Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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How does the old man in The Old Man and the Sea struggle with economic forces?

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From the outset, it's perfectly obvious that Santiago isn't a very successful fisherman. We're told right away that he's gone eighty-four whole days without catching a fish. For someone who makes his living as a fisherman, that's a very long time indeed. Santiago is in the same boat as all other fisherman—no pun intended—in that he's very much at the mercy of economic, as well as natural forces. If fishermen don't catch enough fish, then that's it, they'll find themselves struggling financially.

It quickly becomes apparent that his lack of success at sea is having a serious impact on Santiago's ability to provide for himself. The old man is thin and gaunt, indicating that perhaps he hasn't eaten very well in a long while. In addition, the condition of his skiff is nothing to write home about. Santiago has been strugglingly financially for so long that he has to make do with patching his sail with flour sacks.

It's notable also that Santiago lives in a small, run-down shack, a further indication that he's seen better days. Unlike the other fishermen, whose catches are already heading their way to Havana in ice trucks, Santiago has nothing to show for his efforts. As fishing is all he knows, he has no choice but to head out to sea once more in the hope that he will land the big one, the catch that will transform his economic fortunes for the better.

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How does the old man's defeat impact him both economically and physically in The Old Man and the Sea?

When Santiago returns to town after his encounter with the fish, he is physically exhausted. Investing all his energy in catching the huge marlin left him spent. Because he was not able to bring the fish back intact, he will not realize any profit on the venture. Although Ernest Hemingway has deliberately left the ending ambiguous, it is likely that Santiago may never regain his strength and that the epic battle with the fish was the last of his life. For all that, however, as he rested his chin on the boat, “he was happy.”

The question of “defeat” needs to be contextualized. Santiago’s struggle with the fish is in many ways as important as winning or losing. The man suffers some injuries in the course of battle, including to his hands, but he is not resentful. Santiago recognizes an evenly matched opponent in the fish, so when he triumphs, he realizes that he has scored a significant victory. Sadly, the sharks emerge as the true victors: it is to them, not the fish, that Santiago finally loses. By the time they finish with the fish and the old man has reached the village, he has almost no strength left.

The fisherman’s concern throughout the battle is more with the competition, but he does think of the money. When he realizes how large the fish he has hooked is, he thinks of the potential income.

But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good.

After the sharks attack the fish and ruin him, Santiago feels like his luck is gone and wonders if he could buy some. He takes stock of what he has that could be used for such a purchase and comes up with few assets.

Could I buy it [luck] with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?

Still he must use his remaining strength to fight off the final pack of sharks, and after that, he feels the weight of defeat: “He knew he was beaten now finally and without remedy.”

Once he reaches his village, he can barely walk with the weight of the mast he is carrying, stopping repeatedly before he reaches his shack and his bed. In the morning when he speaks with the boy, he tells him that something broke inside his chest, as well as about damaging his hands. The boy feels confident that they will fish again together, and Santiago allows him to make plans.

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