Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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How is the phrase "Man can be destroyed but not defeated" exemplified in The Old Man and the Sea?

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That "man can be destroyed but not defeated" is exemplified in The Old Man and the Sea through Santiago's valiant battle to keep the sharks from his giant marlin. He loses the struggle but is not defeated, because he fought with all his strength and courage.

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This statement by Santiago means that a man is defined by how faces what life throws at him, not by what happens to him. What is most important in life is living to the fullest extent of one's courage, capability, and integrity, no matter what the outcome is. If one does one's best, even personal destruction is victory, not defeat.

This is exemplified in Santiago's valiant fight with marlin and the mako sharks that threaten to eat it. Though an old man all alone facing the fight of his life with the giant marlin, Santiago never flinches from the task but gives it his all. His hands are raw and in pain, and after a long, long battle, he is spent and exhausted, but he never gives in until he finally defeats the worthy opponent. Later, when the sharks smell the blood and descend on the marlin, Santiago fights them with all his might and skill and feels a sense of pride when he kills one and chases others off.

The sharks win in the sense that they are able to eat all the flesh of the marlin, leaving Santiago, who has not caught a fish in months, with nothing to sell. Nevertheless, Santiago has not been truly defeated, because he put his full spirit into the battle with his adversaries.

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Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea is the quintessential Code Hero because he begins the narrative with all the elements of such a hero, although he is old and poor. He is not defeated, because he never gives up on bringing in a fish, and Santiago does not lose his pride.

Despite his failures, he sets out in his boat after having caught no fish for eighty-four days. Nevertheless, Santiago is confident that he will catch a fish that he can sell. 

[H]is hope and confidence had never gone. But now they were freshening as when the breeze rises. . . . 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.

In his desire and courage, Santiago ventures out into the very deep water, where he hooks a marlin. Although he has nothing but his hands to hold the line, Santiago is strong, and he battles the marlin for days. Despite losing his harpoon, Santiago fights against the fish with his knife and his old hands. When the Mako shark comes and eats the flesh of the marlin that is tied to the side of the boat, Santiago continues to fight for the marlin, talking to himself. Nevertheless, the shark takes much flesh from the marlin.

"He [the shark] took about forty pounds and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others [sharks]."

 "But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
. . . But I must think, he thought. Because it is all I have left. That and baseball. I wonder how the great DiMaggio would have like the way I hit him in the brain? It was no great thing, he thought.

Later on, he thinks, "I killed him in self-defense. . . . And I killed him well." But Santiago also tells himself that he has not killed the fish just to eat; he has killed it "for pride and because you are a fisherman." So, Santiago is not defeated, because he still has his pride in being a good fisherman. When he returns home in an exhausted state, he lies down on his bed and dreams of the lions, who also have pride.

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The idea that man can be destroyed but not defeated from The Old Man and the Sea could be explained or paraphrased as:

  • A man can be killed, but as long as he doesn't quit he can't really be defeated.

Santiago goes fishing day after day even though he is on a "losing streak," as we might say today.  He hasn't caught a fish for a very long time.  He survives only because the boy brings him bits of food.  But he doesn't quit.  He continues to fish everyday and continues to try.  His "spirit" is not broken.

More specifically, Santiago hooks the marlin and does terrible battle with it.  He is an old man but he uses his strength and wits to defeat the fish, at the cost of great physical suffering.  Again, he doesn't quit.  Even after he defeats the marlin and then must fight the sharks, he continues the battle.  His spirit remains strong.  He doesn't get the fish home in the kind of shape he needed to earn money for it--he fails, technically.  But a man who keeps fighting is not a failure. 

This is Hemingway's modern view on the warrior.  Hemingway is too modern and worldly and intelligent to pull the old cliche of the warrior giving it all he can and being unrealistically victorious.  The "good" or "right" or "just" doesn't always win.  The knight in shining armor doesn't always carry the day.  But Santiago can fight, nevertheless.  This makes him noble, like the marlin.  And it makes him undefeated. 

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This philosophical view and literary theme of Hemingway's applies more aptly to some of his other heroes than it does to Santiago. For instance, Lt. Henry in A Farewell to Arms is emotionally destroyed by Catherine's death, but he is not defeated in this sense. At the conclusion of the novel, he walks away from the hospital, alone, but he goes on. Like the classic Hemingway hero, he will endure through courage and will, although life has lost all meaning for him.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago experiences great losses, one after another. However, in the novel's conclusion, he is neither destroyed nor defeated. His spirit is intact, and he does not view his loss of the great fish as a defeat. He will go back to the sea again. He still dreams of the lions, just as he had before his great adventure.

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Explain the quote "a man can be destroyed but not defeated," from The Old Man and the Sea.

I think the best way to explain this quote is to think of a person as a physical being as well as a spiritual/emotional being. A man (person) can be physically destroyed. That person's body can go through trauma that breaks that person down bit by bit. Ironman triathletes are a good example. By the end of the race, their bodies have been absolutely destroyed regardless of winning or losing; however, that competitive spirit that drives the athlete is still present. Even though that athlete may have lost the race, their spirit to push harder and try again is never defeated. It is similar with the old man in this story. His gear is broken, his hands are wrecked, he hungers and thirsts as his rations run out and his body is forced to start feeding on itself; however, the old man never gives up the fight. He is still looking for ways to win.

He knew quite well the pattern of what could happen when he reached the inner part of the current. But there was nothing to be done now.

“Yes there is,” he said aloud. “I can lash my knife to the butt of one of the oars.”

Even at the end of the story, the old man's dreams suggest to the reader that he is absolutely going to keep on going out and fighting for his right to fish, survive, and earn a living. He is physically destroyed, but he is never defeated.

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Explain the quote "a man can be destroyed but not defeated," from The Old Man and the Sea.

As the old man battles to first bring in the fish he has hooked and then to try and get it to the shore without exhausting his last reserves of strength, he is repeatedly destroyed in small pieces.  First he is worn very thin and weary by the long chase and all of the actions he must take in order to draw the fish to the boat.  His hands are torn to pieces and he grows very hungry and thirsty as he runs out of provisions.  The sharks soon begin to tear at the very fish that he spent so much time and energy bringing in.  Eventually they have basically taken everything of value, destroying the man and his boat and the fish in the process.

Yet the struggle and the will of the man to continue are not defeated, he has gained a victory even as the thing for which he fought was destroyed, even as he was destroyed.

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Explain the quote "a man can be destroyed but not defeated," from The Old Man and the Sea.

You can be destroyed ... there are forces in the universe, some man made some natural, that have the ability to destroy us, to take away our lives -- to kill us.  But death is not the ultimate defeat, at least for Hemingway.  For him, death, destruction, is a given ... it awaits all of us.  What really counts is what we do as we await the inevitable.  We are defeated if we do not live honorably, according to our code.

This is what happens in this novel.  Santiage is destroyed ... not in the sense of the totality of death, but both he and the fish are destroyed by the sharks.  But he is not defeated.  He fought the fish with honor, just as the fish fought him with honor.  They both behaved according to the "rules" --- did all they could.  There is nothing more that a man/fish can do; there is nothing more to be expected.

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What are some real-world examples of the theme "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," as seen in The Old Man and the Sea?

I might point to Muhammad Ali as an example of a person who exemplifies the quotation. His physical prowess was, essentially, his career. Spinal damage took that prowess away from him (at least I think it is spinal damage and not a degenerative disease, but stories vary...). Despite his physical limitations, Ali continued and continues to appear in public and to inspire people. 

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What are some real-world examples of the theme "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," as seen in The Old Man and the Sea?

I think this is true of everyone who has had to start over.  In this economy, people have faced loss of their jobs and homes.  They are not all giving up and sitting on the street.  They are still trying.

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What are some real-world examples of the theme "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," as seen in The Old Man and the Sea?

I, too, think immediately of the Native Americans and particularly Chief Joseph's so-called concession speech. He is clearly a defeated leader who speaks with dignity and nobility in the face of absolute surrender. It's a short speech and would be a powerful example to use in your speech.

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What are some real-world examples of the theme "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," as seen in The Old Man and the Sea?

Here in the United States, perhaps the most famous example of such a person is the Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale.  This is the man who was hung for being a spy.  On the gallows, he said that his only regret was that he had "but one life to give for my country."

This is an example of being destroyed (he ended up being killed, which is pretty much the ultimate in destruction) but not defeated (because he remained brave until the end).

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What are some real-world examples of the theme "A man can be destroyed but not defeated," as seen in The Old Man and the Sea?

It seems like the basis of your speech should be on the individuals or groups in history that have survived and endured, enabling them to enjoy some level of triumph.  In my mind, I would point to Native Americans as one particular group that endured societal destruction.  Their endurance today and the understanding of what they endured at the hands of American notions of "progress" serves as testament to how they were not defeated.  In the end, there is a historical judgment against those who did wrong to Native Americans.  While this might not necessarily restore all that was taken and endured, there is some level of solace that can be taken in the idea that they were not defeated.  Their presence today reminds one of the cost and sacrifice involved in American History.  I think that the same type of analysis could be applied to those who endured the Holocaust and the racist practices of the Nazis.  In this setting, the same idea of being destroyed and violated is not automatically synonymous with defeat.

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How does The Old Man and the Sea show the concept, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated"?

When Santiago finally wins over the large fish, he finds that the blood trail, so far out in the water, is attracting sharks. He kills the first one with his harpoon, but it gets stuck and he loses it. The loss of his harpoon and the knowledge that more sharks are coming almost serves to break Santiago's will; it is almost better to have never won the fish if he will not be able to show it off:

It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers.

"But man is not made for defeat," he said. "A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
(Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Google Books)

Using all of his tricks, skills, and willpower, Santiago fights off the sharks, finally making it back to shore with nothing but the skeleton and head of the fish. Despite his low mood, and the fact that he has lost all the meat of the fish, Manolin realizes that he has not lost anything; in fact, with the other fishermen seeing the skeleton, Santiago has won back his respect and his reputation. His hard work was destroyed, but he proved his self-worth again, and so Santiago himself has not been defeated. It is possible that he even dies after the end, but this doesn't even matter; Santiago beat back old age, caught a huge fish, and then beat back the sea and the sharks, refusing to give up. The persistence of willpower that Santiago shows proves that he can be destroyed in body, but not in mind.

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"Man can be destroyed but can not be defeated." Discuss with reference to The Old Man and the Sea.

Santiago would be defeated if he gave up.  He refused to give up, no matter what it did to him to keep up the struggle.  The basic idea is that Santiago is tough

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"Man can be destroyed but can not be defeated." Discuss with reference to The Old Man and the Sea.

Santiago has gone a long time (87 days, I believe) without catching a fish.  Despite that, he keeps going out and fishing.  Santiago has caught himself a fish which is bigger than his boat and which he can't reasonably expect to bring back without trouble.  Despite that, he does his best to bring the fish home. Santiago's body is not cooperating during this exhausting endeavor.  Despite that, he does what he must to catch bring in the marlin. Santiago's great fish is attacked by sharks.  Despite that, he defends his "brother" the best he can.  At the end of his ordeal, he has a broken body and a broken fish, which by anyone's definition spells defeat, yet Santiago is not defeated.  We know he will go out again tomorrow and fish.

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"Man can be destroyed but can not be defeated." Discuss with reference to The Old Man and the Sea.

Santiago's struggle against the marlin is one of classic and epic proportions. Although he is not successful is bringing the fish back to shore, he proves that it can be done. He may have been unsuccessful--his catch may have been destroyed--but he was not defeated and in fact returns to the seas and a more knowledgeable, more experienced fisherman.

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In The Old Man and the Sea, how does the philosophy that "a man is not made for a defeat . . . a man can be destroyed but not defeated" shed light on the entire encounter between the Old Man and the Great Marlin?

Although the old man, Santiago, loses most of his great marlinall but the skeletonto a school of sharks, he is not destroyed or defeated.

The old man badly needed a fish catch, as he had not had one in 84 days. Also, the great marlin would have earned him a great deal of money had he been able to sell the meat. However, people on shore are impressed with the size of the catch based on the bones of the carcass he drags back to land: they have never seen a marlin so large.

Furtherand more importantly, as the story showsSantiago fights the good fight to get and keep the great marlin. It's an exhausting and draining struggle to defeat the marlin. Santiago eats all his remaining bait to keep his energy up and hangs on as the rope cuts his hands. Once he has won the battle, however, the marlin is too big to fit in his fishing boat. Therefore, he has to drag it. A mako shark tears out a piece of it, and after that, the smell of blood brings many more sharks. Santiago does everything he can to kill and drive off the sharks, but there are too many for him.

Although Santiago lost the battle with the sharks, that is not what is most important. What matters is that he fought them with everything he had, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. This is what defines courage and a life well lived. It is not what you gain but how you live that is important. The old man can sleep peacefully when he is back on shore. He is undefeated because he has lived with integrity, given life his all, and is ready to go back out to sea the next day.

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