Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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Ideas for Group Discussions

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In general, group discussions of The Old Man and the Sea seem to work best when they focus on the exact details of Santiago's character, his relationship with nature, and his relationship with Manolin. Precise attention to the text is important to prevent such discussion from dwindling into sentimentalities and platitudinous generalities. Adventurous discussion groups may wish to venture into the mine field of revisionist, "politically correct" assertions and denigrations of Santiago (and Hemingway) found in Brenner's controversial recent study of The Old Man and the Sea (see under "Resources" in biographical entry). Good readers, with a firm grasp of the actualities and details of Hemingway's narrative, will have no trouble dismissing most or all of Brenner's largely unsubstantiated arguments.

1. What is the difference, according to Santiago, between those who think of the sea as "lamar" and those who speak of it as "el mar"?

2. Why does Santiago dream about the "lions on the beaches"? What do these lions symbolize?

3. Discuss the things Santiago knows about nature, about the behavior of birds and fish. How did he learn these things?

4. Why is "no one worthy of eating" the great marlin?

5. Discuss Santiago as a Christ-figure, noting the specific details of the Christian imagery. The pattern of Santiago's experience is suffering and endurance; is it also redemptive?

6. Who is Santiago named after? Or what does the name Santiago mean? (You may wish to familiarize yourself with the facts of Hemingway's lifelong passion for the Pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage which he made and which he evokes in several works.)

7. Compare Santiago's feeling about the sharks with his feeling about all the other creatures.

8. Although Santiago says he is "not religious," he says his prayers regularly and promises to make a pilgrimage if he catches the fish. Discuss Santiago's spirituality, both his natural piety and his Catholic piety.

9. When Santiago catches the albacore, he hits "him on the head for kindness." Discuss this scene and the nature of Santiago's "kindness" in general.

10. Why does Manolin regard Santiago (and not his own father) as his exemplar? What has he learned from Santiago?

11. What does the "great DiMaggio" symbolize? Why did Hemingway choose DiMaggio and not another legendary hitter of the same period such as Ted Williams or Stan Musial? Can you identify the details of the baseball imagery and explain how they function in the novel?

12. Focus final discussion on the book's best-known passage: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." How would you paraphrase the meaning of this passage? Discuss the ways the novel develops and illustrates this theme.

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