In his 1952 novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway tells the story in a language of great simplicity and power. It is the story of a Cuban fisherman who is down on his luck, and is engaged in an epic battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulfstream. Written in a style of prose that Hemingway mastered throughout his literary career, the author recasts his classic theme of courage in the face of defeat, and personal triumph won from great loss. The Old Man and the Sea is the perfect medium for the author to turn situations surrounding his life into a hugely successful fictional tale, which, shocks the literary world, and wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1953.
Set in a small fishing village near Havana, Cuba, this story coincides with the events of Hemingway’s life at the time of publishing. Hemingway spent much of his life bouncing between Havana and the Florida Keys. He is an aficionado of bull fighting and big game hunting, and is considered to be one of the greatest sport fishermen of his time. His knowledge of fishing is heavily prevalent throughout this novella, and is displayed beautifully in the descriptive manner in which he writes.
This novella has three main characters that all revolve around a central idea, which is a great love and respect for one another. Those characters are: the old man Santiago, the boy Manolin, and the marlin. Santiago is described in great detail by the author in the following passage.
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the side of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. (Hemingway, 1952, 10)
This passage does more than detail Santiago’s physical appearance; it sums up his character in one word, undefeated. Santiago is a very proud man who refuses to be defeated. Although widely respected by many of the villagers, most notably Manolin, he has gone eighty four days now without a fish, making him “salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” (Hemingway, 1952, 9). This causes Santiago to be made fun of by many of the other fisherman, although it does not bother him. He has great belief in himself and is sure his luck will turn around. Santiago is a fan of American baseball, especially the great Joe DiMaggio. He inwardly compares himself to DiMaggio in many ways, and is proud to be as worthy at fishing as DiMaggio is at baseball. He loves being a fisherman and has a genuine love for the sea. He has a great respect for the power and beauty of nature, which can be seen in the following quote: “Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts” (Hemingway, 1952, 68). Santiago has been fishing for many years and is at peace when he is at sea. His knowledge of fishing techniques has been refined over the course of many years, and he relies on this heavily throughout the story. Hemingway’s own knowledge of the sport is detailed through this character. Santiago lives alone in a little shack, and has no real friends other than Manolin. His relationship with the boy is similar to that of a father and son. This relationship can be viewed best through the way Manolin looks up to the old man.
Manolin is a boy, somewhere in his early teens. He has been fishing with Santiago since the age of five. It becomes clear very early in the book that Manolin loves and respects the old man as a boy would his father. Manolin takes care of the old man in exchange for the knowledge the old man possesses. In the opening pages of the novella, Manolin runs to the shore after a day of fishing with a lucky boat, to help Santiago carry his belongings home. He tells the old man about his day and asks how the old man fared. He is genuinely upset that Santiago has gone eighty four days without a fish. He takes it upon himself to get fresh bait for the old man to use in the morning, and to get a hot meal, saying: “You’ll not fish without eating while I’m alive” (Hemingway, 1952, 19). During dinner, Manolin asks to hear stories from Santiago, ranging from fishing to baseball. To one of these stories, Manolin replies: “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you” (Hemingway, 1952, 23). Their relationship is one of genuine love for each other. Before leaving for the night, Manolin asks the old man to wake him in the morning because it makes him feel inferior to have his boss wake him. This shows that the boy views Santiago not as a boss, but as a friend. The old man wakes Manolin and the two have breakfast together before the boy helps carry Santiago’s gear to the boat. He wishes him good luck and the two part ways. This is the last we see of Manolin for a very long time.
The next character to surface in the book is the great blue marlin. Although the marlin has no lines in this novella, the story would not be possible without him. The marlin personifies everything that Santiago stands for. He is like Santiago’s God, and the old man prays repeatedly to a God he doesn’t believe in throughout the book, if He will allow him to land this magnificent fish. The marlin is described beautifully by the author in the following quote.
He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the old man saw the great scythe-blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out. (Hemingway, 1952, 62-63)
Santiago estimates the marlin to be over 1500 pounds, and says: “He is two feet longer than the skiff” (Hemingway, 1952, 63). We learn at the end of the novella that the fish measures eighteen feet in length. This is the only physical description the author gives of the marlin, in a book that is written in a vividly descriptive manner. This is because all of the pages written about the marlin describe him in a God like manner. He is Santiago’s Holy Grail, and his conquest to capture the marlin becomes an obsession. As the writer has already stated, the marlin represents everything that Santiago stands for. The old man says as much when he says that he and the fish are brothers. The great love and respect Santiago shows for the marlin is detailed repeatedly throughout this novella.
This leads into Santiago’s character conflicts. Despite his unlucky streak of eighty four days without a fish, and the loss of respect from some of the other fishermen, Santiago’s spirits are rather high going into this fishing trip. His real conflict begins when he hooks the marlin, and this struggle accounts for more than half of the novella. The old man’s love and respect for nature, and this great fish, cause him to have mixed emotions. His pride takes over however, which gives him a determination to land the marlin that defines his character. This is a battle of wills between these two characters, which, is “the thing that I was born for” (Hemingway, 1952, 50). Santiago battles fatigue and a decline in his physical health during this battle, but this only strengthens his will to land this magnificent fish. He tells the fish, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends” (Hemingway, 1952, 54). This is a promise the old man cannot keep, because he battles the marlin for two and a half days before he is able to slay this magnificent creature. Unable to tie the cord to the skiff for fear that the fish might break a taut line, Santiago bears the strain of the fish with his shoulders, back, and hands. The entire time he endures constant pain from the line, ready to let out line should the marlin make a run. At one point his left hand cramps so badly that he cannot open it. His pride will not allow him to accept this however, and he calls the hand a traitor. Every time the fish lunges forward, Santiago endures deep cuts across his hands, ever deepening his determination to land this beast. The physical pain allows Santiago to forge a connection with the marlin, showing that he is well matched, that the fish is a worthy opponent, and that he is a worthy fisherman because he can fight the fish so well.
Once the old man lands the marlin, he has a new problem that he has to deal with. The author foreshadows this event by writing: “Unless sharks come. If sharks come, God pity him and me” (Hemingway, 1952, 68). He lashes the fish to the boat and begins his journey back to port. He eats a little and drinks some water in order to clear his head, but only gets an hour to rest before he is engaged in a new battle. It is then that the first shark hits the marlin carcass. Keeping true to form, Santiago refuses to let the shark ruin his catch. He kills the mighty mako with his harpoon. During this exchange he loses his harpoon and a length of rope, leaving him vulnerable to more shark attacks. He makes a crude spear by lashing his knife to an oar. This allows him to fight off several more sharks, but as night falls, and more and more sharks appear, the fight becomes useless. The sharks devour the marlin’s precious meat, leaving Santiago “destroyed but not defeated” (Hemingway, 1952, 103), and chastising himself for going out too far, and sacrificing a worthy opponent. The loss of the marlin truly devastates Santiago, since he loves and respects the fish like a brother.
There is also a deep emotional conflict going on inside of this character. Starting early in the book and reoccurring frequently, Santiago lets his feelings for the boy become known. During the battle with the marlin he says repeatedly, “I wish I had the boy” (Hemingway, 1952, 45). He says this in some manner on almost every other page. Although he is too proud to admit that he could use the boy’s help to bring in the marlin, it is clear that he misses the companionship. He wishes the boy could be there for the battle of a life time. Santiago is an old man who is nearing the end of his physical existence, but is assured that he will live on in spirit through his mentorship of the boy. The old man has much to teach the boy, and is genuinely upset that the boy is not fishing with him anymore. Although the relationship started out as a working relationship, it has evolved into one of mutual love and respect.
This brings us to Manolin’s character conflict. Due to Santiago’s recent unlucky streak, Manolin’s parents have forced the boy to go out on a different fishing boat. The boy, however, still cares deeply for the old man and does not want to give up on him. He states this on page twelve by saying: “If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve in some other way” (Hemingway, 1952). The boy feels some resentment towards his father for making him leave Santiago, especially since the old man has taught him everything he knows about fishing. As the writer has already stated, the boy looks up to the old man like a father. The stories that he wants to hear from Santiago early in the novel, are from the early days of their fishing career together, when the boy was just five years old. Manolin also struggles with the idea of Santiago being gone for four days at sea, alone in his skiff. The boy is worried that something has happened to Santiago, but believes in his abilities as a fisherman, and anxiously awaits the old man’s return.
The marlin’s conflict throughout this novella is described through Santiago’s conflict. They are one in the same, making the battle between the two characters even more compelling. This magnificent creature is in a battle for his life, pinned against a very worthy and determined opponent. They both endure similar situations, although Santiago is able to get sustenance during the battle while the marlin is not. Neither is able to rest, but Santiago is able to find a position that is almost comfortable. The marlin also has to deal with the pain of having a hook in his mouth, which is similar to the pain of holding the fishing line. After two days of steady pulling, the fish makes a run unexpectedly. It is an attempt to catch his foe off guard, to which the old man replies, “You’re feeling it now, fish. And so, God knows, am I” (Hemingway, 1952, 56). The marlin does everything in his power to outsmart his captor, but the old man proves to be a formidable opponent, who has more determination.
This exchange between man and beast leads to the climax of the novella. After being locked in an epic battle of wills for three days, the old man’s determination wins out. The marlin is not willing to give up completely, but he is worn down enough for the old man to begin gaining line. The fish starts circling the boat, allowing Santiago to gain a little more line with each pass. As the hours pass, the old man becomes even more determined to bring the marlin in, as he knows the battle is coming to an end. He feels sad at the same time because he feels that no one is worthy to eat this magnificent fish. As the fish nears the skiff, Santiago is ready with the harpoon. He makes several attempts to reach the fish without success, before finally getting the marlin close enough to drive the harpoon straight through its heart. He pushes it through a second time, to make sure he has killed the marlin. Santiago is overcome with joy, but is also deeply saddened by killing this magnificent creature.
The story ends in a manner that is classic to most of Hemmingway’s writing. It details personal triumph through great defeat. After the sharks destroy Santiago’s prize, he returns to his village with a feeling of great loss. He feels as though he has betrayed the fish and also himself, but at the same time he is reborn in the eyes of the villagers. This does not matter to Santiago; all that matters to him is that he escaped the ordeal with his pride intact. He does not feel defeated; however, he is saddened by the loss. Although Santiago’s health at this point has declined to an alarming level, his pride will not allow him to accept help. He carries his mast up the beach, although he has to rest five times to get there. The boy is excited to see him and cannot wait to hear the details of the trip. He tells the old man that he will fish with him from now on, despite what his father says. He is also anxious to get the gear and supplies that the two will need to go out fishing. His love and respect for the old man runs deeper than ever, proving that there is something good to come from what Santiago views as a great loss. In the closing pages, we find out that the marlin is the largest that anyone has ever seen, measuring eighteen feet in length. It is mistaken by some of the tourists for a shark due to its great size. This only helps to strengthen the legacy that Santiago will leave behind in his death.
There are several reasons why the writer recommends this book to anyone who enjoys reading. The first reason is the beautifully descriptive manner in which the author writes this novella. The pages in this book are full of passages which make the reader feel as if they are in the story. As is customary in Hemingway’s novels, this book flows from beginning to end in a way that keeps the reader hanging onto every page, waiting for the next paragraph.
The second reason is the content of this novella. As a man who loves the sea, and has a great respect for the beauty of nature, the writer feels that Hemingway does an excellent job in expressing his love of these things through Santiago’s character. From the very beginning of this novella, the author expresses the virtues that have become important to him in his own life, through Santiago. There are many examples of this throughout this novella, but the best examples can be seen through the pride Santiago shows in his knowledge of fishing.
This is the final reason that the writer recommends this book. The writer has spent many years of his life, out on the sea, in pursuit of big fish. The knowledge that accompanies that pursuit, allows the writer to truly appreciate the depth of knowledge Hemingway possesses on the sport, which, can again be seen through Santiago. From the use of birds as a fishing aid, to knowing he can find fish along the Sargasso weed line, Santiago constantly shows the reader that he is an old man who has truly mastered his craft. In this manner, Santiago teaches the reader, just as he has taught the boy, how to be a successful fisherman.
Although there are a number of other reasons why this book is enjoyable to read, these three are personal to the writer. However, many other people view this novella as a powerful literary work. The huge success of this novella helps to confirm Hemingway’s power and presence in the literary world, and plays a large part in him winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Bloom’s BioCritques Ernest Hemingway. Pennsylvania: Chelsea, 2002. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1952. Print.
The Old Man and the Sea. Dir. Fuisz, Robert and William Storke. Wellspring, 2002. Film.
SPARKNOTES. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Spark, 2007. Print.