The Old Man and the Sea Themes

The Old Man and the Sea key themes:

  • In The Old Man and the Sea, the human spirit proves unconquerable as Santiago retains his courage and respectful compassion even in the face of tremendous loss.

  • Santiago’s remarkable fishing together with his ultimate loss of the marlin depict Hemingway’s ideal vision of man’s relationship with nature: man does not conquer nature, but rather becomes one with it.

  • It is the struggle to achieve dreams that fulfills, not their completion; Santiago dreams contentedly of lions even after he loses the marlin, and so remains alive physically and spiritually.

  • Questions of the value of luck versus skill resonate throughout the novel as Santiago muses on whether it is luck or skill that makes a good fisherman.


(Novels for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1073 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 371 words.)