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The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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In Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, what is the story's message, and what do the old man and the great fish symbolize?

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One indication of Ernest Hemingway’s central focus is the title, which presents the opposition between a human being and a natural element rather than another creature. Although Santiago, the fisherman, finds a worthy adversary in the huge fish that he lands, the sea is both his opponent and his source of sustenance; the story is about the man and the sea, not versus the sea. This central paradox creates the tension that Hemingway explores.

Santiago’s age is also significant: he has a long lifetime of experience in coaxing a life from the sea, but he worries that his best days are behind him. But when the astonishing opportunity to land the catch of a lifetime presents itself, he proves he is up to the challenge. The long fight to land the fish is exhausting but worthwhile, not only because the prize is huge but because gaining it required tremendous effort and stamina.

The sea ultimately demonstrates her control, as her denizens consume the fish: it belongs to the sea, not to the man and his life on shore. The sea allowed Santiago the singular triumph of besting the fish but reminded him that he was there on the sea's sufferance. It is significant that Santiago survives. The sea took the fish but not him, because he belongs to the land. His tenacity and indomitable spirit are qualities that inspire affection in Manolin, who awaits him and cares for him when he safely lands. Although Santiago is a unique individual, he also occupies a place in the chain of expert fishermen, in which the younger man is the newest link. The relationship between man and sea not only exists in a given moment but is also eternal.

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