Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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What literary devices does Hemingway use in The Old Man and the Sea?

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The literary devices (elements and techniques) that Ernest Hemingway uses in the novella The Old Man and The Sea include:

A distinct protagonist

In this story the protagonist is Santiago. He is an old fisherman who is still trying to battle the elements and his own weaknesses to continue fishing and support himself.

A distinct setting

The setting of the novella for most of the action is the Gulf Stream and this is where Santiago wages his battle against the forces of nature.


Conflict is essential to excellent drama. Conflict in The Old Man and The Sea is the battle between the giant marlin and Santiago as he tries to haul this huge catch in. Conflict is also Santiago versus the sharks; these sharks end up destroying the marlin and leave nothing really for Santiago to bring to market for money.

Conflict in the story also involves Santiago against himself – man against himself. This is when someone battles their fears, physical weaknesses, inhibitions, and more as they seek to achieve a goal. It is a matter of someone overcoming faults and/or weaknesses to achieve a goal or a certain kind of success.


Hemingway moves the story along at a brisk pace through the use of crisp and direct dialogue.


An example of simile in The Old Man and the Sea is in this line:

His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail...

Santiago’s shirt is being compared to a sail. With so many patches it resembled the sail. Here we see two different objects compared so as to see the likeness between them.


The reader, through imagery, can understand the characteristics of the big fish (with its distinct sword) through the use of imagery, as in this passage:

His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier…

Internal monologue

This type of literary device brings the reader into the mind of a character. In this story, the reader understands more about Santiago through his internal monologues. An example is this passage as he thinks about and battles the great fish:

He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run.

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Hemingway uses a variety of literary devices throughout The Old Man and the Sea as he creates word pictures to tell the story of Santiago's world and of his great struggle.

Some would say that the entire story is an allegory, comparing Santiago to Jesus in his suffering. Alliteration is featured when Hemingway describes the "flying fish" and the "full-blooded fish" he caught. Alliteration and onomatopoeia are both present in describing how fish "left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away."

Hemingway uses similes in passages such as "The clouds over the land now rose like mountains." When Hemingway says the Portuguese man-of-war "floated cheerfully as a bubble" or when Santiago goes past "a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket," he is using personification. Santiago talks to himself at times, with his monologues including Spanish words and phrases at times.

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What components make up Hemingway's style in The Old Man and the Sea?

The Old Man and the Sea contains two major stylistic components. The first is Hemingway's classic narrative style: short, focused descriptions and run-on sentences without commas. These act to draw the reader into the narrative, keeping interest while avoiding unnecessary pauses or digressions.

He knew what a huge fish this was and he thought of him moving away in the darkness with the tuna held crosswise in his mouth. At that moment he felt him stop moving but the weight was still there.

Each sentence describes exactly what is happening without comment or explanation; the reader is invited to take the events of the story in and interpret it at a more personal level.

The second major component is Hemingway's use of internal monologue. Santiago is alone at sea, and so he talks only occasionally. Mostly, his thought processes are shown to the reader, which gives the dispassionate narration a more intimate feeling:

What I will do if he decides to go down, I don't know. What I'll do if he sounds and dies I don't know. But I'll do something. There are plenty of things I can do.

He held the line against his back and watched its slant in the water and the skiff moving steadily to the North-West.
(Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Google Books)

Here, Santiago's internal thoughts are juxtaposed with the narration. He thinks about his options as the skiff is pulled, and resolves to take some form of action rather than being passive. The use of internal monologue allows a greater insight into Santiago, and also helps to establish his past life without having him laboriously explain it to another person.

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