Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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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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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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