Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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The setting and beginning of The Old Man and the Sea


The setting of The Old Man and the Sea is a small fishing village near Havana, Cuba, and the Gulf Stream in the Caribbean Sea. The story begins with Santiago, an old fisherman, who has gone 84 days without catching a fish. Despite his bad luck, he remains determined and ventures far into the sea in hopes of making a big catch.

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How does the story The Old Man and the Sea begin?

There is an old, Cuban fisherman who is in a terrible slump. He has not caught a fish in eighty-four days. He used to take a boy, Manolin, with him, but Manolin's parents directed Manolin to another boat because the old man had become salao (unlucky). Manolin is very loyal to the old man (Santiago), so it saddens him to see Santiago return every day with no fish. 

The other fishermen either mock Santiago or feel sad for him. Manolin still keeps Santiago company and seems to be his best, if not only, friend. Manolin admires Santiago and often tries to boost his spirits. 

Despite Santiago's bad luck, "His hope and confidence had never gone." He and Manolin eat supper together and discuss baseball. Santiago admires Joe DiMaggio, which is ironic because one of DiMaggio's famous records was a 56-game hitting streak. Manolin helps Santiago prepare for the day's fishing. On this eighty-fifth day, Santiago sails out alone amidst other fishing boats. 

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When and where does the narrative of The Old Man and the Sea take place?

Anyone familiar with the life of Hemingway knows that his was an adventurous life, and many of his adventures found their way into his fiction. In the 1930s Hemingway hunted on the African Safari and he fished in the Gulf Stream close to Cuba.  In fact, many of the Cubans became so fond of him that they called him "Papa," a respectful title that remained with him throughout the rest of his life.  To this day, there is the Hemingway Home and Museum located in Key West, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. This home/museum is about one hundred miles north of Cuba.

Without knowledge of Hemingway's biography, a reader can discern that Santiago is hispanic, both from his name and from his use of Spanish, such as his name for the sea, La Mer, and because of the food he eats. In the exposition, Santiago eats black beans and rice; traditionally, black beans are eaten by Cubans. In addition, the first sentence reveals his location:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

Near the middle of the novella as Santiago struggles to catch the great fish, he promises that he will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys if he catches the fish.  Importantly, he promises also to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre, known as Our Lady of Charity, if he catches it. Cobre is a remote village in Santiago, Cuba. So, there are several hints pertaining to Santiago's surroundings. 

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Where does The Old Man and the Sea take place?

The Old Man and the Sea takes place in Cuba, likely somewhere off the coast of Havana. Santiago lives in a small fishing village off the coast, though while the novella starts and ends in this village, the bulk of the novel takes place in Santiago's boat as he floats about the sea. The novel is set during the 1940's, roughly around the time when the novella was written. Hemingway was an incessant traveler, spending time in Spain, Italy, France, Africa, Cuba, and many other countries across the world. Using this plethora of travel experience, Hemingway was able to properly create the setting of his writings.

Hemingway's decision to set the novella primarily in the sea serves his purpose in isolating Santiago from the civilized world. He becomes engulfed amongst nature's merciless power. The sea serves as a metaphor for the natural world, and Santiago's fight against it—and the marlin—shows mankind's constant fight against this natural world from which he originated.

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Where does The Old Man and the Sea take place?

The opening lines of The Old Man and the Seaplace the story somewhere in the Gulf Stream. From this, we can suppose that Santiago sets off to fish from somewhere in this area; from Cuba and the tip of Florida and on up the North Atlantic coast. Hemingway uses Spanish words throughout the text to indicate that Santiago and Manolin (Spanish names) live in a Spanish-speaking culture. 

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. 

Tropic sea: the northern Tropic of Cancer runs between Cuba and Florida. All of these clues suggest that the story is set in Cuba. It isn't until about 12 pages in that there is a direct reference to this. 

The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana. 

In this case, it helps to know some background information on Hemingway. He spent time in Key West and in Cuba. These experiences undoubtedly contributed to writing The Old Man and the Sea. So, the bulk of the story takes place off the coast of Cuba. 

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Describe the setting in The Old Man and the Sea.

In The Old Man and the Sea, there are three levels to the setting: land, air, and sea.  The time is in the present (1952).

1.  The novella begin begins on land in a fishing village on the island of Cuba.  The action follows the old man as he prepares for his voyage.  We see that Santiago lives alone, though the boy and his daughter visit him.  We see that several other fishermen poke fun at Santiago for his unlucky streak.

2.  The setting then changes to the sea and air.  As Santiago voyages far out, he makes contact with the birds, using them to find the fish.  Though we never see below the water, the setting involves the struggle between the marlin as it dives.  Then, after it is caught, the marlin's attack by the sharks becomes the focus.

3.  The action returns to land as Santiago drags the skeleton to shore and carries the mast home like a Christ-figure bearing a cross.

Here are some further insights by Enotes:

The Old Man and the Sea takes place entirely in a small fishing village near Havana, Cuba, and in the waters of the Gulf Stream, a current of warm water that runs north, then east of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea. Hemingway visited Cuba as early as 1928, and later lived on the coast near Havana for nineteen years, beginning in 1940, so he knew the area very well. The references to Joe Dimaggio and a series of games between the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers in which Dimaggio came back from a slump have enabled scholars to pinpoint the time during which the novel takes place as mid-September 1950. As Manolin also reminds readers, September is the peak of the blue marlin season. The story takes three days, the length of the battle against the fish, but as Manolin reminds the old man, winter is coming on and he will need a warm coat.

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Describe the setting in The Old Man and the Sea.

The Old Man and the Sea is set in and around an unnamed village located on the island of Cuba. The fish that Santiago and the other fishermen catch and deliver to the fish house by the harbor are collected "for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana."

When the marlin takes Santiago's bait, it pulls the boat to the north and east, gradually moving further away from the lights of Havana on the horizon. The story gives no indication of how many miles away from the shoreline they are when the marlin is finally killed, but they presumably are somewhere in the water northeast of Havana, in between Cuba and the islands of The Bahamas.

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