Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Old Man and the Sea, although usually called a novel, is not divided into chapters; yet, at 27,500 words it is too long to be called a short story. Efforts to split it into recognizably separate parts are haphazard at best, because its simple action moves along a time line of morning, noon, sunset, midnight, and dawn, which is then repeated, and with little reminiscing by the protagonist and no interpolations by the author.

The action may be arbitrarily, but perhaps helpfully, divided into introduction, three dramatic sections, denouement, and coda. In this introduction, the reader learns that for forty days Santiago fished off Havana in the Gulf Stream, aided by his friend and admirer Manolin, and then for forty-four more days alone, all without success. In part 1, the action begins. On the eighty-fifth day, Santiago rows his skiff “far out” and at noon hooks an enormous male marlin. In part 2, the fish is so strong that it tows Santiago’s skiff northwest into the night and beyond. The following afternoon, the old man first sees his quarry when it suddenly surfaces. All through the second night, it tows the old man, whose hands are cut and whose back is strained. It circles at dawn, and Santiago harpoons it at noon and lashes it alongside the skiff. In part 3, a mako shark attacks and devours part of the marlin. Santiago kills the shark, but his fear that more sharks will follow the bloody wake is soon confirmed by their awesome appearance. In the denouement, the scavengers complete the ruin of his prize, leaving only the marlin’s skeleton, which he brings to shore. Bone-tired, he sleeps again in his shack. In the coda, Manolin brings Santiago coffee next morning, and the two determine to fish again.

Most of the time, Santiago is the only person whose words and thoughts are recorded. When he talks aloud to himself, as he often does, Ernest Hemingway puts his exact words within quotation marks. At other times, his unspoken thoughts are recorded but without the use of quotation marks and with the pronouns “he” and “I” used without evident distinction.

The Old Man and the Sea displays the classical unity of time, place, and action—with a distinct beginning, long middle, and end. It comprises three days and nights, occurs mostly on the vast sea, and presents one sequence of events. It is knit together by skillful foreshadowing, largely through Santiago’s repeated refrain of going out too far, his frequently calling his quarry his “brother,” his thoughts about baseball (especially his hero Joe DiMaggio), and his dreaming about playful lions that he saw long ago on African beaches. Manolin is involved in the action only in the first several pages and in the last few pages of the story. Thus, the novella has a sonata form, with Manolin constituting the short first and third motifs and a man pitted against the sea and its creatures as the more elaborate second motif.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Caribbean Sea

*Caribbean Sea. Branch of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Cuba. The sea contributes to the sense of fatalism in the primary character. Alone on the vast expanses of the sea, Santiago, the “old man” of the title, suggests a symbolic understanding of human alienation amid an indifferent world. The sea functions as a backdrop for his reflections of his interior being, thus reinforcing themes of loneliness, struggle, and courage. Ernest Hemingway says of Santiago, “He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now.” His loneliness, however, is also comforted by the sea, as he knows that no man is ever completely alone on the sea.

The desolation of the open sea overwhelms the character, suggesting man’s relative insignificance, yet in this vast space, a courageous man finds beauty and solace by understanding his relationship to the environment. For Santiago, this relationship is like that of a man and woman (again reinforcing the man’s solitary existence). He understands the sea as la mar, a feminine noun in Spanish, something to be loved, something that gives or withholds great favors. In contrast, others understand the sea to be masculine, el mar, a rival or even an enemy.

Despite Santiago’s understanding of the aesthetic nature of his relationship to the sea, the sea itself is ultimately a violent, dangerous place on which survival becomes a primary goal and the ability to survive is the cardinal virtue. It is a place where predators feed on lesser forms of life, and Santiago’s struggle with the fish and with the sharks who feed on it illustrates that man also participates within this vicious cycle. Human existence is about surviving in a beautiful but hostile environment.

Santiago’s shack

Santiago’s shack. This place reveals the man’s poverty. Symbolically, it functions as a place where he retreats each night in humility before going out at daylight to fish and survive. It is a returning to the womb, demonstrating man’s longed for comfort in stark contrast to the hostilities on the sea.


*Havana. Capital and principal city of Cuba, in sight of which Santiago has long done his fishing. Its opulent urban setting contrasts with Santiago’s simple village and his daily struggle to catch and sell fish.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Gregorio Fuentes, a Cuban fisherman, was Hemingway's inspiration for the title character of The Old Man and the Sea. With a portrait of Hemingway and Fuentes hanging in the background, this photograph was taken in 1994. Published by Gale Cengage

Cuba and the United States in the Early 1950s
Relations between Cuba and the United States were generally friendly during most of the 1950s, as they had been since 1934. That year marked the end of the Platt Amendment, which had given the United States the right to intervene in Cuba’s affairs. United States’ ownership of many Cuban sugar mills, however, was a continuing source of dispute. In 1952, President Prio Socarras was overthrown in a military coup by General Fulgencio Batista y Zalvidar. Batista had previously ruled as dictator from 1933 to 1940, and would rule again until 1959, when he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Despite Hemingway’s move to Ketchum, Idaho, soon after Castro and his supporters overthrew the Batista regime, Hemingway had supported both the overthrow and what he called the “historical necessity” of the Castro revolution.

Cuban Culture
Cuban culture during the first half of the twentieth century was marked perhaps foremost by an ambivalent view toward the Catholic Church. Unlike other Latin American countries, church and state in Cuba were constitutionally separate during this period. Because of its long Spanish heritage, however, Cuba was still dominated by Catholic cultural influences. The result was a contradictory situation in which 85 percent of the population called itself Catholic, but only 10 percent actually practiced the faith. The effect of these circumstances are seen many times in The Old Man and the Sea. For example, when Santiago...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The narrative takes place in the 1940s. Although the opening and closing scenes take place on land in a small Cuban fishing village, the...

(The entire section is 60 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
All novels use at least one point of view, or angle of vision, from which to tell the story. The point...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Old Man and the Sea employs straightforward prose and conventional narrative form and technique. Technically speaking, it is...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Hemingway focuses on Santiago's consciousness in this quest story. Very much in the way that a traditional soliloquy or an interior monologue...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Old Man and the Sea is a profound exploration of humankind's relationship with nature, and the human place in nature. Santiago's...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In general, group discussions of The Old Man and the Sea seem to work best when they focus on the exact details of Santiago's...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Discuss the baseball imagery in the book. What does the "great Dimaggio" symbolize? What does the "bone spur" symbolize?


(The entire section is 218 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Analyze in detail the relationship between Santiago and Manolin.

2. The main theme of the book is summed up in the single...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago expresses his feelings about nature. Today, the protection of our natural environment...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

If the reader accepts the apparent critical consensus, there are very few literary precedents for The Old Man and the Sea. Moby...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In a general sense, all of Hemingway's work is related to The Old Man and the Sea because as his last important work it represents a...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Baker,Carlos, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Critiques of Four Major Novels. Scribner’s, 1962, pp. 132-72....

(The entire section is 679 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.

Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.

Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.

Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s roots in previous Hemingway works and discusses Santiago as a “code hero,” as distinct from a “Hemingway hero.” Claims simple interpretation of the book’s symbols reduces their meanings.

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • The Old Man and the Sea was adapted as a feature film starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago and Felipe Pazos as The Boy, Warner...

(The entire section is 79 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Baker, Carlos. Hemingway: The Writer as Artist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. One of the earliest and still one of the...

(The entire section is 272 words.)