The Old Man and the Sea / Ernest Hemingway

old man and the sea

Like my posts on Lord Of The Flies and Animal Farm, I’ve recently revisited another novella frequently taught in schools. The Old Man and the Sea written by Ernest Hemingway and published in 1952, was one of his most successful works, both critically and commercially. His last major work thrust Hemingway into the literary limelight and reaffirmed his talent as one of the best authors of the twentieth century.

The Old Man and the Sea takes place in a small fishing village in Cuba and centers on an old fisherman experiencing a streak of bad luck. After 84 days without catching a fish, Santiago, an ageing but vastly experienced fisherman, is considered ‘salao’, the worst form of unlucky, and the subject of ridicule among the other younger-and sympathy among the older-fishermen. Manolin, a devoted young boy, and formerly Santiago’s apprentice before his parents forced him to sail on other boats with other luckier fishermen, still visits the old man to bring coffee and newspapers and desperately wants to help him despite his father’s orders.

On day 85 Santiago sets off into the Gulf Stream, far from the shallower coastal waters fished by the other fishermen, and a marlin takes bait one hundred fathoms deep on one of his lines. However, he realises this fish must be far bigger than he anticipates as he is unable to pull it in after hooking it; instead, the fish begins dragging the boat further out to sea.

I hate a cramp, he thought. It is a treachery of one’s own body.

What follows is a test of strength and determination for Santiago as he battles the fish for three intense days of suffering. Growing delirious through constant pain he shows considerable admiration and empathy for the great fish. Eventually the marlin tires and jumps, and Santiago is able to kill it with a harpoon. After lashing it to the side of the skiff and heading back for home he decides it is the biggest marlin he has ever seen.

“Fish,” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”

On the way back the marlin’s blood attracts several shark attacks. Initially Santiago is able to fight them off, but its precious meat is eventually devoured and a skeleton. Realising his three day battle with such a worthy opponent was all for nothing, he berates himself for sailing out too far, wishing he had had the boy with him. He returns to his shack and sleeps.

Aloud he said, “I wish I had the boy.”

But you haven’t got the boy, he thought. You have only yourself and you had better work back to the last line now, in the dark or not in the dark, and cut it away and hook up the two reserve coils.

Having been worried of the old man’s extended absence at sea Manolin sees the sleeping Santiago and is reduced to tears as he fetches his usual coffee and papers while he sleeps. Fishermen show concern for Santiago but amazement at the size of the fish the old man brought in. Manolin waits by his side and when the old man wakes tells him he will return to the old man for he still has so much to teach him. Still exhausted and physically broken Santiago sleeps some more, his dreams recurrent of lions playing on the beaches of Africa.

My copy, after a few days on the beaches of Barcelona. Looking as battered as Santiago.

Santiago is a proud man. His pride and determination are key to his existence and mantra. He is committed and determined to end his unlucky streak, going out further than ever before to find the giant marlin. The question is, is Santiago’s pride a tragic flaw? He certainly seems to think so, chastising himself for destroying both himself and the marlin by going ‘out too far’. Yet it is his pride that keeps him strong in his battle with the fish. Despite his cramp and cuts and calluses he remains strong, he endures the pain when less strong-willed men (most men, then) would have packed up and gone home. In enduring his pain Santiago also gains back the respect of the fishermen at the Terrace, and retains the services of Manolin, who not only seems to be his apprentice but also his heir, or spiritual successor, such is his utter devotion and love for the old man.

‘You must get well fast for there is much that I can learn and you can teach me everything. How much did you suffer?’

‘Plenty,’ the old man said.

Santiago shows contempt for some of the creatures he encounters while fishing (the dentuso, shovel-nosed sharks, and the man of war which he calls ‘agua mala’, or whore, describing their beautiful appearance as ‘the falsest thing in the sea’), but ultimately there is respect and love for the sea. This is most noticeable with the great marlin, a strong, brave, honourable opponent. But the old man also talks of his love for the turtles and his short conversation with the warbler. It is not so much a story of man against nature but of man within nature, and man’s battle with defeat and death. Santiago and the marlin display pride, honour, bravery, but ultimately, as with all things, they must kill or be killed.

Take a good rest, small bird,” he said. “Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish.

Santiago’s connection to the Marlin goes deeper than the physical bond of the line; he comments frequently that he and the fish are a good match, as the marlin is a worthy opponent (like the great negro of Cienfuegos, whom Santiago bested in a 24 hour arm wrestle) and he himself is a worthy fisherman, able to use his skills, knowledge and tricks to win.

I recall there being similarities between Santiago and Christ when reading The Old Man and the Sea in school, and up until the following line I was unsure how they could come about.

“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.

And with that, a direct comparison to Christ being crucified on the cross. We also have the description of Santiago struggling to carry the mast up the hill to his shack, and upon reaching his shack sleeping face down with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up’. Clearly here Hemingway wants the link to be made, perhaps to emphasise the significance of his loss into a triumph (similarly to Christ giving his life for the good of mankind). A physical suffering but leads to a spiritual rebirth. This also gives support that from death comes life. Santiago seems revitalised from the great battle with the marlin, and from his victory he is able to regain the services of Manolin, who will take his teaches and continue his work after the old man dies.

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?


Hemingway’s style is notoriously understated and can convey his story in the perfect number of words. Not a word is wasted, not a sentence unneeded. He famously described his style as the iceberg theory, and of it he is quoted as saying:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

And rereading this novella I realised how true this stands. The reader doesn’t need over a hundred pages of backstory and Santiago’s plight before the battle with the marlin commences. It is taut and concise and elegantly controlled, and thoroughly enjoyable. He also makes use, alongside one of my favourite authors Cormac McCarthy, of polysyndeton, which is a writing technique which several conjunctions (e.g. -and-) are used in close succession. Structurally it can lead to longer sentences with a more frantic pace, shying away from punctuation with a unique feel to the prose, almost mystical and, especially in this novel, almost a Biblical tone.

The Old Man and the Sea was considered by many of my friends and classmates (I remember being on the fence at the time) as a boring book. He goes out to sea, he talks to the fish, he catches the fish, sharks eat it; that’s it. And in terms of a plot, that is it. And so much more. The determination of Santiago, and of Hemingway to convince us of the honour in defeat and death, is compelling and masterfully done.

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

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