The Old Man and the Sea

Is Santiagos earlier arm-wrestling heroic? why or why not?

Hemingway, very much a macho man who spent much time proving his manhood, liked his heroes to be more than mere men.

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It certainly is. It represents Santiago in his alpha-male youth. This ties into Santiago's manhood which is part of his identity he so desperately wants to relive, if but for a minute.