The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea Themes


Hemingway spends a good deal of time drawing connections between Santiago and his natural environment: the fish, birds, and stars are all his brothers or friends, he has the heart of a turtle, eats turtle eggs for strength, drinks shark liver oil for health, etc. Also, apparently contradictory elements are repeatedly shown as aspects of one unified whole: the sea is both kind and cruel, feminine and masculine; the Portuguese man of war is beautiful but deadly; the mako shark is noble but cruel. The novella's premise of unity helps succor Santiago in the midst of his great tragedy. For Santiago, success and failure are two equal facets of the same existence. They are transitory forms which capriciously arrive and depart without affecting the underlying unity between himself and nature. As long as he focuses on this unity and sees himself as part of nature rather than as an external antagonist competing with it, he cannot be defeated by whatever misfortunes befall him.


Triumph over crushing adversity is the heart of heroism, and in order for Santiago the fisherman to be a heroic emblem for humankind, his tribulations must be monumental. Triumph, though, is never final, as Santiago's successful slaying of the marlin shows, else there would be no reason to include the final 30 pages of the book. Hemingway vision of heroism is Sisyphean, requiring continuous labor for essentially ephemeral ends. What the hero does is to face adversity with dignity and grace, hence Hemingway's Neo-Stoic emphasis on self-control and the other facets of his idea of manhood. What we achieve or fail at externally is not as significant to heroism as comporting ourselves with inner nobility. As Santiago says, "[M]an is not made for defeat....A man can be destroyed but not defeated" (103).


Hemingway's ideal of manhood is nearly inseparable from the ideal of heroism discussed above. To be a man is to behave with honor and dignity: to not succumb to suffering, to accept one's duty without complaint and, most importantly, to display a maximum of self-control. The representation of femininity, the sea, is characterized expressly by its caprice and lack of self-control; "if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them" (30). The representation of masculinity, the marlin, is described as "great," "beautiful," "calm," and "noble," and Santiago steels himself against his pain by telling himself to "suffer like a man. Or a fish," referring to the marlin (92). In Hemingway's ethical universe, Santiago shows us not only how to live life heroically but in a way befitting a man.


While important, Hemingway's treatment of pride in the novella is ambivalent. A heroic man like Santiago should have pride in his actions, and as Santiago shows us, "humility was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride" (14). At the same, though, it is apparently Santiago's pride which presses him to travel dangerously far out into the sea, "beyond all people in the world," to catch the marlin (50). While he loved the marlin and called him brother, Santiago admits to killing it for pride, his blood stirred by battle with such a noble and worthy antagonist. Some have interpreted the loss of the marlin as the price Santiago had to pay for his pride in traveling out so far in search of such a catch. Contrarily, one could argue that this pride was beneficial as it allowed Santiago an edifying challenge worthy of his heroism. In the end, Hemingway suggests that pride in a job well done, even if pride drew one unnecessarily into the situation, is a positive trait.


Hemingway draws a distinction between two different types of success: outer, material success and inner, spiritual success. While Santiago clearly lacks the former, the import of this lack is eclipsed by his possession of the latter. One way to describe Santiago's story is as a triumph of indefatigable spirit over exhaustible material resources. As noted above, the characteristics of such a spirit are those of heroism and manhood. That Santiago can end the novella undefeated after steadily losing his hard-earned, most valuable possession is a testament to the privileging of inner success over outer success.


Being heroic and manly are not merely qualities of character which one possesses or does not. One must constantly demonstrate one's heroism and manliness through actions conducted with dignity. Interestingly, worthiness cannot be conferred upon oneself. Santiago is obsessed with proving his worthiness to those around him. He had to prove himself to the boy: "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). And he had to prove himself to the marlin: "I'll kill all his greatness and glory. Although it is unjust. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures" (66). A heroic and manly life is not, then, one of inner peace and self-sufficiency; it requires constant demonstration of one's worthiness through noble action.

Santiago as Christ

Manolin has an almost religious devotion to Santiago, underscored when Manolin begs Santiago's pardon for his not fishing with the old man anymore. Manolin says, "It was Papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him," to which Santiago replies, "I know... It is quite normal. He hasn't much faith" (10). Manolin's father forced his son to switch to a more successful boat after 40 days had passed without a catch for Santiago; this is the amount of time Jesus wandered in the desert, tempted by Satan.

Just as Christ resisted the temptation of the devil, Santiago resists the temptation of giving in to his exhaustion as he battles the marlin. "It was a great temptation to rest in the bow and let the fish make one circle by himself without recovering any line." But he is committed to beating the fish, to proving his strength is more steadfast, thinking, "He'll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don't even speak of it."