Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”
Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is the story of Santiago, a Cuban fisherman, and his struggles to end an eighty-four day long span in which he catches no fish. The central idea of “The Old Man and the Sea” is that, even though a man may be defeated and destitute, he can still maintain his dignity.
The story begins with Santiago and his former apprentice, Manolin, discussing preparations for the next day’s fishing. Manolin provides various assistances to Santiago. The following morning, Manolin helps Santiago to his skiff with various fishing supplies. Once under way, Santiago ventures further out to sea than usual, watching a man-of-war bird to guide him where he might find good fishing. Eventually, he catches a tuna, which he uses for bait, and after a long afternoon of fishing, finally hooks a marlin.
Santiago is at sea four days, using strategy and endurance to bring in the marlin, drinking sparingly from his one bottle of water and eating only raw bait fish, as the marlin drags him out to sea in the skiff. On the fourth day, Santiago has his final struggle with the marlin, and wins, then lashing the enormous fish to the side of his skiff.
Exhausted from his ordeal, Santiago begins the return trip home. Santiago battles sharks on the way, eventually exhausting all of the weapons he has with him, and losing all of the usable meat on the marlin. He makes it back to port at night, and painfully works his way home with his few remaining supplies. Manolin comes to check on him the next morning, and finds him sleeping. Manolin feeds Santiago, then lets him sleep. As the story closes, “The old man was dreaming about lions.” (127)
Santiago, the main character, is round and dynamic. Hemmingway provides a detailed background for Santiago. The story’s first statement helps describes Santiago as, “an old man who fished alone in a skiff.” (9) His hands have, “deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords.” (10) Thus, we see that Santiago is both old and worn out by a life working at sea.Hemmingway shows Santiago as a man with dignity and wisdom. Santiago’s eyes are, “cheerful and undefeated.” (10) When Manolin offers Santiago aid, Santiago at first declines, then acquiesces realizing that he is, “too simple to wonder when he had attained humility.” (13) The descriptors “simple” and “humble” bring to mind someone grown wise through their experience, and both are often associated with dignity. At the beginning of the story, Santiago is characterized as, “salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” (9) by the people of his village, and has lost his apprentice due to his reputation. This changes at the end of the book; most prominently in the Manolin’s actions when he decides that he will fish with Santiago again, and says of luck, “The Hell with luck…I’ll bring the luck with me.” (125)
The main conflict of the story is between Santiago and his sense of self worth which he has been losing because of his status as “salao.” (9) This conflict is internal, and Santiago faces it when he uses all of his skill to overcome the marlin, catch it, and defend his catch from the sharks which later come to feed on the marlin’s corpse. It is finally concluded when Manolin shows his never-waning respect and love for Santiago and declares that he will rejoin Santiago as an apprentice, and, “bring the luck with” (125) him. We also see the end of the conflict when Santiago is again able to sleep and dream about lions, which to Santiago represent a time when he was young and able-bodied and deserving of respect. Additional conflicts are between Santiago and nature, as represented by the sea, marlin, sharks, and weather; between Santiago and the society he lives in, as represented by his reputation as “salao.” (9) These are resolved when Santiago finally manages to bring his catch home (though it is mutilated), and thus earns the respect of his village again.
The point of view in “The Old Man and the Sea” is third person, omniscient. The point of view describes those things happening to or around Santiago, as well as sometimes entering his mind to reveal his thoughts. The narrator describes the events from the perspective of an unnoticed observer. For instance, when describing Santiago’s actions in the boat, the narrator uses “he” phrases, such as, “He felt the line carefully with his right hand and noticed his hand was bleeding.” (55-56) The narrator also reflects Santiago’s thoughts on his environment when he says, “You did not stay long, the man thought.” (56) The only variance in the point of view comes at the end of the story. While the story remains third person, omniscient, it shifts focus to Manolin for the last few pages. The story’s point of view is important because it allows us to enter Santiago’s mind and see how he faces his struggle with the marlin. At the same time, the point of view allows us to turn to Manolin when necessary and see the shifts in others’ impressions of Santiago.
The book’s settings are a small fishing and tourism village in Cuba, and Santiago’s small skiff as he fishes on the Atlantic Ocean. The environment of the small fishing village is important, because it allows the types of social interactions that occur which would lead to Santiago having the reputation of being unlucky. In a more urban setting, his reputation would not necessarily matter as much because it would be drowned out by the large population, but in a rural area such as a small village the gossip and opinions of others are focused by the population rather than diffused by it. The oceanic setting allows the narrator to focus on Santiago’s actions and thoughts so that we see him face his life with dignity and determination without society interfering.
Language devices shown in the story include dialect, symbolism, and simile. Specific uses of dialect are when the narrator uses Spanish words to convey cultural ideas. These words, such as “salao”, “Gran Ligas”, (67-68) and “Un espuela de hueso” (68) characterize Santiago by making him a member of a Hispanic culture. There are several examples of symbolism, but the most prominent are the marlin, which stands as a symbol of Santiago’s self respect and dignity, which he finally catches and brings home, though only the skeleton; and, Joe DiMaggio, who represents the dignified way Santiago himself faces challenges in his own life. Simile is used in multiple instances to increase the drama of Santiago’s seemingly simple fishing expedition. When Santiago’s hand cramps, “as stiff as rigor mortis” (59) or when Manolin looks at Santiago’s scars which are, “as old as erosions in a fishless desert.” (10) The images brought to the readers mind are focused, and Santiago is focused upon in a way that allows the reader to see him as a fleshed out individual.
The tone of the novel is reflective and humble. Much of the book focuses on Santiago’s reflections as he faces the challenges of his time at sea. He thinks of Joe DiMaggio and how he would face the challenges that Santiago himself is facing, and then humbly concludes that he, “must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” (68) Santiago’s thoughts are also consistently directed towards the marlin that he eventually catches. Throughout Santiago’s struggle against the marlin, he consistently thinks of the fish as an equal, and the reader gets the impression that Santiago thinks of the fish as a part of himself. When combined with the further symbolism of the lions, which represent Santiago’s self-respect, symbolism is the most significant aspect of the story.
Hemmingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York, New York. Scribner. 2003. Print.