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The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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What role do the sea and its inhabitants play in The Old Man and the Sea?

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In Ernest Hemingway's novella, the sea serves as both antagonist and ally to Santiago, providing sustenance and solace while also challenging him. Santiago views the sea as feminine, calling it "la mar," in contrast to other fishermen who see it as a masculine adversary. The sea symbolizes nature's indifference and the challenges that test Santiago's spirit and moral code.

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Interestingly, the sea acts both as antagonist and ally in Ernest Hemingway's novella, The Old Man and the Sea, as it is a force against which Santiago must reckon, but at the same time it provides for him and gives him solace.  His knowledge of the sea insomuch as how to navigate, where to catch fish, and how to survive upon its waves and how to maintain his hold upon a fish plays a keen role in Santiago's venture to catch a big fish after eighty-four days.  Still, unlike the other fishermen who use buoys and motors in order to conquer the sea and call the water the masculine el mar, Santiago perceives the ocean as la mar with the Spanish denotation of the noun as being feminine.  While he may speak badly of the sea, it is always as a woman that he speaks of her because he loves her.

They [the other fishermen] spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy.  But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.  The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. 

Essentially, for all the villagers who live off the sea, it is part of their lives, and in this sense, the sea is a measure of their lives.  For, when they are successful on the sea, the villagers prosper and have respect; on the other hand, when they fail at sea, they suffer domestically and lose the respect of the other villagers.  Perhaps, Santiago considers the sea as a woman because men are often measured by their relationships with their wives.  If he no longer has her love, he loses; if he no longer loves her, his life lacks imagination and dreams.  He is truly alone.

Santiago is defeated at sea, but his love for la mer will take him out to sea again, for he yet retains the ability to love and to dream:

Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again.  He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him.  The old man was dreaming about the lions.

Defeated by the sharks, disrespected by the fishermen, Santiago, like the sea, will return to the shore and venture forth again because he yet loves la mer and he yet has the imagination to dream.

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What is the role of the sea in The Old Man and the Sea?

I think for most readers the sea represents nature—but the question is, what attitude should we have about the sea? On the one hand, there is a sense in which the sea, or nature in general, can be seen as indifferent to man. In this reading, the plot of the story is completely arbitrary—there is no reason why Santiago should catch the great fish, nor is there any reason why the fish should be eaten by sharks. Santiago is not “rewarded” or “punished.” He is as much a part of the ecology of the sea as any of the fish he catches.

There is another sense, however, in which the sea functions as test, a challenge to Santiago’s spirit and his “code” as a fisherman. Santiago himself thinks of the sea as a woman:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

It is the “younger fisherman,” who used floats and had motorboats, who thought of the sea as an “enemy” and as masculine, but Santiago saw the sea as a woman who “gave or withheld great favors” according to whim. Santiago has a habit of mythologizing (see his imaginative engagement with “the great DiMaggio’s” bone spurs) and in this case his notion of the sea contributes both to his desire to fish “correctly” and to be worthy of catching the truly big fish. The sea is less an adversary to be overcome than something to be wooed, or tricked, into giving up its treasure. In this sense, the sea is an essential part of Santiago’s moral universe, something against which he is constantly testing himself.

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What is the role of the sea in The Old Man and the Sea?

The sea is the natural element of the old man, since he has been a fisherman all his life. However, its role is antithetical since it is both a provider and a threat at the same time. Santiago must battle against the elements of nature intrinsic with the sea (storms, extreme heat, attacks from sharks, hunger and thirst) and be found "tried and true." Santiago's experience is on the conflict level of man versus nature, but it is also an internal battle of the will, which he indeed wins - even if he has lost the biggest catch he ever had.

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What is the role of the sea in The Old Man and the Sea?

There are those who believe that life began in the ocean and evolved into all of the different organisms that now exist. Perhaps, for this reason those who speak the Romance languages use the feminine noun. La mar is the mother of all life.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.

Indeed, for the old fisherman Santiago, la mar is a woman, a woman to whom he has been married. For, he has long flirted with her dangers, courted her, wooed her, struggled against her only to return again and again to ride her waves and search her depths that sustain his life. He loves her children, the sea turtles, who "happily" eat the Portugese men-of-war that he considers "the falsest thing(s) in the sea." Truly, then, Santiago's relationship with the sea is an existential one. For, on the sea to whom he is wed, Santiago is tested as a man as he fights against the great fish, who is a male. "Now that I have him coming so beautifully, God help me endure." But, as the already heroic man struggles against fate, although he loses the great fish he has caught to the sharks, he is not conquered because he returns home to fish again on la mar.

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What are the roles that "the sea" plays in The Old Man and the Sea?

As with Derek Walcott's poem, "The Sea is History," the sea tells its own tales.  Those who venture on it do so on its terms, not man's.   The sea is timeless, eternal, has no history.  It is a god unto itself.

There are three levels of nature in the novella: the sea, land, and the air.  Man is confined to land; fish to the sea; birds to the air.  Of the three, land and air are transparent: we can see them with little obscurity.  But the sea, especially far out, is unfathomable.  It holds mystery, secrets.

It is a metaphor for Santiago's journey.  The only way he can hook his great fish is to venture far out, to risk not being able to return.  He does so, hooks the fish, but suffers on the return.  This is akin to The Odyssey, where Odysseus (successful on land in defeating Troy) must suffer at sea (10 years before returning home).

There are two types of fish that come from the sea: the marlin and the sharks.  The marlin is Santiago's brother; the shark his enemy.  If one reads the novella from a metafictional perspective, the marlin then is the novella itself; the sharks are literary critics who take a "bite out" of the artist's work.  The sea, therefore, is the literary community, an artistic journey in which an author must venture far out (try to write a work unlike any others), hook a great fish (finish what in his eyes is a great novel), only to have it eaten away (torn apart by critics).

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What is the role of the old man as a fisherman in the novel The Old Man and the Sea?

Santiago is the pivotal character in the story; it is around him that both the story line and the main themes are woven. Santiago is first pictured as an aging old man resisting and then defeated by nature. But at the end of the story he emerges as a heroic archetype as new definitions of "success" and "failure" are fomulated.

I suggest you read the essay mentioned in the reference below as it gives greater insight into Santiago's role in both plot and theme.

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What is the role of the old man as a fisherman in the novel The Old Man and the Sea?

"Santiago is an old fisherman of undetermined age," and he was the protagonist of this story.  He was the main character.  He is symbolic for the concept that man should never give up on his dream.  He should fight to the end.

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