Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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Student Question

What do sharks represent to the old man in The Old Man and the Sea?

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In the short novel The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, sharks are important because they are the adversaries in the climactic battle near the end. To the old man they represent a formidable force of nature, but he also respects them for their power, skills, and intelligence.

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The famous short novel The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway tells the tale of an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago who has gone many days without catching a fish. He is considered to be unlucky, and the parents of the boy that used to accompany him insist that the boy should go out on another boat. For this reason, the old man goes out alone.

Santiago has been fishing for his entire life and is intimate with the sea and its creatures. He treats them with respect. When he hooks an enormous marlin, holds it on the line for two days and two nights, and then finally brings it in, he refers to the great fish as his brother. The marlin is so big that the old man cannot bring it into the boat. Instead, he has to lash it alongside the boat.

Unfortunately, the marlin bleeds into the water, and the blood attracts sharks. Santiago manages to kill the first shark that comes, but in the process he loses his harpoon and the rope to which it was attached. In Hemingway's description of the shark he writes,

everything about him was beautiful except his jaws.

When the old man sees the shark he recognizes the danger. He prepares to fight and he is "full of resolution" but he has "little hope." He realizes that his dream of prosperity and fortune from catching the fish has been "too good to last."

The shark is an enemy, and so Santiago fights it, but after he kills it and realizes that more will come, he despairs. He regrets that he has caught the fish and wonders if he has sinned in doing so. However, then he concludes that he killed the marlin "for pride" and because he is a fisherman. He respects the shark as an enemy, considering it "cruel and able and strong and intelligent." He realizes that he enjoyed killing the shark. Santiago thinks to himself:

He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything.

The old man muses that

everything kills everything else in some way.

The next two sharks are ugly ones, and the old man kills one with a knife lashed to an oar. When more sharks come the knife breaks, and Santiago fights them with a club. The relentless sharks take all the meat off the marlin, although Santiago continues to fight them until he has nothing left to fight with.

To the old man, the sharks represent ferocious adversaries that he must overcome in order to reach his goal. Even though in the end it is obvious that he cannot win, he continues to fight because as a Hemingway hero it is what he is expected to do. It is important to emphasize, however, that although in this context Santiago sees sharks as his enemies, he also respects them as part of his microcosm of life. Sometimes they are prey, as when fishermen catch sharks to take to the shark factory mentioned at the beginning of the story, and other times they are adversaries that must be fought with all his strength.

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