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The Old Man and the Sea | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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The Old Man and the Sea | Symbols


The Old Man and the Sea is rich in meaning. Virtually every element operates on two levels, revealing a deeper symbolic meaning beneath its literal function. Nothing that happens in the novella is only what it seems. Instead the novella is an allegory, elevating the story of Santiago's epic struggle with the marlin to humankind's universal struggle for survival.


The marlin symbolizes the majesty of nature. With its sheer size, strength, and tenacity as evidenced in its pulling Santiago's skiff for several days, the marlin is a formidable opponent. Unlike other fish, this marlin does not fight the hook but instead uses it to fight the old man. The marlin seems successful at first, as the old man must hold on to the fishing line so hard he is injured in the process. Watching the marlin put up so strong a fight, the old man feels more and more akin to this creature and begins to draw parallels. Although they seem to be mortal enemies in the universal battle between predator and prey, Santiago realizes in the end they are brothers because they are in this fight for the same reason: to survive.

Although both the marlin and the old man are part of the natural order of life, locked in the struggle between predator and prey, perseverance distinguishes the two. To triumph in his struggle against the marlin, the old man must dig deep within himself to overcome not only the marlin's strength but his own limitations: age, exhaustion, pain, hunger, and thirst. The battle between the two is not merely the attempt of a fisherman trying to reel in his catch and go home. This particular marlin brings out the best in Santiago by pushing him to his limits. The battle becomes a symbol of the constant struggle of an individual for survival within nature, a struggle won only by one's willingness to go beyond what seems humanly possible.

The marlin also can represent Hemingway's writing and career. In this sense, it's the writing Hemingway has worked on for his entire life that he tries to hold onto.


The mast of the old man's skiff is an allusion to the Christian cross, which in turn symbolizes pain and suffering for a greater good. The three bleeding wounds Santiago suffers as he sails underneath the mast of his skiff allude to the three wounds of Jesus Christ as he was nailed to the cross, suffering to atone for humankind's sins. At the end of the story, Santiago carries the mast to the shack similar to the way Jesus carried the cross, symbolizing that Santiago has accepted his fate as Jesus accepted his. Santiago will continue to fish no matter what, alone and lonely, neither asking for help or miracles nor to succeed and live better. He will simply do, unquestioningly, what individuals must: struggle to survive.

Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio, the legendary New York Yankees outfielder whose 56-game hitting streak that ended in 1941 still remains the world record, symbolizes perseverance and persistence as well as skill. In Santiago's eyes, the hitting streak alone makes DiMaggio formidable, yet DiMaggio achieved this feat despite painful injuries such as the bone spurs repeatedly mentioned in the novella. Much like DiMaggio, Santiago defies the odds and catches the greatest fish of his career after a long dry spell, survives for days out on the ocean without proper supplies, and emerges the victor against aggressive sharks. His skill and perseverance while facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles make him a hero worthy of respect even though he does not succeed in bringing home his catch.


Symbolizing the brute force of destruction, the sharks are mindless creatures following their base instincts: the bloodlust that lures them to their prey. Yet their very bloodlust also lures them to their death. As they take bites out of the marlin in a feeding frenzy, they come close enough to the skiff for Santiago to kill them. What sustains them kills them. Neither their lives nor their deaths serve any purpose. Defeating them with sheer willpower and innovation, Santiago not only survives himself but also defends the magnificent marlin. He brings home the skeleton and thus captures the creature's majesty and glory.

In a different interpretation, the sharks also symbolize all the critics Hemingway faced in real life. Hemingway hadn't produced much writing publicly in many years, and his most recent publication had received a negative reception. This novella seems to liken those critics to sharks who circle and pounce.


Manolin, the young boy who loves, admires, and cares for the old man, symbolizes hope and the future. He is Santiago's only friend and companion; his help, literally, sustains the old man. Manolin is there every night helping pack up Santiago's gear and providing food to make sure the old man won't starve. Furthermore, he is the old man's apprentice. Although at the beginning of the story he fishes on another boat, Manolin has learned everything he knows from Santiago. Promising to fix the battered skiff and to return to fishing with the old man, Manolin offers the help the old man needs to keep going. Manolin believes in the old man and therefore will carry on his legacy and bear witness to his achievement.

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