In this novella (short novel), Hemingway’s aim is to examine man’s position in the universe. Throughout the novella, Santiago (‘the old man’) endeavours to see himself in a cosmic perspective. Certainly, he takes, for a fisherman, a surprisingly sympathetic view of the creatures, with whom we share the planet.
Hemingway’s story reads as if it is a Biblical parable.
Ian Ousby (50 American Novels, 1979) writes that the theme of Hemingway’s parable is nothing less than ‘The relation between man and nature’; he adds that throughout the story ‘the old man feels a sense of union with nature’
Hemingway’s novella stands in a tradition which begins with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, (1850). The difference is that, whereas Melville’s Captain Ahab expresses a remorseless hatred for the sea and its creatures, Hemingway’s Santiago expresses a love of them. In this respect, Hemingway’s hero has more in common with D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930). In many important ways, Hemingway’s parable of the Marlin owes a debt to Lawrence’s presentation of a ‘Mountain Lion’ and a ‘Snake’ (1923).
‘Was it humility to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured’
D. H. Lawrence: Snake (1923)
Use a quote from mountain lion
Conspicuous moral – if one lives in contact with the elements then one comes to a true understanding of oneself.
Cuban setting – Gulf of Mexico
The boy is instinctively sympathetic towards the old man
There is a schematic approach to the Deadly Sins, the Cardinal Virtues, and the Heavenly Graces. We either exhibit or reject them. We shall see in the course of the narrative that Hemingway encompasses a significant number of the Sins, the Virtues, and the Graces.
‘Defeat’ the patched sail of the boat is an emblem to Santiago’s continuing misfortune. Although the sail is ‘furled like the flag of permanent defeat’, the old man is not a defeatist.
The story is going to tell us that Santiago has immense strength of character.
Perseverance and resilience.
The old man has a great capacity for endurance.
Santiago’s eyes are ‘the same colour as the sea’; Hemingway exhibits a close affinity between the old man and the sea.
When he goes to sea the old man is in his element
The boy ‘loved him’ and has a great deal of faith in the old man; he displays a Heavenly Grace.
The boy does not doubt the old man.
There is a solidarity ‘between fishermen’, between the old man and Manolin (the boy).
The boy stresses the importance of service (‘I would like to serve in some way’); he is willing to put himself at Santiago’s disposal and therefore has an altruistic attitude towards the old man.
The old man is not defeated by his lack of success at sea because he has not lost confidence in his ability as a fisherman (‘his hope and confidence had never gone’).
Hope – Grace
The old man remains both literally and metaphorically buoyant.
There is something heroic about the way in the old man reacts to the adversity that faces him.
Santiago’s mood is to be identified with the rise and fall of the sea breeze:
‘Freshening as when the sea breeze rises’
Hemingway associates the old man with the natural elements.
The old man’s relationship with the sea has enabled him to understand that the sea, indeed all the elements, are more powerful than he is; consequently, he feels humble (‘attained humility’) and exhibits yet another of the Heavenly Graces.
He is a wise old man because he knows that humility is ‘not disgraceful’; it involves ‘no loss of true pride’; he can respect the sea without losing any dignity.
Santiago’s proximity to the sea inculcates (impresses upon him) in him a Christian sense of values; it’s repugnance (hatred) for the Deadly Sins and a complementary respect for the Cardinal Virtues and the Heavenly Graces.
Humility is a Christian not Cardinal Virtue.
The old man’s contact with the sea inspires within him humility, more than any other Virtue.
How can it be disgraceful to accept charity when it is one of the Graces? In accepting charity from the boy, the old man is allowing Manolin to show a Grace and rejecting it would be churlish (mean) and disgraceful.
Santiago derives his sense of virtues from his closeness with the sea. He regards fish, not as a fisherman, but as a poet.
He ekes out a very austere existence and lives in a spartan ‘shack’ with very few home comforts. Hemingway tells us that something is under ‘his shirt’; he indicates that Santiago only has two shirts – the one he is wearing and the clean one.
The old man has never lost faith or given up hope and even after ‘eighty-four days without taking a fish’ he still remains optimistic that the next day will be a good one ‘eighty-five is a lucky number’.
One of the ways in which the old man keeps his hope and faith is to engage in hero worship. In contrast to the commandment ‘thou shalt not worship false idols’ (Exodus 20), Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999) is used as a role model for the kind of fortitude he needs to show (‘have faith…think of the great DiMaggio’)
Santiago is content to go without and live an austere life:
‘First you borrow, then you beg’
He feels that if he was to borrow, the next step would be to beg, and that would show ‘loss of true pride’ and drain his self-esteem.
The boy cares and shows compassion for the old man (‘keep warm old man’)
Santiago is a ‘strange old man’; he is very old yet still powerful. There is a sense that he is deriving his physical strength from his moral strength; there is something Wordsworthian in the old man’s residual fitness.
One of the most obvious characteristics of the old man’s simplistic life is that ‘he was barefoot’. The old man lives a very religious life; a measure of his piety is that he goes ‘barefoot’.
Martin is the owner of the cafï¿½ on the terrace. He gives the old man and the boy some food; he makes a charitable donation and exhibits the Heavenly Grace of charity. Martin is ‘very thoughtful’ towards Santiago and Manolin; he has given them food ‘more than once’. He takes pity on the old man and shows compassion.
The old man thinks the boy’s willingness to take the empty beer bottles is ‘very kind’ and inspires gratitude in Santiago.
Santiago teaches the boy to be morally strict with himself:
‘Why am I so thoughtless?’
The old man inspires a rigid self-discipline within the boy.
Both the old man and the boy look up to baseball stars. A very important part of their upbringing is to have an older and more impressive role model to look up to.
Another famous base ball player, Dick Sisler (1920- ), visited the Terrace, but the old man and the boy were ‘too timid’ to ask him to go fishing with them:
‘I know. It was a great mistake. He might have gone with us. Then we would have had that for all of our lives.’
They would have had something to live by, something to inspire them in times of difficulty.
‘There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.’
The boy hero-worships the old man. He is saying that Santiago is in a class by himself because he exhibits the Cardinal Virtues such as fortitude, and some others such as humility and selflessness.
The old man is willing to recognise his own inadequacies:
‘I may not be as strong as I think’
The old man comes to terms with his shortcomings and recognises that he may have overestimated his strength. He is a self-deprecating, prudent (careful to avoid undesired consequences) old man, prudence being a cardinal virtue.
Santiago is careful not to over commit himself because he fears that he may lack the necessary personal resources.
But he consoles himself that he has resolution (‘I have resolution’) and the capacity to endure. He knows that he has both physical and moral stamina – fortitude (virtue).
‘He loved the boy’ the old man admires the charitable nature of the boy, and the boy’s generosity of spirit.
If the old man gives up and doesn’t go out on the eighty-fifth day he will lose self-respect:
‘It is what a man must do’
A man must keep going even if faced with considerable adversities.
Santiago looks towards the sea creatures for companionship and depends upon non-human creatures for company:
‘Flying fish were his principle friends on the ocean’
He sees them as equals, which is why he is a strange old man.
He is a strange old man because he derives his sense of identity from his closeness to the sea and his sense of morality from his maritime experiences.
One function of his friendship with the sea birds is his empathy.
Firstly, he expresses sympathy with the birds because ‘they have a harder life than we do’. Secondly, he feels a human compassion for non-human creatures.
The old man is strange because he sees the birds and the sea creatures as less of a commercial commodity, more as a fellow traveller; he sees sea creatures as equal citizens of the earth.
Like Robert Lowell, Hemingway’s old man learns to ‘pity the planet’.
Santiago is deeply appreciative of the sea swallows; he is in awe of their beauty and in sympathy of their plight (‘made too delicate for the sea’).
The old man perceives the sea as a woman (‘La mar’). The feminine article is indicative of the kind of relationship between ‘the old man and the sea’.
The old man thinks of the sea as feminine because she is ‘something that gives or withholds great favours’. In other words, the sea has the power to satisfy or deny a man as a woman does (sexually).
A less complementary point is that the moods of the sea are rather like the moods of a woman – unpredictable, governed by the phrases of the moon (‘the moon affects her a it does a woman’)
A measure of the old man’s affinity with the sea is that he uses its creatures to help him (‘use the bird’); he is in alliance with the birds.
Santiago is a strange old man like Doctor Doolittle; he talks to the animals, though he also talks to himself. He talks to himself to cheer himself up – fortitude.
The old man has faith that ‘his big fish must be somewhere’.
He is adept at reading the signs of the sea and understanding its meanings.
The old man ‘loves green turtles’; he shows appreciation for every aspect of marine life. Whether it is ‘beautiful iridescent bubbles’ or ‘green turtles’, the old man has a compassionate understanding of marine-biology. This is illustrated nowhere better than the oxymoronic reference to the loggerheads (‘friendly contempt’).
Santiago feels pity for the turtles (‘he was sorry for them all’) as one might feel sorry for a fellow human being.
He compares himself to the turtles because he identifies in the creatures a kindred spirit. He shares with the turtle an extraordinary capacity for endurance against the odds – fortitude (‘I have such a heart too’).
The old man drinks a cup of shark liver oil each day. He lives directly off the sea; he subsists off the sea. The only things he takes in are not his provisions but things he has caught. This further strengthens his affinity with the sea.
Santiago shows humility and recognises his dependence on the creatures:
‘The bird is a great help’
A measure of the old man’s Christian compassion is that he even kills a small fish, which he has landed, ‘for kindness’.
It is a feature of the old man’s life that he talks to himself; he is endeavouring to come to terms with his solitude. It is in this solitary state that he forges his relationship with the sea.
Not unlike Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, our ancient mariner, Santiago, finds his identity in his relationship with the sea.
Santiago sees himself exclusively as a fisherman:
‘That which I was born for’
He examines his sense of identity and concludes that deep-sea fishing is his vocation. The prospect of catching a ‘big fish’ fires him with a sense of mission – to catch a ‘big fish’ is his mission in life. Catching fish defines his existence.
Hemingway seeks to control Santiago’s perception of the fish by means of simple adjectives (‘huge’, ‘heavy’).
Santiago engages in conversation with the fish, seeing it as a fellow citizen of the earth. He directly addresses the fish because to Santiago it is not an inanimate object; on the contrary it is a sentient creature
God / Christ’s name is frequently in the old man’s mouth. Is this merely a way of speaking, or does it express a religious belief?
The old man is in awe of the ‘huge fish’ (‘what a fish’). He respects it for its awesome size.
The old man is not in any way condescending (treat as inferior) towards the fish.
The old man recognises his dependence on the boy:
‘I wish I had the boy’
Santiago lacks pride in its worst form. He knows when he needs help and recognises his debt to the boy.
Although he ‘Thanks God’, it is by no means clear that he is praying for salvation from his eighty-four day run of bad luck.
When the fish is still pulling ‘four hours later’, Santiago shows the patience required of him.
Santiago does not curse the fish when it demonstrates its powers of endurance, rather he blesses/praises it for its qualities.
A measure of the old man’s optimism is that he sees a glass as half full, not half empty. Given this optimistic spirit he thinks of his physical discomfort as ‘almost comfortable’.
The old man asks for the boy many times. He realises that the boy is of great practical assistance, as well as having talismanic significance. The old man knows that the boy, though small and young, would give him moral support and sustain him in his endeavour. He is not too proud to recognise that the task is too arduous to go it alone.
The old man recognises that being alone is ‘unavoidable’ in his old age. To his loneliness, he adopts a stoical attitude.
Here the old man exhibits a Cardinal Virtue – prudence:
‘I must remember to eat the tuna before he spoils in order to keep strong. Remember, no matter how little you want to, that you must eat him in the morning.’
The old man’s affinity with the sea enables him to ‘tell the difference’ between male and female porpoise.
Santiago is a moralist. When he perceives the porpoise, he endows a non-human creature with morality with just a simple adjective (‘they are good’). In his view, there is a brotherhood between man and beast; there is a kinship between him and the porpoise (‘they are our brothers’).
Santiago respects the marlin’s otherness and strangeness, where, to others, it would be a scapegoat. At the same time as expressing his admiration for the fish (‘what a great fish’), he indulges in anthropomorphism; that is he endows the fish with two human qualities; desperation and wisdom.
There is a strong degree of fellowship between the old man and the marlin, another expression of empathy.
Hemingway is describing the old man’s stream of consciousness. Running through his consciousness are strange thoughts: mainly that the fish has human feelings with which he can empathise.
Santiago finds himself awe-struck by the loyalty that the male marlin shows towards the female, which he has harpooned (‘all the time the male had stayed with her’). What strikes him so hard is that the male fish should display this human quality.
He discovers that loyalty is also a non-human quality; it exists in the animal kingdom too.
What continues to impress the old man is that the male marlin stayed, even after the female had been killed and hoisted into the boat. It’s almost as if the fish is showing grief, and is ennobled by his expression of grief.
Ultimately, Hemingway makes the connection between the physical beauty of the male marlin (‘his lavender wings’) and the fish’s moral beauty (‘he had stayed’).
The ‘saddest thing he ever saw’ is the devotion of this male to this female. The two factors that make it sad are the sheer depth of the devotion combined with the sheer pointlessness of it. The spectacle is profoundly sad because no amount of devotion can bring the female back to life.
He is a strange old man because he respects the creature that he butchers (‘we begged her pardon and butchered her promptly’).
Throughout the novella, there is a tension between two contradictory values that the man must hold: the values of a fisherman who must fish, and the values of a poet, who must respect and admire.
Repeatedly, Hemingway uses adjectives (‘huge’, ‘great’) to give both physical and moral scale to the fish.
‘Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought’
Santiago recognises the source of his own strangeness, namely his profound appreciation for the creatures he must kill. He recognises that his poetic perception of large fish is inconsistent with his occupation, namely killing large fish.
He squares up to this contradiction by reminding himself that he is a poet second, a fisherman first. He reminds himself that fishing is his vocation (‘the thing that I was born for’).
The old man demonstrates two qualities: independence and self-sufficiency; he has to rely on his own resources and physical and moral strength.
He demonstrates both practical and moral reliance, and practical and moral resourcefulness.
In every way, the old man needs to be self-sufficient because he is no longer fishing with the boy.
He has to redefine his sense of identity in complete isolation.
Manfully, Santiago comes to terms with his isolation and resolves to meet the sea alone.
The old man, although a follower of base ball, resolves to ‘play the ball from where it lies’ Bobby Jones (1902-1971) (famous golfer)
The old man resolves to be uncomplaining – fortitude
Having hooked the ‘big fish’ he becomes engaged in as trial of strength, both physically and morally. He makes a vow to the fish to bring it home, even if it kills him (“Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.’). It has become a test of willpower, almost a contest (‘I can do it as long as he can’); he is trying to outstay the marlin.
‘The old man realised’ that the fish wasn’t tiring; that he was indefatigable (‘the fish was not tiring’).
Hemingway’s description of the line (‘taut up to the very edge of the breaking point’) is at the same time a description of the old man.
There is a tension between two impulses in the old man. On the one hand, love and respect for the fish, on the other hand, a resolution to outstay and kill the fish.
There is a constant dialogue between the old man and the fish.
On this occasion, the old man opens up conversation with a ‘small bird’ that has come to rest on the ‘taut line’.
On the sea, man and bird and fish are equals; they are of equivalent importance. The emphasis throughout the novella is upon this strange equivalence. It is this equivalence, which puts man and creature on equal par.
What’s more, in Hemingway’s novel, the emphasis is on the affinity between the species, in which the human species is not necessarily superior.
Nowhere is the old man’s identification with the sea better illustrated (‘I am with a friend’).
Hemingway illustrates this by the dialogue.
He talks to the fish as a friend with whose plight, though he has inflicted it, he can feel sympathy.
Santiago keeps a running commentary upon his maritime experiences.
The main part of this commentary is his self-analysis.
He sets up another dialogue with his own hand.
Autonomous – the hand has an autonomous existence.
Counselling his hand and telling it to show the virtue of patience is in fact a way to preserve his sanity.
There is a brotherhood between the old man and the fish, but he recognises he has to kill it.
‘I will open it, cost whatever it costs’
He is physically very far away from human companionship, but he is not far from marine companionship.
What the book stresses repeatedly is the old man’s attitude of mind; his buoyant perception of himself.
‘Great’ a declarative way of expressing the fish’s magnificence.
He appraises the qualities of man and fish: whereas humans are more intelligent, fish are more noble and able.
He mythologizes the fish; met his own Moby Dick.
The old man concentrates on his powers of self-analysis upon his sense of identity (‘what sort of man I am’). Certainly Santiago is notable for his humility; he wants the fish to think he is ‘more man’ than he actually is.
This page illustrates the old man’s fortitude.
Further example of fortitude – ‘he did not admit the suffering at all’ the old man is completely uncomplaining.
Santiago says ‘I am not religious’ in the sense that he is not a practising catholic. When he decides that he needs to say a prayer, he is indifferent to whether he says ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Our Father’. He chooses Hail Mary, as it is the easiest one to say.
The old man is religious in his devotion to the sea and its creatures. We know this because of the language in which the old man refers to the marlin. He is proposing to kill the fish ‘in all his greatness and his glory’. There is a sense of religious sacrifice in killing the fish.
The fish supplies the old man with a test of his personal resources, in particular, his capacity for endurance. It tests his physical and moral stamina (‘but I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures’).
Santiago sees himself as a strange old man because he relies upon his relationship with the sea to give himself a sense of identity; it is only in relation with the sea that he proves himself. The old man used ‘proved’ three times to stress this.
The old man is trying to prove himself ‘worthy of the great DiMaggio’. The old man will acquire self-esteem only if, in his struggle with the fish, he can prove himself physically and morally supreme.
The old man’s contact with the sea inspires in him a cosmic humility; when he sees himself ‘beside the great birds and beasts’, when he sees himself in a cosmic perspective, he recognises how insignificant he, as a man, is.
The old man worries that the only things that might prevent him from bringing his cargo ashore are shark attacks.
Arm -wrestling is a trial of strength from Santiago’s past, a trial that he passed in his virile manhood.
Santiago reaches the philosophical conclusion that ‘nothing is easy’. It is in that context that he makes his judgements about the hardships that he faces. His instinctive judgement is that he has ‘known worse things’. His habit of mind is essentially optimistic.
Hemingway composes to the old man, what is called an interior monologue. In this monologue, Santiago monitors his own sensations and reactions.
One of Santiago’s great preoccupations is with the tension between his conflicting feelings for the fish (‘the fish is my friend too’).
On the one hand, Santiago is ‘sorry for the great fish’, who is his ‘friend’; on the other hand ‘his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him’.
Santiago comes to accept that there is no way of reconciling these puzzling opposites.
Santiago is so impressed by the ‘great dignity’ of the fish that he cannot help wondering whether less dignified human beings are ‘worthy to eat him’. Santiago goes as far as to say that the fish are our ‘true brothers’.
As his quest goes on, Santiago continues to monitor both his physical and mental fitness (‘rest now old man’, ‘but you’ve not slept yet old man’). In particular, he’s keen to keep a hold on his own sanity (‘I’m clear enough in the head’).
Another of the main themes of this story is the old man’s reaction to adversity; in particular, the fortitude needed to contend with it.
The old man’s strategy for coping is to become inured to physical hardship (‘it is hard on the right hand but he is used to punishment’).
The old man is constantly giving himself a talking to. He is self-critical (‘if I had brains’), then he is reminding himself of his true qualities (‘be fearless and confident yourself, old man’).
It becomes a matter of male honour to withstand pain (‘pain does not matter to a man’); Santiago takes a pride in being able to grin and bear any pain. To him, bearing suffering is a matter of manhood.
Santiago is chastising himself for failing to be practical and sensible (‘you’re stupid, he told himself’)
The old man is extremely adept at being a good cheer – the quality you show in the face of adversity.
From the moment that the old man ‘saw the fish first’, he concentrates on describing its epic scale. From this point, the energy of Hemingway’s writing goes into eulogising (praising) both the size and the beauty of the fish.
When he says ‘he could not believe its size’, firstly, the old man expresses incredulity at how ‘big’ the fish is (‘he can’t be that big’), secondly, he admires the vivid colours of its tail (‘a very pale lavender above the dark blue water’).
Two more adjectives, which praise the fish, are ‘calm’ and ‘beautiful-looking’. The old man uses these adjectives to express his admiration for the composure of the fish under duress.
In order to combat the ‘great fish’, the old man needs to marshal his personal resources:
‘Pull, hands…Hold up, legs. Last for me, head.’
He presents himself as doing this by means of synecdoche: that is, by addressing each independent part of himself as if it is a separate force. The fish is so massive that he needs to co-ordinate his strengths – physical and mental.
The old man recognises that he and the fish are in mortal combat: that is, a fight to the death.
The old man accepts that the fish is hooked and has to die, and that the contest in which he is involved with the fish may lead to his death.
The old man accepts that the fish has ‘a right’ to retaliate. In particular, to try to kill him in return. The old man concedes this right because he has ‘never’ previously witnessed a fellow creature of such grandeur and such splendour. The old man sees in the fish both physical (‘beautiful’) and moral (‘calm and noble’) qualities.
The old man is happy to recognise a brotherhood between himself and the fish, not least in terms of their shared equanimity under duress. He particularly admires its capacity to endure suffering (‘keep your head clear and suffer like a man. Or a fish’)
Nowhere in his encounter with the fish does the old man exhibit more fortitude, than when the fish attempts to outrun him. Five times Santiago expresses his determination to ‘try’ to defeat the fish. His proverbial motto would be ‘try, try, try again’.
Through out the description, Hemingway stresses the mutual respect between man and fish.
Santiago is a strange old man because he imagines a mutual respect between the fish and himself. Its rather strange that a fisherman, who earns his living by killing fish, should foster such a deep respect for the fish, which he is out to destroy.
What is strange, and ironic, is that Santiago is out to destroy a creature he respects.
The old man’s relationship with the sea is strengthening his virtues.
To complete his eulogy of the fish, Hemingway catalogues his physical dimensions (‘length’, ‘width’, ‘power’, and ‘beauty’)
Santiago’s first thought is that ‘the great DiMaggio would be proud’ of him for showing fortitude to grapple with a ‘fifteen hundred pound’ (107 stone) fish. Catching the fish has enhanced Santiago’s self-image. He has endured the suffering an overcome the hardships. He feels that his hero, ‘the great DiMaggio’, would be proud.
The old man wants to acknowledge the democratic relationship between the fish and himself (‘is he bringing me in or am I bringing him in?’)
Santiago is asking the open question: which of us, man or fish, is superior? He doesn’t take for granted that man is superior, or being honest, he looks at the fish and himself ‘lashed side by side’ and has to concede that he, the man, is ‘better’ than the fish only through ‘trickery’.
This series of shark attacks provides a further test of the old man’s character.
During these shark attacks Santiago undergoes a further period of self-examination; the fish gives him ‘much good counsel’. By that we mean further examination of his moral virtues/qualities.
Foremost among his moral reflections is the old man’s continued feeling that men and fish are equal citizens of the earth.
‘He was full of resolution but he had little hope’ at this point, the old man seems to be without the Heavenly Grace of hope.
Nowhere is the old man’s sympathetic identification with the fish more painfully felt than in this description of the shark attack:
‘When the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit’
When the first shark takes ‘about forty pounds’ of the marlin, the old man feels that it has taken an integral part of himself; that is how close the self-identification with the fish is.
At this point, Hemingway records the old man’s confused reactions to his predicament. Although he has ‘little hope’ that he can preserve the great fish, he remains ‘full of resolution’ to try and do so. Although he may lose the ‘great fish’ to the shark attacks, he is not going to give up trying to defend it.
DiMaggio is proud of he old man not just because of his endurance of suffering but also his compassion (‘meant me no harm’); there is a complete absence of malice.
What is important to the old man is that he does not suffer a moral defeat (‘a man is not made for defeat’).
At the same time as the old man is retaliating against the shark with ‘complete malignancy’, he is experiencing feelings of contrition (sorrow):
‘I am sorry that I killed the fish though, he thought’
The old man is experiencing mixed feelings; he is contrite because he suspects himself of having killed a ‘more intelligent’ creature than himself by underhand means:
‘Perhaps I was only better armed’
The old man continues to exhort himself (‘think about something cheerful, old man’) and to display moral heroism: that is, to remain cheerful against the odds.
Suddenly the old man regains hope (‘it is silly not to hope’). Indeed he recognises that it may be a sin not to hope, that it is a sin to despair.
At this point the old man examines his own motives; he begins to rationalise his conduct.
To begin with, he considers that fishing is an axiom (first principle) of his existence (‘you were born to be a fisherman’). He then examines what being a fisherman entails. Santiago’s first definition of a fisherman is a man who kills fish in order to ensure his own survival, either by eating it or by selling it. Santiago’s second definition of a fisherman, is a man for whom fishing is a vocation in which he takes pride; for such a man catching fish is an act of self-definition:
‘You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman’
Nowhere is the old man antagonistic towards the sea and its creatures. He is a strange old man because he even admires the ‘dentuso’ because it is not ‘just a moving appetite’, and because it is ‘beautiful and noble’, even though it ate his fish.
Santiago hears himself utter a single syllable: ‘Ay’. When he comes to translate this syllable, Hemingway can only remark that it is the sound that a man might make ‘feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood’; Hemingway is comparing Santiago to Jesus Christ. Hemingway wants to suggest that there is something Christ-like about the old man’s suffering.
The old man apologises to the marlin (‘I’m sorry about it, fish’) for his failure to protect its carcass from the sharks. He feels that the shark attacks have corrupted the noble purpose for which the fish was caught: namely to give the old man a sense of self-respect.
There is a sense in which he feels ashamed for failing to protect the fish:
‘He did not want to think of the mutilated under-side of the fish’
Santiago is feeling squeamishness, both physical and moral. He feels that he has failed in his duty to protect the fish. Having killed it, he feels morally compelled to land it so that he can sell it and eat it. He feels as if the fish has died in vain.
To the end, the old man struggles heroically against adversity: even when the ‘knife blade snapped’, he does not lose his determination to protect his catch against the predators (‘but I will try’).
To the end Santiago remains realistic about his expectations; he remains sane enough in his judgement to know that he ‘could not expect to kill’ the marauding sharks.
Hemingway repeats that Santiago ‘did not want to look at the fish’. In doing so he is reminding us what a strange old man Santiago is in that he still has a tender relationship with the marlin which he caught. The sharks’ mutilation of the ‘great’ marlin causes him actual grief; he laments the loss of its flesh as if he is bereaved. Then follows the only moment in the book where Santiago seems to indulge in self-pity.
The old man is being ironic at his own expense. He knows full well that ‘there is only the boy to worry’.
Significantly, he does not blame anyone for his loneliness in the world (‘I live in a good town’). He knows that people there would sympathise with him if they stopped to think about him.
The old man keeps his composure under pressure; although he is fighting a losing battle, he resolves to keep fighting to the end (‘I’ll fight them until I die’). The virtue he shows there is fortitude and the grace is faith, faith in himself.
The old man is determined to lose gracefully. At this point he is consoling himself that he still has ‘half’ of the fish. The final test of his character will come after the 7th shark attack, when a ‘pack’ of sharks entirely strip the carcass of flesh. Despite Santiago’s best efforts, he loses every bit of the fish except its skeleton (‘there was nothing more for them to eat’).
‘He knew he was beaten now finally and without remedy’
His language empathises with that the old man has suffered a complete defeat. This defeat Santiago admits gracefully, accepting that he made a tactical mistake that cost him his fish:
‘I went out too far’
In defeat, Santiago shows humility.
The conclusion of the story emphasises Santiago’s tiredness:
‘He had to sit down five times before he reached his shack’
It emphasises also the fidelity of the boy (‘the boy looked in the door’) and the sympathy of the townspeople (‘tell him how sorry I am’).
Even the townspeople can see that Santiago has lost an epic battle to bring ashore a mythical fish (‘there has never been such a fish’).
Hemingway stresses the selfless relationship between the old man and the young boy. Manolin remains positive, telling the old man that he still wants to fish with him (‘we will fish together now’) even though his family may disapprove. Manolin will stay true to the old man, not least because he can ‘learn’ from him the cardinal virtues. Significantly the boy asks him ‘how much did you suffer?’ and the old man replies ‘plenty’. Manolin’s response is to bring him provisions. Already, Manolin has learned generosity.
The final image of the book is the ‘long white spine’ of the ‘great fish’. All that is left of Santiago’s stoical struggle, all that he has to show for his suffering is ‘now just garbage’. The moral of the story is that an old man’s biggest gains in life are not material but spiritual (‘dreaming about the lions’).