Mike Grindle is an online writer who enjoys helping others understand literature.
The last major work that Hemingway completed and published in his lifetime, The Old Man and the Sea, may also be his most famous. This short novella centered around an unlucky fisherman coming up against a giant marlin would not only earn Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize but is largely responsible for his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As is the case with many of Hemingway's stories, the true power of The Old Man and the Sea lies in the things left unsaid, in its symbolism and imagery. Here we will discuss the themes, allegories, symbols, and motifs found within this classic work of literature.
After brief summaries of the story and its background, this article touches on the following topics:
- Defeat, defiance and destruction
- Manliness and old age
- Pride, humility and friendship
Summary of the Plot
An old fisherman named Santiago has gone eighty-four days without a catch. As a result, he has been labeled 'salao, which is the worst form of unlucky,' and his apprentice and only friend, Manolin, has been forbidden to sail with him anymore.
Undeterred, the old man heads out to sea early on his 85th day without a catch and hooks a giant fish he believes to be a marlin. What follows is a three days struggle between the man and the fish.
Exhausted, injured, and close to passing out, Santiago finally bests the fish, killing it with a harpoon to the heart. However, his victory proves to be short-lived as sharks, smelling the marlin's blood tear the fish to a carcass as the man attempts to bring it back to shore. The man is left to lament his defeat as he returns to shore.
The next day Manolin vows to sail with the old man again. However, Santiago is bedridden and wounded, and the reader is left to ponder his fate as the story comes to a close.
Written in 1951 and published in 1952, The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway a celebrity and cemented his legacy in the American Literature Canon.
In some ways, the book seems prophetic of the decade that would follow its creation, with Hemingway's struggles mirroring Santiago's.
In 1954 Hemingway would be involved in not one, but two near-fatal plane crashes. An increased dependency on alcohol and a deterioration of his physical and mental health were to follow. Everything would culminate with Hemingway's suicide in 1961.
Nonetheless, Hemingway's writing continues to influence today, his terse prose style permanently changing how many writers approach the medium.
Defeat, Defiance and Destruction
"Man is not made for defeat," claims Santiago in one of the book's most famous lines, "A man may be destroyed but never defeated."
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Santiago's battle against nature represents the main crux of the story. However, Santiago's struggle it's not a battle against nature as in the wilderness but against the nature of existence. Indeed, his deep bond with the marlin suggests Santiago is in a fight against himself, his aging, his mortality, and his rotten luck.
For all his courage and defiance, it is a battle that Santiago is destined to lose, and even he must ultimately accept defeat: 'It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was.'
Manliness and Old Age
The concept of manliness and masculinity is a theme that runs throughout all of Hemingway's work, and it can't be ignored here.
Santiago had a lot of bravado in his youth. A former arm-wrestling champion of sorts, he was a fisherman known for his strength.
By the time in which the novella takes place, age has stripped Santiago of his former attributes. Instead, his masculinity is now projected outwards, most notably in his idolization of the baseball player known as the Great DiMaggio and his dreams:
'He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests, of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.'
Santiago dreams not of acts of bravado or adventure but only of the Lions he saw on a beach years ago. The lions represent strength, youth, and vigor, and Santiago's longing for yesteryears.
In this context, Santiago's undying resilience and resourcefulness remind us that old age and resignation are not mutually exclusive traits, which is at odds with society's modern notions of retirement and enjoying the "Golden Years."
Pride, Humility and Friendship
Santiago's old age has forced him to learn humility and accept the importance of a helping hand:
'He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.'
Santiago has in many ways become reliant on his old apprentice for food, help setting up the boat, and companionship. However, out at sea, the old man is forced to struggle without him. Throughout the book, the old man laments that his predicament would be very different "if the boy were here."
It could be suggested that the apprentice cries at the end of the book because he knows things would have worked out differently for Santiago if he had been there.
'It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck come you are ready'.
The notion of luck is brought up multiple times throughout the novella. Santiago is branded unlucky, but the idea of luck and changing luck also brings him hope, as he believes 'Eight-five is a lucky number.'
While Santiago's luck seems to change for the better, it swiftly changes again, and he's left with nothing to show for all of his experience and resolve. However, as the story comes to a close, Santiago realizes that luck may not be the reason for his defeat:
'And what beat you, he thought. "Nothing" he said aloud. "I went out too far."'
'When the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit.'
Though the book often presents man and nature at odds, Santiago shows admiration and respect for the natural world. He shows affection for many of the animals he comes across on his journey, including the very fish he is hunting, which he refers to as a 'brother.'
The old man ponders whether humanity is even worthy of eating such a creature. Ultimately, though, the man's circumstances and desire to succeed as a fisherman push him to hunt the majestic marlin, which he later regrets.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Mike Grindle