The Old Man and the Sea Summary and Analysis
A small bird lands on the boat and Santiago speaks to it. He asks the bird how old it is, and worries that it will encounter dangerous hawks. While Santiago is speaking to the bird, the marlin lurches forward and pulls the old man down, cutting his hand. Lowering his hand to water to clean it, Santiago notices that the marlin has slowed down.
He decides to eat a tuna he has caught in order to give him strength for his ordeal. As he is cutting the fish, though, his left hand cramps. "What kind of hand is that," Santiago says, "Cramp then if you want. Make yourself into a claw. It will do you no good" (58). The old man eats the tuna, hoping it will renew his strength and help release the cramp in his hand.
Santiago considers his lonely condition. He is surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of deep, dark water. Staring at the clouds, though, he sees a "flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea" (61). Santiago soon focuses on his hand, though, and contemplates the humiliation of a cramp, an insurrection of one's own body against oneself.
Just then, the marlin comes out of the water quickly and descends into the water again. Santiago is amazed by its size, two feet longer than the skiff. He realizes that the marlin could destroy the boat if it wanted to and says, "...Thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able" (63). Santiago says prayers to assuage his worried heart and settles into the chase once again.
Not knowing how much longer it will take to subdue the marlin, Santiago throws another line out to catch a fish for food. His cramped hand begins to relax, and in his exhaustion, Santiago thinks about Joe DiMaggio and his bone spur. Comparing a bone spur to the spurs of fighting cocks, Santiago concludes that "man is not much beside the great birds and beast" (68).
As the sun sets, Santiago thinks back to triumphs of his past in order to give himself more confidence in the present. He remembers a great arm-wrestling match he had at a tavern in Casablanca. It had lasted a full day and a night, but Santiago, El Campeon (The Champion) as he was known then, eventually won. "He decided that he could beat anyone if he wanted to badly enough and he decided that it was bad for his right hand for fishing" (70). He tried to wrestle with his left hand but it was a traitor then as it had been now.
Santiago then catches a dolphin (the fish, not the mammal) for food. He is able to catch it just before dark, because it starts jumping in the air out of fear. He then throws the line out again in case he needs more sustenance later.
The cramping of Santiago's left hand creates tension first by debilitating the protagonist even more, making failure more likely and his triumph sweeter. Second, if we accept an autobiographical reading of the novella, it can be a symbol for writer's block. This is importantly different from Hemingway's previous attempts to blame the readers for his recent lack of success. Now, suddenly, the fault is his own. But not fully. The hand reacts in spite of its possessor's intention, and Santiago speaks to his hand as if it operated independently of himself. This certainly makes the question of who is responsible for Hemingway's failures more complicated.
In addition, Santiago's response to the cramp also affords us an opportunity to investigate Hemingway's conception of manhood. As Hemingway writes, " It is humiliating before others to have a diarrhea from ptomaine poisoning or to vomit from it. But a cramp, he thought of it as a calambre, humiliates oneself especially when one is alone" (62). A man's sense of humiliation does not depend exclusively on the presence (or imagined presence) of others who would look upon him with disgust or disdain. It rests on an internal standard of dignity, one which privileges above all control over one's self. It is not only inconvenient or frustrating that Santiago's hand cramped, it is, as Santiago says, "unworthy of it to be cramped" (64). This concern with worthiness is a important to the novel.
Santiago's concerns about his own worthiness come to a head when he finally beholds the fish he is tracking. When Santiago finally catches a glimpse of the great marlin, he imagines he is in some sort of aristocratic feud, with each participant needing to demonstrate his prowess to the other before the fight. Not, though, to intimidate the opponent, but rather to demonstrate his own status, to show the other that he is a worthy antagonist. "I wonder why he jumped, the old man thought. He jumped almost as though to show me how big he was. I know now, anyway, he thought. I wish I could show him what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand" (64). This necessity to be seen as worthy in the eyes of a perceived equal or superior complicates the internal standard of manhood which Hemingway seems to elucidate elsewhere.
From the time Santiago sees the fish to the end of the book, he seems obsessed with the idea of proving himself a worthy slayer of such a noble beast. This obsession, more often than not, is couched in self-ascriptions of inferiority. Santiago thanks God that marlins "are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and able" (63). And he thinks to himself, "I wish I was the fish... with everything he has against only my will and my intelligence" (64). The dissociation between intelligence on the one hand and nobility and ability on the other is very interesting, as it amounts to an exaltation of the natural and animalistic over the human, if we accept intelligence as the mark of humanity. This heightens the stakes of the struggle between the marlin and Santiago, and almost necessitates the long battle that ensues, for Santiago's eventual victory can only be seen as deserved if he has proved his worthiness and nobility through suffering. In the end, though, we might still ask, according to the novella's own terms, whether Santiago's victory over the fish amounted to a triumph for humanity or a miscarriage of justice, in which an ignoble human brute defeats the sea's paragon of nobility.
Santiago's need to prove his worthiness is unique to each instance: "the thousand times he had proved it mean nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it" (66). This can be read as a broad statement about nobility, one which holds that nobility is not a really a quality of character but of actions. Given the novella's aforementioned emphasis on allegorical generality, it seems safe to accept the latter reading. As with the necessity of having one's worthiness recognized by others, this alienation of nobility from the person to his deeds complicates Hemingway's internal standard of manhood.
In the course of these considerations, Santiago recalls the figure of Joe DiMaggio, identified at the beginning of the novella as a heroic paragon. "I must have confidence," thought Santiago, "and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel" (68). It is strange, though, that immediately after valorizing DiMaggio, Santiago immediately diminishes the baseball player's greatness by thinking that the pain of a bone spur could not be as bad as the pain of the spur of a fighting cock. He even concludes that "man is not much beside the great birds and beasts. Still I would rather be that beast down there in the darkness of the sea" (68). Again, Nature, and the marlin especially, is privileged above even the greatest exemplars of human greatness.
The theme of sight and the use of visual imagery appears many times in this section. In wondering how the world looks in the darkness of the deep of ocean, Santiago remarks, "Once I could see quite well in the dark. Not in the absolute dark. But almost as a cat sees" (67). Also, when Santiago sees a plane flying overhead, he considers what the fish look like from such a height, in particular how their rich colors change. This emphasis on sight and the visual field seems both to be an attempt by Hemingway to convey realistic experience and to follow the age-old association between the sense of sight and the perception of a deeper reality. Santiago's uncanny vision tells the reader to give credence to the wisdom he uncovers through his adventure.
The Old Man and the Sea Essays and Related Content
- The Old Man and the Sea: Major Themes
- The Old Man and the Sea: Essays
- The Old Man and the Sea: Questions
- The Old Man and the Sea: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Ernest Hemingway: Biography
- The Old Man and the Sea Summary
- About The Old Man and the Sea
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of pages 1-18
- Summary and Analysis of pages 19-37
- Summary and Analysis of pages 38-54
- Summary and Analysis of pages 55-72
- Summary and Analysis of pages 73-90
- Summary and Analysis of pages 91-108
- Summary and Analysis of pages 109-127
- The Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library
- Gregorio Fuentes: The Inspiration for the Character of Santiago
- Related Links on The Old Man and the Sea
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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