The Old Man and the Sea (2nd part) – Ernest Hemingway

 

The Old Man and the Sea

 

Part IV: ( 63 – 95)

 

Summary:

 

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 and not the mammal) for food and throws the line out again in case he needs more sustenance later. As the sun sets again, Santiago ties together two oars across the stern to create more drag. Looking up into the night sky, Santiago calls the stars his friend and says, "The fish is my friend too….I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars" (75). After considering this, Santiago begins to feel sorry for the fish again and concludes that the people who will buy his meat at the market will not be worthy to eat of such a noble beast.

Recalling his exhaustion, Santiago decides that he must sleep some if he is to kill the marlin. He cuts up the dolphin he has caught to prevent spoiling, and eats some of it before contriving a way to sleep. Santiago wraps the line around him and leans against the bow to anchor himself, leaving his left hand on the rope to wake him if the marlin lurches. Soon, the old man is asleep, dreaming of a school of porpoises, his village house, and finally of the lions of his youth on the African beach.

Santiago is awoken by the line rushing furiously through his right hand. The marlin leaps out of the water and it is all the old man can do to hold onto the line, now cutting his hand badly and dragging him down to the bottom of the skiff. Santiago finds his balance, though, and realizes that the marlin has filled the air sacks on his back and cannot go deep to die. The marlin will circle and then the endgame will begin.

At sunrise, the marlin begins a large circle. Santiago holds the line strongly, pulling it in slowly as the marlin goes round. As Santiago says, "the strain will shorten his circle each time. Perhaps in an hour I will see him. Now I must convince him and then I must kill him" (87). Santiago continues pulling him in until the marlin catches the wire lead of the line with his spear and regains some of the line. Eventually, the marlin clears the lead and Santiago pulls back the line he lost.

At the third turn, Santiago sees the fish and is amazed by its size. He readies the harpoon and pulls the line in more. The marlin tries desperately to pull away. Santiago, no longer able to speak for lack of water, thinks, "You are killing me, fish….But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills you" (92). This marlin continues to circle, coming closer and pulling out. At last it is next to the skiff, and Santiago drives his harpoon into the marlin’s chest.

"Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty" (94). It crashed into the sea, blinding Santiago with a shower of sea spray. With the glimpse of vision he had, Santiago saw the slain beast laying on its back, crimson blood disseminating into the azure water. Seeing his prize, Santiago says, "I am a tired old man. But I have killed this fish which is my brother and now I must do the slave work" (95).

 

Analysis:

 

In this section, Santiago continues his obsession with proving his worthiness to the hooked fish. He says, "I’ll kill him….in 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). Again, the fish is construed as a noble superior, the death of which would be unjust. The last sentence foreshadows the intense struggle to ensue. Also, because of the particularities of traditional English usage, the last sentence of the quote can be read two ways. A man can refer to a human being or a male. As Hemingway is usually understood to conflate the noblest qualities of human beings with the noblest qualities of the male sex, I think it is best to read the statement both ways at once. Making Santiago a representative for all humankind serves primarily to heighten the allegorical nature of the novel.

In the next paragraph, Santiago makes some very interesting comments about the nature of worthiness, emphasizing its curiously fragile nature. Having told Manolin on several occasions that he was a strange old man‹strangeness here is synonym for nobility, something which normal people apparently lack‹he must now prove it; "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 is a difficult passage to interpret as it could be read as an expression of Santiago’s particular psychology, as a matter of fact, he never thought about the past and always needed to prove himself as each new situation arose, or as a broader 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 (conferred?) 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.

In order to counteract these feelings of inferiority, Santiago recalls an almost mythic arm wrestling match he had in his youth. (I should note that these constant reiterations of man’s inferiority do become tedious for the reader. Some have accused Hemingway of forsaking his famous Œart of omission’ in this novella, beating the proverbial dead horse). Given that this match lasted a full day and night with blood flowing from beneath each participants’ fingernails, it seems reasonable to read it as hyperbole, underscoring the fable-like quality of the novella.

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, purple, green, and golden, change. This emphasis on sight and the visual field seems both to be an attempt by Hemingway to convey realistic experience‹we do belong to a visually-oriented culture‹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.

At one point in the novel, Santiago’s concern about worthiness takes on an added dimension. Instead of concerning himself solely with his own worthiness to kill the marlin, he now concerns himself with whether the people who will buy and eat the meat of the marlin will be worthy to do so. "How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity" (75). This extension of unworthiness from the killer to consumer underscores how truly inferior Santiago thinks people are with respect to great beasts such as the marlin. If he truly believes this, though, why would he continue. He may prove his own worth by enduring his struggle, but there is no way for the people in the fish markets to prove themselves. Indeed, the exalting the nobility of his prey too much seems to exclude commercial fishing for marlins altogether.

The theme of unity comes out in this section as well. Whereas this theme had previously taken the form of Santiago’s identification with the sea and its creatures, Santiago expands the scope of his identification by including the celestial bodies as brothers. He claims fraternity with the stars on several occasions and justifies his need to sleep by considering the behavior or the moon and sun and ocean. He says, "I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers. Still I must sleep. They sleep and the moon and the sun sleep and even the ocean sleeps sometimes on certain days when there is no current and a flat calm" (77). This broader identification underscores the unity of human life with all of nature.

When he finally does fall asleep, Santiago has a very interesting dream. He dreamt of "a vast school of porpoises that stretched for eight or ten miles and it was in the time of their mating and they would leap high into the air and return into the same hole they had made in the water when they leaped" (81). The imagery here is obviously sexual, emphasizing the feminine character of the sea which Santiago spoke about in the first section. It is mating season and the porpoises, phallic symbols par excellence, go in and out of the same hole, yonic symbol par excellence, in the ocean, already known to us as feminine.

Santiago’s final confrontation with the fish after he wakes further develops Santiago’s equality with the fish and the operative conception of manhood which Santiago works to uphold. Pulling in the circling fish exhausts Santiago, and the exasperated old fisherman exclaims, "You are killing me, fish….But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who" (92). As before, the marlin is Santiago’s exemplar of nobility. It is very interesting that Santiago does not seem to care who kills whom. This, like so much of Santiago’s relation to the fish, seems to recall an aristocratic code of honor in which dying by the hand of a noble opponent is as noble an end as defeating him. Indeed, it might even be a preferable end because one does not know under what conditions one will die.

Santiago’s obsession with valorizing his opponent seems to a far cry from our common idea that one must devalue or dehumanize that which we kill. To view a victim as an equal is supposed to render killing it a sin, and make oneself susceptible to death: the golden rule, if you don’t want to die (and who does?), don’t kill others. Santiago defies this reasoning, thought he accepts the consequences of its logic of equality. Instead of trying to degrade his object, he elevates it, accepting with it the equalizing proposition that his death is as worthy an outcome of the struggle as the his opponent’s death. He is only worthy to kill the opponent if he is worthy to be killed by him: two sides of the same coin.

That this relates to Santiago’s (and we might suppose Hemingway’s) conception of manhood is likely obvious. The connection between the fish’s behavior and masculine behavior is brought out most powerfully when Santiago tells himself, "Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man. Or a fish…." (92). Comporting oneself with grace (or calmness as Santiago’s quote in the previous paragraph indicates) in the face of pain is central to the novella’s idea of manhood. Santiago himself says "pain does not matter to a man," and it is only by ignoring his pain that he can sustain the effort to capture the fish. Withstanding pain, then, handling it as a man, is the essence of proving himself worthy to catch the marlin.

The Old Man and the Sea

 

Part V: (95 – end)

 

Summary:

 

Having killed the Marlin, Santiago lashes its body alongside his skiff. He pulls a line through the marlin’s gills and out its mouth, keeping its head near the bow. "I want to see him, he thought, and to touch and to feel him. He is my fortune, he thought" (95). Having secured the marlin to the skiff, Santiago draws the sail and lets the trade wind push him toward the southwest.

An hour after Santiago killed the marlin, a mako shark appears. It had followed the trail of blood the slain marlin left in its wake. As the shark approaches the boat, Santiago prepares his harpoon, hoping to kill the shark before it tears apart the marlin. "The shark’s head was out of water and his back was coming out and the old man could hear the noise of skin and flesh ripping on the big fish when he rammed the harpoon down onto the shark’s head" (102). The dead shark slowly sinks into the deep ocean water.

The shark took forty pounds of flesh from the marlin and mutilated its perfect side. Santiago no longer liked to look at the fish; "when the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit" (103). He began to regret having caught the marlin at all, wishing that his adventure had been but a dream. Despite the challenges before him, though, Santiago concludes that "man is not made for defeat….A man can be destroyed but not defeated" (103).

Soon Santiago considers whether his killing the fish was a sin. He first says that he killed the marlin to feed himself and others, and if this is a sin, then everything is a sin. But he had not only killed the marlin for food, "you, [Santiago], 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?" (105). Santiago soon ceases this line of thought to concentrate on getting back to shore.

Two hours later, two shovel-nosed sharks arrive at the skiff. After losing his harpoon to the mako, Santiago fastens his knife to the end of the oar and now wields this against the sharks. He kills the first shark easily, but while he does this, the other shark is ripping at the marlin underneath the boat. He lets go of the sheet to swing broadside and reveal the shark underneath. After some struggle, he kills this shark as well.

Santiago apologizes to the fish for the mutilation he has suffered. He admits, "I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish….Neither for you nor for me. I am sorry, fish" (110). Tired and losing hope, Santiago sits and waits for the next attacker, a single shovel-nosed shark. The old man succeeds in killing the fish but breaks his knife blade in the process.

More sharks appear at sunset and Santiago only has a club with which to beat them away. He does not kill the sharks, but damages them enough to prevent their return. Santiago then looks forward to nightfall as he will be able to see the lights of Havana, guiding him back to land. He regrets not having cleaved off the marlin’s sword to use as a weapon when he had the knife and apologizes again to the fish. At around ten o’clock, he sees the light of Havana and steers toward it.

In the night, the sharks return. "[B]y midnight he fought and this time he knew the fight was useless. They came in a pack and he could only see the lines in the water their fins made and their phosphorescence as they threw themselves on the fish" (118). He clubs desperately at the fish, but the club was soon taken away by a shark. Santiago grabs the tiller and attacks the sharks until the tiller breaks. "That was the last shark of the pack that came. There was nothing more for them to eat" (119).

Santiago "sailed lightly now and he had no thoughts nor any feelings of any kind" (119). He concentrates purely on steering homewards and ignored the sharks that came to gnaw on the marlin’s bones. When he arrives at the harbor, everyone was asleep. Santiago steps out of the boat, carrying the mast back to his shack. "He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulder. He tried to get up. But it was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked at the road" (121). When he finally arose, he had to sit five times before reaching home. Arriving at his shack, Santiago collapsed on his bed and fell asleep.

Manolin arrives at the shack while Santiago is still asleep. The boy leaves quickly to get some coffee for Santiago, crying on his way to the Terrace. Manolin sees fisherman gathered around the skiff, measuring the marlin at eighteen feet long. When Manolin returns to the shack, Santiago is awake. The two speak for a while, and Manolin says, "Now we will fish together again," To which Santiago replies, "No. I am not lucky. I am not lucky anymore" (125). Manolin objects, "The hell with luck….I’ll bring the luck with me" (125). Santiago acquiesces and Manolin leaves to fetch food and a shirt.

That afternoon there are tourists on the Terrace. A female tourist sees the skeleton of the marlin moving in the tide. Not recognizing the skeleton, she asks the waiter what it is. He responds in broken English "eshark," thinking she wants to know what happened. She comments to her partner that she didn’t know sharks had such beautiful tails. Meanwhile, back in Santiago’s shack, the old man "was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about lions" (127).

Analysis:

 

This last section of the novella constitutes the tortuous denouement of the plot. Caught out far at sea with a dead, bleeding marlin lashed to the side of his boat, Santiago is asking for trouble and trouble he receives. Everything he has worked so hard for slowly but surely disintegrates, until he arrives back on land in worse condition than he left. 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 not 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 quintessentially 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 the 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 accentuates Santiago’s personal destruction by reiterating his connection with the marlin he has caught. Soon after he has secured the marlin to the boat and hoisted his sail, he becomes somewhat delirious, questioning if it is he who is bringing in the marlin or vice versa. His language is very telling. "…[I]f the fish were in the skiff, with all dignity gone, there would be no question….But they were sailing together lashed side by side" (99). Even in death, then, the fish has not lost his dignity. He is Œside by side’ with Santiago, a partner in return. This identification is highlighted after the first shark attack when Hemingway tells us that Santiago "did not like to look at the fish anymore since he had been mutilated. When the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit" (103). The more the marlin is devoured, the less strength Santiago has until, when the marlin is simply a bare skeleton, Santiago "had no thoughts or feelings of any kind" (119).

The sharks are interesting creatures. They are widely read as embodiments of literary critics, tearing apart the Santiago’s (Hemingway’s) catch (book). While this may have some credence, I think the sharks are better read as representations of the negative, destructive aspect of the sea and, more generally, human existence. As we have seen, the theme of unity is very important in the novel, but this unity does not only encompass friendly or innocuous aspects of the whole. While he battles against them, the sharks are no less creatures of the sea, brothers if you will, than the friendly porpoises Santiago encounters earlier in his expedition.

This is brought out most strongly in the descriptions of the mako, the first shark Santiago encounters. "He was a very big Mako shark built to swim as fast as the fastest fish in the sea and everything about him was beautiful except his jaws. His back was as blue as the sword fish’s and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome" (100). Indeed, "he was built as a sword fish except for his huge jaws" (100). The mako is not a nasty or brutish beast, but noble in its own way, a predatory marlin. Reflecting on his victory over the mako, Santiago says the shark is "cruel and able and strong and intelligent. But I was more intelligent than he was. Perhaps not….Perhaps I was only better armed" (103). The other shovel-nosed sharks are not positively described‹"they were hateful sharks, bad smelling, scavengers as well as killers‹but they are certainly part of the ocean environment.

On a psychoanalytic reading of the novella, the sharks might be seen as representations of a guilty conscience. The son has killed the father, the marlin, to possess the mother, the ocean, and now suffers for his transgression, an inversion of Orestes whom the Furies pursued for killing his mother.

Santiago’s discussion of sin is very significant in a novella about man’s resistance against fate. He wonders if it was a sin for him to kill the marlin. "I suppose it was even though I did it to keep alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin" (105). Santiago attempts to assuage this doubt by recalling that he was "born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish" (106) Ignoring the invalid inference made in the first quote‹if killing X for reason Y is a sin, it does not hold that all actions performed for reason Y are sins‹this is an important point. According to this reasoning, Santiago is fated to sin and, presumably, to suffer for it. This seems to express Hemingway’s belief that human existence is characterized by constant suffering, not because of some avoidable transgression, but because that’s just the way it is.

Thinking more, Santiago reasons that he did not only kill the marlin for food. Speaking to himself, he says, "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?" (105). Adding to his guilt about killing the marlin, Santiago then recalls his enjoyment of killing the mako. As noted earlier, the mako is not an unconditionally wicked creature. As Santiago says to himself, "He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything." Why then could he enjoy this killing and not the marlin’s? Santiago offers two short responses, though neither one really answers the question: "I killed him in self-defense….And I killed him well" (107). The second response seems to be more significant, but this would mean that killing the marlin was not a sin since he killed it well too. This suggests Santiago’s sin, if it exists, must be interpreted differently.

Throughout this final section, Santiago repeatedly apologizes to the marlin in a way that provides another way to read Santiago’s sin. He says, "Half fish….Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went out so far. I ruined us both" (115). According to this and similar passages ("And what beat you, he thought. Nothing, I went out too far (120)), Santiago’s transgression is no longer his killing the fish, but going out too far in the ocean, "beyond all people in the world" (50). While the former sin helped account for the inescapable misery of the human condition, the latter focuses instead on escapable misery brought about by intentional action. Santiago chose to go out so far; he did not need to do so, but in doing so he must surrender his prize, the marlin, to the jealous sea.

This understanding of Santiago’s sin is strange because it seems to separate man from nature in a way which contradicts the rest of the novella. Going out too far is an affront against nature similar to the hubristic folly of Greek tragedy; he has courted disaster through his own pride. Nowhere previously in the novel was this apparent, though. The sea seemed to welcome him, providing him company and food for his expedition. There was no resistance from nature to his activities, except perhaps the sharks, but these were never made to be nature’s avengers. This reading of Santiago’s sin thus seems very problematic.

After Santiago sees the two sand sharks approaching, he says "Ay," a word which Hemingway describes as "just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the woods" (107). This the first, explicit identification of Santiago with Christ. The second identification is near the end of the novella when Santiago carries the mast to his shack on his shoulder, falling several times‹recalling the stations of the cross‹only to collapse on his bed to sleep "face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up"‹recalling the crucifixion (122). Making this analogy would certainly elevate Santiago’s trials. But the allusions are so blatant and so out of place that they are only successful in drawing attention to Hemingway’s narrative conceit, especially if we accept an autobiographical reading of the book. Besides, Santiago’s story does not mirror Christ’s except insofar as both men suffer greatly; the purpose of this suffering and each man’s opponent differ radically.

Santiago’s discussion of luck after the second shovel-nosed shark attack is interesting dramatically, as it once foreshadows Santiago’s misfortune and offers the slightest illusion of hope for the reader as the novella approaches its end. He wonders to himself, "Maybe I’ll have the luck to bring the forward half in. I should have some luck. No….You violated your luck when you went too far outside" (116). This clearly foreshadows the loss of the entire marlin. Later, though, Santiago remarks that "Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her?" (117). This statement certainly suggests that luck may be with Santiago even if it is not apparent to him or to the reader. Of course, there is no luck for Santiago, but suggesting there might be makes Santiago’s eventual misfortune more powerful.

That Santiago completes the novel undefeated and still in possession of his dignity, is demonstrated by his conversation with Manolin. His first words to the boy are "They beat me. They truly beat me," referring to the sharks (124). Immediately, though, he moves to mundane matters such as what to do with the head of the marlin and what Manolin has caught in his absence. When Santiago refuses to fish with Manolin because of his own lack of luck, the boy says he will bring the luck. Soon, Santiago is talking about how to make a new killing lance in preparation of their next voyage. Finally, in the last sentence of the novel, we are told that "the old man was dreaming of lions," the same symbols of strength and youth which he enjoyed before his voyage (127). True to Hemingway’s formula for heroism, Santiago, for all this trials and tribulations, remains the same unsuccessful but undefeated soul as before.

The female tourist at the end of the book represents the feminine incapacity to appreciate Santiago’s masculine quest. For her, the marlin skeleton, a phallic symbol, is just "garbage waiting to go out to out with the tide" (127). She does not speak the waiter and Santiago’s language, and so is ignorant of the old man’s great deeds. Her misunderstanding is simple enough, but the fact that she is the only actual feminine character in the novel and that this episode appears on the last page gives it added significance.

 

Background:

 

The Old Man and the Sea was published 1952 after the bleakest ten years in Hemingway’s literary career. His last major work, Across the River and into the Trees, was condemned as unintentional self-parody, and people began to think that Hemingway had exhausted his store of ideas. Santiago’s story was originally conceived as part of a larger work, including material that later appeared in Islands in the Stream. This larger work, which Hemingway referred to as "The Sea Book," was proving difficult, and when Hemingway received positive reviews of the Santiago story, known then as "The Sea in Being," he decided to allow it to be published independently. He wrote to publisher Charles Scribner in October 1951, "This is the prose that I have been working for all my life that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of man’s spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now." The Old Man and the Sea, published in its entirety in one edition of Life magazine, was an instant success. In two days the September 1st edition of Life sold 5,300,000 copies and the book version sold 153,000. The novella soared to the top of the best-seller list and remained there for six months. At first, critical reception was warm. Many hailed it as Hemingway’s best work, and no less than William Faulkner said, "Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries." Others, however, complained of artificiality in the characterization and excess sentimentality. Despite these detractors, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the 1953 Pulitizer Prize and American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award of Merit Medal for the Novel and played a significant role in Hemingway’s selection for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. For the first fifteen or so years after its publication, critical response remained largely positive. Since the mid-60’s, however, the work has received sustained attacks from realist critics who decry the novella’s unrealistic or simply incorrect elements, e.g. the alleged eight rows of teeth in the mako’s mouth or the position of the star Riegel. Through the 1970’s the book became less and less the subject of serious literary criticism, and the view of the book as embarrassingly narcissistic, psychologically simplistic, and overly sentimental became more and more entrenched. While The Old Man and the Sea is popularly beloved and assigned reading for students in the US and around the world, critical opinion places it among Hemingway’s less significant works.

Character List:

 

Santiago: Santiago is the protagonist of the novella. He is an old fisherman in Cuba who, when we meet him at the beginning of the book, has not caught anything for eighty-four days. The novella follows Santiago’s quest for the great catch that will save his career. Santiago endures a great struggle with a uncommonly large and noble marlin only to lose the fish to rapacious sharks on his way back to land. Despite this loss, Santiago ends the novel with his spirit undefeated. Depending on your reading of the novel, Santiago represents Hemingway himself, searching for his next great book, an Everyman, heroic in the face of human tragedy, or the Oedipal male unconscious trying to slay his father, the marlin, in order to sexually possess his mother, the sea.

Manolin: Manolin is Santiago’s only friend and companion. Santiago taught Manolin to fish, and the boy used to go out to sea with the old man until his parents objected to Santiago’s bad luck. Manolin still helps Santiago pull in his boat in the evenings and provides the old man with food and bait when he needs it. Manolin is the reader’s surrogate in the novel, appreciating Santiago’s heroic spirit and skill despite his outward lack of success.

The Marlin: Although he does not speak and we do not have access to his thoughts, the marlin is certainly an important character in the novella. The marlin is the fish Santiago spends the majority of the novel tracking, killing, and attempting to bring to shore. The marlin is larger and more spirited than any Santiago has ever seen. Santiago idealizes the marlin, ascribing to it traits of great nobility, a fish to which he must prove his own nobility if he is to be worthy enough to catch it. Again, depending on your reading, the marlin can represent the great book Hemingway is trying to write, the threatened father of Santiago’s Oedipus, or merely the dramatic foil to Santiago’s heroism.

The Sea: As its title suggests, the sea is central character in the novella. Most of the story takes place on the sea, and Santiago is constantly identified with it and its creatures; his sea-colored eyes reflect both the sea’s tranquillity and power, and its inhabitants are his brothers. Santiago refers to the sea as a woman, and the sea seems to represent the feminine complement to Santiago’s masculinity. The sea might also be seen as the unconscious from which creative ideas are drawn.

Main Themes:

 

Unity: 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 a cruel, etc. 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.

Heroism: 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 quintessentially 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 the comporting ourselves with inner nobility. As Santiago says, "[M]an is not made for defeat….A man can be destroyed but not defeated" (103).

Manhood: 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 Œgreat,’ Œbeautiful,’ Œcalm,’ and Œnoble,’ and Santiago steels him against his pain by telling himself, "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.

Pride: 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.

Success: 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 later. 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.

Worthiness: 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 him….in 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.

 

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