The Old Man and the Sea | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

A String of Bad Luck

Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman working the waters of the Gulf Stream, has not caught a fish in 84 days, longer than anyone else and making him salao, worse than unlucky. Santiago's body, particularly his skin, bears signs of age and constant exposure to the elements as well as scars that speak of struggles with strong fish. His eyes, however, are young, hopeful, and undefeated. While many fishermen laugh about him, Manolin—a young boy who used to fish with Santiago until his parents made him work on a more successful boat—admires Santiago and meets him at the shore every night to help carry the equipment to his shack. Santiago is lonely and poor as evidenced by his sparse accommodations. He sleeps on old newspapers on top of a bedspring, and he has no food but for the meals Manolin provides for him from the local café. On the night of the 84th day without a catch, Manolin and Santiago talk about baseball, particularly about Santiago's hero, Joe DiMaggio, who defeats the odds time and again, leading his team, the New York Yankees, to victory. Santiago tells Manolin he will fish far out at sea the next day. As Santiago lies down to sleep, he dreams about his youth in Africa and lions frolicking on the white sandy beaches.

Two Days at Sea

The next day Santiago takes his skiff out farther than usual. As he sails past the other fishermen from his village, he ponders his surroundings, sometimes talking to himself aloud. Having set the line to fish, he muses about the beauty of agua mala, the jellyfish that can be deadly, and about the turtles who eat the jellyfish.

Around noon he feels a light pull on his line; he has hooked a marlin. The fish is so strong that Santiago cannot bring it in. Unlike other fish, this one does not jump out of the water or thrash about in a panic, trying to remove the hook. Instead this marlin calmly pulls the skiff even farther out to sea.

For two days and nights, Santiago and the marlin remain on the open sea. At first, Santiago tries to hold the line without disturbing it, strapping it around his back to relieve the pressure on his hands. He begins to wonder about the fish, which behaves so differently from any fish he's known, and he remembers how he once hooked a female marlin while a male marlin was watching. The female engaged in the usual panicked fight against the hook and ultimately lost. All the while the male marlin stayed and watched, as if trying to save her. Santiago compares himself to the marlin he has hooked now, realizing they both are alone and lonely with nobody to come to their aid. As a warbler lands on his boat, the old man wonders whether this is its first flight and whether it will be cut short by the hawks that are sure to come for it.

Suddenly the fish lurches forward as if, Santiago thinks, it has been hurt by something, and the line cuts deeply into Santiago's hand. As the day wears on, his hand cramps, forcing him to use his other hand to hold the line. He is both disgusted and humiliated by his deformed hand. Alternately admiring the marlin's strength and determination and pitying its hopeless situation, Santiago feels more and more akin to the fish.

As the fish comes up from the depth of the ocean, Santiago notices it is two feet longer than his skiff. Santiago fears a fish of that size might take out all the line and be strong enough to break it. Comparing himself to the fish, he considers the marlin nobler yet less intelligent than man. He prays for him yet at the same time vows to kill him.

The Catch of a Lifetime

Trying to fight fatigue on the second day at sea, Santiago distracts himself by thinking of baseball. Disappointed this is the second day he won't be ashore to hear about game results, he trusts Joe DiMaggio will persevere despite his bone spurs and win the game for the New York Yankees. As the sun sets, Santiago remembers an exciting arm-wrestling match that lasted 24 hours. Coming from behind and defying the odds, Santiago persevered and won the match. He later won the rematch more easily because losing in the first match had shaken his opponent's confidence.

As a dolphin eats the bait on the old man's line, Santiago hoists the dolphin onto the boat, unhooking and gutting it so he can eat the meat the next day. He feels sorry for the marlin because it has no food. On the second night at sea, Santiago is so exhausted he finally falls asleep. He dreams of a school of porpoises, of his village, and of the lions on the beaches of his youth.

Santiago is startled awake as the line cuts through his right hand. The marlin has jumped. He assumes the fish will circle the skiff soon, marking the beginning of his work as a fisherman and the beginning of the end for the fish. Indeed, when the sun rises on the third day, the marlin begins to circle. With each subsequent circle, Santiago recovers some of the line, bringing the marlin closer and closer to the skiff. Finally, once the fish is alongside the skiff, Santiago harpoons it. As the fish goes belly-up, dying, the old man mourns it, as if he has killed a brother. Carefully tying the marlin to the side of his boat, Santiago feels pride in his feat; he has overcome pain, hunger, exhaustion, and injury. He turns the boat to sail back home and wonders who is towing whom, deciding in the end they are going in side by side, like brothers.

The Sharks' Feeding Frenzy

Attracted by the marlin's blood, a shark attacks. For a moment, the old man feels defeated, that his catch was too good to last, and that it might as well have been a dream. Yet when the shark takes a bite, it comes close enough for the old man to kill it with his harpoon. Dying, the shark takes the harpoon with it.

Although he realizes other sharks will be attracted by the marlin's blood, Santiago thinks positively, contemplating how much faster his skiff sails now that it is 40 pounds lighter. He ties his knife to one of the oars to replace his harpoon. Not hoping, he declares, is a sin. He wonders if killing the marlin is a sin even though he was born to be a fisherman and the marlin was born to be a fish. He has not killed it for money or food; he has killed the fish for pride because that is what a fisherman does, and he has killed the shark in self-defense. Everything kills everything, he declares.

When two sharks appear, Santiago fights off the first of the pair but loses an oar. Leaning over the side of his skiff, he fights off the second, hitting it with his fist and a second knife. While swallowing part of the marlin, that shark dies too, but a quarter of the marlin is now gone. When the next shark arrives, Santiago lets it take a bite and then hits it with the second knife. Dying, the shark thrusts its head backward, and the knife blade snaps. The old man is left with no weapon. More sharks appear at sunset, and Santiago fights them off with the tiller and a short club. Although he cannot kill them, he hurts them badly, and they swim off. Now half the marlin is gone.

Although Santiago regrets having gone out this far, he resolves to fight until he dies, hoping to sell enough of the fish to buy a new harpoon. At midnight Santiago has to use his club and the tiller to fight off another pack of attacking sharks. When they finally leave, none of the marlin is left.

Santiago feels defeated. Nonetheless he keeps going, using the jagged edge of the tiller to steer the skiff, marveling at its speed without the extra weight of the marlin. Beaten and exhausted, he reaches the shore with nothing but the marlin's skeleton tied to his boat. He admires the outline of the skeleton in the moonlight before he fights his way up the hill to his shack, carrying his mast on his shoulders.

Every Day Is a New Day

The next morning Manolin looks in on the sleeping Santiago. When Manolin sees the injuries on Santiago's hands, he cries. The local fishermen measure the marlin's skeleton with admiration, realizing it is bigger than any fish they've ever caught. Manolin goes to get some coffee for the old man. When he returns, Santiago tells him the sharks beat him. When Manolin tells him he wants to go fishing with the old man, Santiago first resists, reminding the boy of other boats' better luck. Manolin insists, claiming he will bring luck with him. He promises to get the boat in order while the old man heals his hands.

As tourists look at the enormous skeleton, mistakenly assuming it is a shark, the old man falls asleep and dreams of lions.

Analysis

A Spirit Unbroken

In the opening pages of The Old Man and the Sea, the title character, Santiago, like many Hemingway heroes, is lonely and isolated. The other villagers laugh at him, and Santiago's physical characteristics—his body emaciated—support the idea he is indeed a man beaten by life. However, his eyes—young and hopeful—hint that, despite his age and physical limitations, Santiago's spirit remains unbroken. Even after nearly three months without a catch, he does not rage against his detractors or bemoan his fate but instead endures it every day, aiming to rise above it. The struggle between body and spirit is one of several epic battles Hemingway's novella illustrates.

Evoking Joe DiMaggio, the legendary baseball player whose unrivaled prowess helped the New York Yankees win several World Series, Santiago vows to defy the odds and go out to sea yet again, trying his luck farther off shore where the fish are more likely to bite. Santiago may be in complete denial, living in the past, as his dream of lions playing on the white beaches of his youth seems to suggest. The stage is set for one last journey out to sea, in which Santiago will either persevere or suffer ultimate defeat.

The Circle of Life

Santiago reads nature the way others read books; he understands that the presence of flying fish signals dolphins nearby, and he handles the line in a way that will tell him the depth of the fish he's hooked. His expertise, knowledge, and courage establish him in a class by himself, as a hero who stands alone.

With his intuitive understanding of nature, Santiago recognizes the sea is both beautiful and cruel in its power to give life to and take it from those that live within it. While this sentiment may be a comment on Hemingway's conflicted view of women—Santiago looks at the sea as female—it also must be a comment on the circle of life. Agua mala, the purple, iridescent jellyfish whose sting can be life-threatening to humans, becomes food for the sea turtles just as the warbler Santiago watches will likely be eaten by the hawks that are sure to come. Watching the food chain at play, Santiago instinctively understands the forces of life and death as intricately connected: what kills one creature sustains the life of another. Life and death, opposing forces at first glance, are in fact in perfect balance. Without saying it explicitly, Santiago realizes each creature has its place in the universe. Santiago's individual struggle with the marlin becomes a symbol for an individual's struggle against and within nature. In such a struggle, Santiago is elevated to a hero of mythical proportions.

Having grasped the intrinsic interconnection of all life, Santiago feels akin to the marlin that has swallowed his hook. In his three-day journey with the fish, Santiago oscillates between admiration for the fish's strength and perseverance and then pity for the fish's hopeless situation. Their established kinship, however, extends Santiago's empathy with the marlin's dilemma to his own very human plight. After all, Santiago is out there to catch a fish not for sport but to sustain life.

Grace under Pressure

In The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway comments on the heroic stance of man facing his ultimate, inescapable defeat: death. For Hemingway the idea of heroism is inextricably connected to displays of physical prowess and determination of will even in the face of insurmountable odds—qualities displayed in the marlin and in the old man. For two days the marlin calmly pulls the old man's skiff out to sea, unlike other fish that panic and thrash about trying to get free of the hook, thereby drilling it deeper into their skin and sealing the fate they are trying to escape. This particular marlin displays more grace, strength, and vitality than other fish, qualities that make him a worthy adversary. A typical Hemingway hero, Santiago must prove his manhood in a battle of wills.

Knowing the fish eventually will tire and surrender, Santiago vows not to do so himself. This determination is what ultimately distinguishes man from fish, no matter how magnificent a creature and formidable an opponent the marlin may be. Thinking of his hero DiMaggio, who played at the height of his game despite painful bone spurs, Santiago is determined to endure loneliness, physical exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and pain caused by wounds from the fishing line.

Santiago's left hand, crippled by a painful cramp, symbolizes his endurance and willpower in the face of insurmountable obstacles. He waits for his hand to uncurl by itself with the same patience and fortitude he shows when waiting for the fish to begin circling the boat. By showing that Santiago cannot force his hand to uncurl any more than he can force the fish to come close, Hemingway shows that with resolve a man can rise above his limitations; yet he also suggests no creature, not even man, can escape his ultimate fate.

Santiago reels in the marlin with superior skill and despite the pain from three bleeding wounds, seeming to have proven wrong the villagers who have mocked him. He is not salao after all; having caught the biggest fish ever, he confirms his strength and vigor, thus confirming his value as a man. His catch fills him with both pride and sadness: pride because he has persevered and sadness because his triumph means the defeat of a marvelous creature.

Go Down Swinging

The constant tug and pull of contrasts in the eternal struggle of life and death further appears in Santiago's struggle with the sharks. Described as mindless creatures, the sharks are far less worthy opponents than the marlin. Drawn to the marlin's blood, they engage in a feeding frenzy that ultimately seals their death. One by one, Santiago kills them as they take a bite: what sustains them destroys them.

However, more sharks keep coming—too many, it seems, for Santiago to persevere. As in the beginning of the novella, when a string of bad luck seems to have defeated him in the eyes of the village fishermen, he seems doomed. However, Santiago does not give in. In the baseball terminology the novella often evokes, Santiago goes down swinging—and literally so. Losing his harpoon to the first shark, then a makeshift harpoon to another, and then his second knife to yet another, he resorts to beating the sharks first with his tiller—as his hero DiMaggio hits a baseball with a bat—and finally with his bare fists. He does not give up, even as he realizes with every shark he kills or drives away, his catch has dwindled.

Santiago as a Christlike Figure

What drives the old man forward is hope. At first he hopes to reach the shore with enough of his catch left to sell for profit at the market. Then he hopes to come home with enough of the fish to sell to buy a new harpoon, and finally he hopes only to reach the shore before he succumbs to exhaustion. Marveling at the ever-increasing speed of his skiff as the added weight of his catch dwindles, the quality of his hope changes. He arrives ashore not with the youthful, perhaps naive hope for a better future, but with that of a wise old man aiming to sustain the status quo.

Not hoping is a sin, Santiago thinks. Although the novella uses Christian images throughout, Hemingway does not evoke the Christian idea of hope for a better afterlife. Santiago states he is not a religious man, and yet, by describing Santiago's three bleeding wounds, Hemingway clearly evokes the image of Christ at the cross, atoning for the sins of humankind. However, upon further reflection, Santiago dismisses the Christian notion of sin as irrelevant. In Christian terms, killing is a sin, yet to Santiago what has happened out on the ocean has little to do with moral or religious values. He kills the marlin because he is a fisherman, and he kills the sharks to survive. Christian concepts of right or wrong do not apply. The marlin was born to be a fish, the sharks to be sharks, and Santiago to be a fisherman. They all have their assigned places in the eternal battle that is life.

As he arrives ashore with nothing but his skiff and the marlin's skeleton stripped of the meat of his catch, Santiago is left with the realization that what drives individuals forward is the spirit of survival. There is no redemption in the material successes of the here and now, and there is no deliverance in an afterlife. As he carries his mast on his shoulders toward his shack, much like Jesus carried his cross, Santiago has accepted his fate and is willing to endure it.

The story does not end here, however. The next morning Manolin promises to fix Santiago's boat and vows to fish with him again. The old man rests, dreaming yet again of the lions of his youth playing in the sand. Wisdom, vigor, and youthful hope meet and unite in the pair that will sail on. The old man has emerged the victor by realizing the point is not to win, but to keep trying.

Showing how Santiago rises above his fate not by changing it but by enduring it willingly—and thus proving his strength and grace—Hemingway suggests that life on this earth is all there is and all an individual can and must do is persevere. However, Manolin, the representative of youth, will bear witness to Santiago's epic feat and hence guarantee the old man will live on beyond his death after all.

The Old Man and the Sea Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Santiago has not caught a fish in 84 days.

Rising Action

2 Santiago sets out to fish on the 85th day.

3 Santiago hooks an 18-foot marlin.

4 He feels kinship to the fish, pulling the boat farther out.

5 The fishing line injures Santiago.

6 Santiago catches a dolphin and kills it for food.

7 Santiago's hand cramps.

8 Tired, hungry, and in pain, Santiago thinks of Joe DiMaggio.

Climax

9 Santiago kills the marlin and ties it to his skiff.

Falling Action

10 Santiago fends off sharks as they eat the marlin's flesh.

11 Santiago returns with the skeleton and carries his mast.

Resolution

12 Attending to Santiago, Manolin vows they'll fish together.

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