the eyes that measure a man’s worth merely in terms of his practical success or failure, the novel would necessarily have been a naturalistic one. Santiago’s skill, determination, and nobility of spirit would simply have contributed to the greater irony of his finally catching a prize fish only to worsen his lot by losing it.

But the key to all of Hemingway’s major characters is never to be found . . . in merely what happens to them. Rather it is to be found in what they essentially are. This is not to discount the importance in Hemingway of environmental forces, both man-made and cosmic, acting to condition and even to determine human destiny. In fact, those whose values do not follow from the shaping forces of environment are few in number, rarely to be encountered. Santiago is one not determined by environment. And in his age and wisdom and simplicity he constantly reminds himself and the boy, who is learning from him, of the distinction. It is a subtle but vital distinction, one which Santiago never loses sight of. When the boy complains to Santiago about the attitude of his new master, Santiago’s response is central to the underlying theme of the novel. The boy points out:

“He brings our gear himself. He never wants anyone to carry anything.”

“We’re different,” the old man said.

The real story of The Old Man and the Sea begins with this distinction. In the first section two indistinct characters are introduced who embody the values of the practical world, the boy’s father and the successful fisherman to whom the boy is assigned. In the old man and the boy’s discussion of their enforced separation, we see the old man’s simple recognition of the problem.

“Santiago,” the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up. “I could go with you again. We’ve made some money.”

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

“No,” the old man said. “You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.”

“But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”

“I remember,” the old man said. “I know you did not leave me because you doubted.”

“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”

“I know,” the old man said. “It is quite normal.”

But the old man’s response means something more than that it is quite normal for a boy to obey his parents; it means the acknowledgment that materialism is the central criterion for action and values in the practical world. And the passage also suggests that the boy has been taught something more than how to fish; he has been taught love and respect, values which he now finds conflicting with the practical demands of his parents.

The successful fisherman, the unnamed “he” who is the boy’s new master, is, in spite of his success at catching fish, totally without respect in the boy’s eyes. When Santiago promises to awaken the boy in time for his day’s work with his new master, the boy declares,

“I do not like for him to waken me. It is as though I were inferior.”

The missing quality in the boy’s new relationship is evident: The old man wakens the boy in order to share living with him; the impersonal ‘him’ wakes the boy in order to use him.

Both the old man and the boy are keenly aware of their loss of each other, and both plan ways to regain their former partnership....

The novel’s second section presents the full significance of what it means to possess the sense of true existence. Just as the “he” who wakes the boy to use him is blocked by his practical ends from the experience of love so also the “younger fishermen” whose intention is to exploit are prevented from regarding the sea as anything more than “a contestant or a place or even an enemy.” Again the distinction is one of individual values:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.

The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

The passage is an important one in the development of the novel. Hemingway’s theme is clear: Success in the achievement of being carries with it the most valued of man’s possessions, the capacity for love. And Santiago’s capacity is everywhere evident. Once far out in the Gulf the old man takes his place as a true inhabitant of his true environment. He responds to the sea and the sky and the birds and the fish with the pure response of his achieved being:

He loved green turtles and hawkbills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads, yellow in their armour-plating, strange in their love-making, and happily eating the Portuguese men-of-war with their eyes shut.

One is reminded of the philosopher’s statement, “Being consents to Santiago’s being responds to the creatures about him.”

During the night two porpoises came around the boat and he could hear them rolling and blowing. He could tell the difference between the blowing noise the male made and the sighing blow of the female.

“They are good,” he said. “They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers like the flying fish.”

Nowhere in all of Hemingway’s works can be found such a direct treatment of genuine sentiment. One is reminded of Pound’s statement that the writer in our time must necessarily be ironic and indirect to be effective. But in the simple image of the old man's identification with the creatures of the sea we have a rare instance of positive values being directly and effectively presented. Yet perhaps it is because there is everywhere present the lurking dangers of the dark water and the old man’s realistic awareness of those malevolent forces that his love emerges fully as realistic as the ever-present threats which surround him.

Santiago’s struggle with the marlin is the principal subject of the long third section. From the moment he feels the fish touch the bait, his feeling is one of joy for the anticipated contest:

Then he felt the gentle touch on the line and he was happy.

“It was only his turn,” he said. “He’ll take it.”

He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.

Throughout the long contest his attitude toward the fish remains constant:

“Fish,” he said. “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Let us hope so, he thought.

The events of the struggle are dramatic: From the time the fish is hooked, about noon of the first day, until the fish is killed, about noon of the third day, the old man is forced to place his own body between the fish and boat. Fastening the line to the boat would result in the breaking of the line by any sudden lurch or swift motion by the fish. Thus the contest means for Santiago the summoning of his greatest efforts in skill and endurance. He carefully plans his strategy: Constant maximum pressure on the line must be maintained in order to wear down the resistance of the fish and to encourage him to surface in an attempt to dislodge the hook. Santiago knew that once having surfaced, the fish would be unable to dive deep again. Nourishment and rest must be systematically apportioned to his body so that he would not lose the battle prematurely through physical exhaustion. All effort must point to the final struggle which would involve not merely skill and physical endurance but will, his own will in mortal contest with the will of the marlin.

But the real power of the novel’s impact does not lie merely in the events of the old man’s dramatic struggle. It lies, I believe, in Hemingway’s successful creation of a new dimension in dramatic portraiture. In each of the five carefully delineated sections of the novel, the reader’s attention is always on Santiago. But in each, Hemingway alters with subtle but masterful strokes his changing image of the old man. In each he modifies the dramatic focus to isolate, intensify, and thereby magnify the novel’s central and controlling image, the portrait of Santiago.

In the setting of the simple fishing village we are presented with the aged fisherman, initially pathetic in his meager existence, but admirable in his determination to break his run of bad luck, at once lovable in his touching relationship with a young boy and quaint in his concern for American baseball. But as a solitary figure on the sea, against a backdrop of cosmic nature, the image of the old man takes on new and greater proportions. He becomes a being among the beings of the sea, a human force among the forces of the natural world. But it is at the point at which the old man engages the great marlin that a more profound level of meaning is reached. Hemingway marks the shift with characteristic restraint. The change is simple but unmistakable:

The boat began to move slowly off toward the North West.

It is here, I think, that the reader becomes aware that he is experiencing the achievement in prose which Hemingway had tried vaguely to explain in Green Hills of Africa. He had referred there to “a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.” And in speaking of the complexity of such writing, he had declared, “Too many factors must combine to make it possible.” He had called such prose “much more difficult than poetry,” but “one that can be written, without tricks and without cheating. With nothing that will go bad afterwards.” In the amazing combination of simple realism of narrative and complex symbolism of image at once contained in The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway has, I believe, constructed his closest approximation to his goal.

Source: William J. Handy, “A New Dimension for a Hero: Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea,” in Contemporary Novels, The University of Texas, 1962, pp. 62-69.

The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man

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In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway uses an effective metaphor to describe the kind of prose he is trying to write: he explains that “if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Among all the works of Hemingway which illustrate this metaphor, none, I think, does so more consistently or more thoroughly than the saga of Santiago. Indeed, the critical reception of the novel has emphasized this aspect of it: in particular, Philip Young, Leo Gurko, and Carlos Baker have stressed the qualities of The Old Man and the Sea as allegory and parable. Each of these critics is especially concerned with two qualities in Santiago— his epic individualism and the love he feels for the creatures who share with him a world of inescapable violence—though in the main each views these qualities from a different point of the literary compass. Young [in Hemingway] regards the novel as essentially classical in nature; Gurko [in College English] sees it as reflecting Hemingway's romanticism; and to Baker, [in Hemingway] the novel is Christian in context, and the old fisherman is suggestive of Christ.

Such interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea are not, of course, contradictory; in fact, they are parallel at many points. All are true, and together they point to both the breadth and depth of the novel's enduring significance and also to its central greatness: like all great works of art it is a mirror wherein every man perceives a personal likeness. Such viewpoints, then, differ only in emphasis and reflect generally similar conclusions— that Santiago represents a noble and tragic individualism revealing what man can do in an indifferent universe which defeats him, and the love he can feel for such a universe and his humility before it.

True as this is, there yet remains, I think, a deeper level of significance, a deeper level upon which the ultimate beauty and the dignity of movement of this brilliant structure fundamentally rest. On this level of significance, Santiago is Harry Morgan alive again and grown old; for what comes to Morgan in a sudden and unexpected revelation as he lies dying is the matrix of the old fisherman’s climactic experience. Since 1937, Hemingway has been increasingly concerned with the relationship between individualism and interdependence; and The Old Man and the Sea is the culminating expression of this concern in its reflection of Hemingway’s mature view of the tragic irony of man’s fate: that no abstraction can bring man an awareness and understanding of the solidarity and interdependence without which life is impossible; he must learn it, as it has always been truly learned, through the agony of active and isolated individualism in a universe which dooms such individualism.

Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago is given heroic proportions. He is “a strange old man,” still powerful and still wise in all the ways of his trade. After he hooks the great marlin, he fights him with epic skill and endurance, showing “what a man can do and what a man endures.” And when the sharks come, he is determined “‘to fight them until I die,’” because he knows that “‘a man is not made for defeat. . . . A man can be destroyed but not defeated.’”

In searching for and in catching his big fish, Santiago gains a deepened insight into himself and into his relationship to the rest of created life—an insight as pervasive and implicit in the old fisherman’s experience as it is sudden and explicit in Harry Morgan’s. As he sails far out on the sea, Santiago thinks of it “as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.” For the bird who rests on his line and for other creatures who share with him such a capricious and violent life, the old man feels friendship and love. And when he sees a flight of wild ducks go over, the old man knows “no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Santiago comes to feel his deepest love for the creature that he himself hunts and kills, the great fish which he must catch not alone for physical need but even more for his pride and his profession. The great marlin is unlike the other fish which the old man catches; he is a spiritual more than a physical necessity. He is unlike the other fish, too, in that he is a worthy antagonist for the old man, and during his long ordeal, Santiago comes to pity the marlin and then to respect and to love him. In the end he senses that there can be no victory for either in the equal struggle between them, that the conditions which have brought them together have made them one. And so, though he kills the great fish, the old man has come to love him as his equal and his brother; sharing a life which is a capricious mixture of incredible beauty and deadly violence and in which all creatures are both hunter and hunted, they are bound together in its most primal relationship.

Beyond the heroic individualism of Santiago’s struggle with the great fish and his fight against the sharks, however, and beyond the love and the brotherhood which he comes to feel for the noble creature he must kill, there is a further dimension in the old man’s experience which gives to these their ultimate significance. For in killing the great marlin and in losing him to the sharks, the old man learns the sin into which men inevitably fall by going far out beyond their depth, beyond their true place in life. In the first night of his struggle with the great fish, the old man begins to feel a loneliness and a sense almost of guilt for the way in which he has caught him; and after he has killed the marlin, he feels no pride of accomplishment, no sense of victory. Rather, he seems to feel almost as though he has betrayed the great fish; “I am only better than him through trickery,” he thinks, “and he meant me no harm.”

Thus, when the sharks come, it is almost as a thing expected, almost as a punishment which the old man brings upon himself in going far out “beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world” and there hooking and killing the great fish. For the coming of the sharks is not a matter of chance nor a stroke of bad luck; “the shark was not an accident.” They are the direct result of the old man’s action in killing the fish. He has driven his harpoon deep into the marlin’s heart, and the blood of the great fish, welling from his heart, leaves a trail of scent which the first shark follows. He tears huge pieces from the marlin’s body, causing more blood to seep into the sea and thus attract other sharks; and in killing the first shark, the old man loses his principal weapon, his harpoon. Thus, in winning his struggle with the marlin and in killing him, the old man sets in motion the sequence of events which take from him the great fish whom he has come to love and with whom he identifies himself completely. And the old man senses an inevitability in the coming of the sharks, a feeling of guilt which deepens into remorse and regret. “I am sorry that I killed the fish,” he thinks, and he tells himself that “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman.”

Earlier, before he had killed the marlin, Santiago had been “‘glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.’” It is enough, he had felt, to have to kill our fellow creatures. Now, with the inevitable sharks attacking, the old man senses that in going far out he has in effect tried “to kill the sun or the moon or the stars.” For him it has not been “enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers”; in his individualism and his need and his pride, he has gone far out “beyond all people,” beyond his true place in a capricious and indifferent world, and has thereby brought not only on himself but also on the great fish the forces of violence and destruction. “‘I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish. . . . ’” he declares. “‘Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry, fish.’” And when the sharks have torn away half of the great marlin, Santiago speaks again to his brother in the sea: “‘Half-fish,’ he said. ‘Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.’”

The old man’s realization of what he has done is reflected in his apologies to the fish, and this realization and its implications are emphasized symbolically throughout the novel. From beginning to end, the theme of solidarity and interdependence pervades the action and provides the structural framework within which the old man’s heroic individualism and his love for his fellow creatures appear and function and which gives them their ultimate significance. Having gone eighty-four days without a catch, Santiago has become dependent upon the young boy, Manolin, and upon his other friends in his village. The boy keeps up his confidence and hope, brings him clothes and such necessities as water and soap, and sees that he has fresh bait for his fishing. Martin, the restaurant owner, sends the old man food, and Perico, the wineshop owner, gives him newspapers so that he can read about baseball. All of this the old man accepts gratefully and without shame, knowing that such help is not demeaning. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.”

Santiago refuses the young boy’s offer to leave the boat his parents have made him go in and return to his, but soon after he hooks the great marlin he wishes increasingly and often that the boy were with him. And after the sharks come and he wonders if it had been a sin to kill the great fish, the old man thinks that, after all, “everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” But then he remembers that it is not fishing but the love and care of another human being that keeps him alive now; “the boy keeps me alive, he thought. I must not deceive myself too much.”

As the sharks tear from him more and more of the great fish and as the boat gets closer to his home, the old man's sense of his relationship to his friends and to the boy deepens: “I cannot be too far out now, he thought. I hope no one has been too worried. There is only the boy to worry, of course. But I am sure he would have confidence. Many of the older fishermen will worry. Many others too, he thought. I live in a good town.” In the end, when he awakens in his shack and talks with the boy, he notices “how pleasant it was to have someone to talk to instead of speaking only to himself and to the sea.” This time he accepts without any real opposition the boy’s insistence on returning to his boat, and he says no more about going far out alone.

This theme of human solidarity and interdependence is reinforced by several symbols. Baseball, which the old man knows well and loves and which he thinks and talks about constantly, is, of course, a highly developed team sport and one that contrasts importantly in this respect with the relatively far more individualistic bullfighting, hunting, and fishing usually found in Hemingway’s stories. Although he tells himself that “now is no time to think of baseball,” the game is in Santiago’s thoughts throughout his ordeal, and he wonders about each day’s results in the Gran Ligas.

Even more significant is the old man’s hero-worship of Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee outfielder. DiMaggio, like Santiago, was a champion, a master of his craft, and in baseball terms an old one, playing out the last years of his glorious career severely handicapped by the pain of a bone spur in his heel. The image of DiMaggio is a constant source of inspiration to Santiago; in his strained back and his cut and cramped left hand he, too, is an old champion who must endure the handicap of pain; and he tells himself that he “must have confidence and be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.”

But DiMaggio had qualities at least as vital to the Yankees as his courage and individual brilliance. Even during his own time and since then, many men with expert knowledge of baseball have considered other contemporary outfielders—especially Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox—to be DiMaggio’s equal or superior in terms of individual ability and achievement. But few men have ever earned the affection and the renown which DiMaggio received as a “team player”—one who always displayed his individual greatness as part of his team, one to whom the team was always more important than himself. It used to be said of DiMaggio’s value as a “team player” that with him in the line-up, even when he was handicapped by the pain in his heel, the Yankees were two runs ahead when they came out on the field. From Santiago’s love of baseball and his evident knowledge of it, it is clear that he would be aware of these qualities in DiMaggio. And when Manolin remarks that there are other men on the New York team, the old man replies: “‘Naturally. But he makes the difference.’”

The lions which Santiago dreams about and his description in terms of Christ symbols further suggest solidarity and love and humility as opposed to isolated individualism and pride. So evocative and lovely a symbol is the dream of the lions that it would be foolish if not impossible to attempt its literal definition. Yet it seems significant that the old man dreams not of a single lion, a “king of the beasts,” a lion proud and powerful and alone, like the one from which Francis Macomber runs in terror, but of several young lions who come down to a beach in the evening to play together. “He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.” It seems also significant that the old man “no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife”—that is that he no longer dreams of great individualistic deeds like the one which brings violence and destruction on him and on the marlin. Instead, the lions are “the main thing that is left” and they evoke the solidarity and love and peace to which the old man returns after hunting and killing and losing his great fish.

These qualities are further emphasized by the symbolic value of the old fisherman as he carries the mast crosslike up the hill to his shack and as he lies exhausted on his bed. His hands have been terribly wounded in catching the great marlin and in fighting the sharks, and as he lies sleeping “face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms up” his figure is Christlike and suggests that if the old man has been crucified by the forces of a capricious and violent universe, the meaning of his experience is the humility and love of Christ and the interdependence which they imply.

Such, then, are the qualities which define man’s true place in a world of violence and death indifferent to him, and they are the context which gives the experience of the old fisherman its ultimate significance as the reflection of Hemingway’s culminating concept of the human condition—his tragic vision of man. For in his understanding that “it is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers,” the fellow creatures who share life with us and whom he loves, the old man is expressing Hemingway’s conviction that despite the tragic necessity of such a condition, man has a place in the world. And in his realization that in going alone and too far out, “beyond all people in the world,” he has ruined both himself and also the great fish, the old man reflects Hemingway’s feeling that in his individualism and his pride and his need, man inevitably goes beyond his true place in the world and thereby brings violence and destruction on himself and on others. Yet in going out too far and alone, Santiago has found his greatest strength and courage and dignity and nobility and love, and in this he expresses Hemingway’s view of the ultimate tragic irony of man’s fate: that only through the isolated individualism and the pride which drive him beyond his true place in life does man develop the qualities and the wisdom which teach him the sin of such individualism and pride and which bring him the deepest understanding of himself and of his place in the world. Thus, in accepting his world for what it is and in learning to live in it, Hemingway has achieved a tragic but ennobling vision of man which is in the tradition of Sophocles Christ, Melville, and Conrad.

It is not enough, then, to point out, as Robert P. Weeks does [in the University of Kansas Review], that “from the first eight words of The Old Man and the Sea . . . we are squarely confronted with a world in which man’s isolation is the most insistent truth.” True as this is, it is truth which is at the same time paradox, for Santiago is profoundly aware that “no man was ever alone on the sea.” Nor is the novel solely what Leo Gurko feels it is—“the culmination of Hemingway’s long search for disengagement from the social world and total entry into the natural.” If the old man leaves society to go “far out” and “beyond all people in the world,” the consciousness of society and of his relationship to it are never for long out of his thoughts; and in the end, of course, he returns to his “good town,” where he finds it pleasant “to have someone to talk to instead of speaking only to himself and to the sea.” To go no further than Santiago’s isolation, therefore, or to treat it, as Weeks does, as a theme in opposition to Hemingway’s concern with society is to miss the deepest level of significance both in this novel and in Hemingway’s writing generally.

For, surely, as Edgar Johnson has shown, the true direction of Hemingway’s thought and art from the beginning and especially since 1937 has been a return to society—not in terms of any particular social or political doctrine, but in the broad sense of human solidarity and interdependence. If he began by making “a separate peace” and by going, like Santiago, “far out” beyond society, like the old man, too, he has come back, through Harry Morgan’s “‘no man alone,’” Philip Rawlings’s and Robert Jordan’s “no man is an island,” and Santiago’s “no man is ever alone on the sea,” with a deepened insight into its nature and values and a profound awareness of his relationship to it as an individual [a development found in Hemingway’s “Nobody Ever Dies!”].

In the process, strangely enough—or perhaps it is not strange at all—he has come back from Frederic Henry’s rejection of all abstract values to a reiteration for our time of mankind's oldest and noblest moral principles. As James B. Colvert points out [in American Literature], Hemingway is a moralist: heir, like his world, to the destruction by science and empiricism of nineteenth-century value assumptions, he rejects equally these assumptions and the principle underlying them—that intellectual moral abstractions possess independent supersensual existence. Turning from the resulting nihilism, he goes to experience in the actual world of hostility, violence, and destruction to find in the world which destroyed the old values a basis for new ones—and it is precisely here, Colvert suggests, in reflecting the central moral problem of his world, that Hemingway is a significant moralist.

But out of this concern with action and conduct in a naturalistic universe, Hemingway has not evolved new moral values; rather, he has reaffirmed man’s oldest ones—courage, love, humility, solidarity, and interdependence. It is their basis which is new—a basis not in supernaturalism or abstraction but hard-won through actual experience in a naturalistic universe which is at best indifferent to man and his values. Hemingway tells us, as E. M. Halliday observes, that “we are part of a universe offering no assurance beyond the grave, and we are to make what we can of life by a pragmatic ethic spun bravely out of man himself in full and steady cognizance that the end is darkness [in American Literature].”

Through perfectly realized symbolism and irony, then, Hemingway has beautifully and movingly spun out of an old fisherman’s great trial just such a pragmatic ethic and its basis in an essentially tragic vision of man; and in this reaffirmation of man’s most cherished values and their reaffirmation in the terms of our time rests the deepest and the enduring significance of The Old Man and the Sea.

Source: Clinton S. Burhans Jr. “The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man,” in American Literature, March, 1959-January, 1960, pp. 446-55.

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Critical Overview


The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway