The Old Man and the Sea Themes

The main themes in The Old Man and the Sea the human condition and love.

  • The human condition: The human condition is defined by struggle, but the human spirit proves unconquerable as Santiago retains his courage and compassion even in the face of tremendous loss.
  • Love: Santiago and Manolin's relationship is full of love and understanding. Despite the difference in their ages, they seem to understand one another. Santiago has a different sort of love for nature: though nature is often the cause of his misfortune, Santiago still respects it and treats it as a companion rather than an adversary.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073

The Human Condition
In his novella about a fisherman who struggles to catch a large marlin only to lose it, Hemingway has stripped down the basic story of human life to its basic elements. A single human being, represented by the fisherman Santiago, is blessed with the intelligence to do big things and to dream of even grander things. Santiago shows great skill in devising ways to tire out the huge fish he has hooked and ways to conserve his strength in order to land it. Yet in the struggle to survive, this human must often suffer and even destroy the very thing he dreams of. Thus Santiago cuts his hands badly and loses the fish to sharks in the process of trying to get his catch back to shore. Yet the struggle to achieve one’s dreams is still worthwhile, for without dreams, a human remains a mere physical presence in the universe, with no creative or spiritual dimension. And so at the end of the story, Santiago, in spite of his great loss, physical pain, and exhaustion, is still “dreaming about the lions”—the same ones he saw in Africa when he was younger and would like to see again.

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Love
Against the seeming indifference of the universe, love is often the only force that endures. This force is best seen in the relationship of Santiago and Manolin, which has endured since Manolin’s early childhood. Over the years, Santiago has taught Manolin to fish and given him companionship and a sense of self-worth that Manolin failed to get from his own father. Manolin in return shows his love for Santiago by bringing him food and by weeping for him when he sees how much he suffered in fighting the marlin. Manolin also plans to take care of Santiago during the coming winter by bringing him clothing and water for washing.

Santiago’s love, of course, extends to other people as well. He loved his wife when they were married, though when she died he had to take down her portrait because it made him feel lonely. Similarly, even in his suffering he thinks of others, remembering his promise to send the fish head to his friend Pederico to use as bait. Santiago’s love also extends to include nature itself, even though he has often suffered at its hands. His love for all living creatures, whether fish, birds, or turtles, is often described, as is his love for the sea, which he sees as a woman who gives or withholds favors. Some of the younger fishermen, in contrast, often spoke of the sea as a “contestant” or even an “enemy.”

Youth and Old Age
The comparison and contrast of these two stages of human life runs throughout the story. Although Santiago is obviously an old man, in many ways he retains a youthful perspective on life. For example, he is a keen follower of baseball, and admires players like Joe DiMaggio and Dick Sisler for their youthful skills and abilities. His friendship with Manolin is also based partly on Santiago’s fond recollections of his own youth. For example, he recalls the time he saw the lions on the beach in Africa or when he beat a well-known player in a hand-wrestling match that lasted all day. His repeated wish that the boy were in the boat is not made just because that would make it easier to fight the fish. He also misses the boy as a companion with his own youthful perspective. Yet Santiago does not admire all youth indiscriminately. For example, he contrasts his own attitude toward the sea as a woman with that of “some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats and had motorboats,” who think of the sea as a male enemy who must be defeated. By the same token, Santiago is aware that not everything about old age is attractive to youth. For example, he keeps from Manolin the knowledge that he doesn’t care very much about washing or eating on a regular basis. Santiago is also very aware of the disadvantages of old age. Although he retains much of his youthful strength, for example, he knows that at his age he is no longer able to fight off the sharks that attack his fish. Yet in the end, despite his defeat, Santiago is still able to plan his next fishing expedition and to dream again of the lions who perhaps represent to him the strength and the freedom of youth.

Luck vs. Skill
Many people believe in the concept of destiny, a concept in which spiritual forces and luck are combined. When one is lucky, it is considered a sign that one has the spiritual qualities to succeed. By the same token, when one has been unlucky, as Santiago is considered after eighty-four days of not catching any fish, he is dismissed by Manolin’s parents as salao, “which is the worst form of unlucky,” and therefore someone to avoid. Santiago himself believes to some extent in the concept of luck. He senses that his eighty-fifth day of fishing will be a good one and wants to buy that number in the lottery. Later in the story, when his big fish has already been half-eaten by sharks, he says he would pay “what they asked” for some luck “in any form.”

Earlier in the story, however, before he has caught the big fish, Santiago reflects that “It is better to be lucky [than unlucky]. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” In this reformulation of the luck-vs.-skill question, Santiago is clearly favoring skill. This preference is shown by his actions throughout the novel, from the way he gauges the strength of the fish by the pull on the line to the manner in which he calculates and conserves his own strength for the battle he knows lies ahead. After his defeat he says the boy should not fish with him because “I am not lucky anymore.” Yet Santiago quickly changes his mind about going out with Manolin when the boy says that “we will fish together now, for I still have much to learn.” Toward the end, Santiago asks himself “[W]hat beat you” and answers “Nothing. I went out too far.” So in the end, Santiago finds that it is matters of judgment and skill that determine success, not luck.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

The novel's best-known and oft-quoted line sums up its most important themes: "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." At the beginning of the story, Santiago has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, but his sea-colored eyes remain "cheerful and undefeated." Variations on the theme of being undefeated abound, and point beyond mere physical endurance to a quality of the human spirit which endures and prevails in spite of suffering and loss. Hemingway's theme has the broadest possible application to general experience, suggesting that although a person may be stripped of everything in the process of living, may lose every thing and everyone, nevertheless a quest conducted with skill, courage, endurance, honor, and compassion can guarantee the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Hemingway avoids the sentimental happy ending which would have Santiago bring home the great fish intact and sell it at market for a large sum of money. Instead, we see the materially impoverished but spiritually rich old fisherman bring only the bare skeleton of the marlin into port, earning no money yet cherishing a far greater prize: Rather than a mere triumph over nature, he has, with great dignity and humility, achieved atonement (at-one-ment), oneness with nature.

Other themes center on the apprentice-master relationship of Manolin and Santiago. The old man has taught the boy many important lessons — how to fish with skill and precision, how to live with wisdom and humility — but the old man in his aloneness also needs the boy, especially when he is alone at sea and takes the great marlin. He reiterates: "I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this." This theme is poignantly crystallized in the statement: "No one should be alone in their old age."

Another important theme involves the sense of kinship of all creatures, and the apparent paradox of Santiago's love and respect for the fish he must kill. The old man expresses with difficulty the love he feels for the marlin: "I do not understand these things . . . but it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers."

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