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The Old Man and the Sea | Study Guide

Ernest Hemingway

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Course Hero. "The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide." May 17, 2017. Accessed November 30, 2022.


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The Old Man and the Sea | Themes


Hemingway's lifelong interest and skill in athletic activities and physical adventures such as deep-sea fishing, bullfighting, and hunting inform much of his literary work. His idea of virility includes strength, physical prowess, and perseverance. Many of his heroes combine these qualities, strive toward them, or suffer from their loss. The Old Man and the Sea tackles themes that occupied Hemingway for his entire life.


The Old Man and the Sea illustrates the theme of perseverance in different ways and on different levels. First, although the old man has not caught a fish in 84 days, he does not bemoan his fate or rage against his detractors. Instead, defying his streak of bad luck, the old man keeps going out to fish, trying even harder by fishing farther out in the open sea than anyone else. Second, like the old man himself, the marlin does not surrender and go belly-up but uses its size and strength to pull the old man's skiff even farther out to sea, thus making it a formidable adversary. Third, seemingly dwarfed by the marlin's size and strength, Santiago defeats the mighty fish after all because he is willing to endure exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and pain. The same willpower that enabled the old man's hero, Joe DiMaggio, to play a flawless game despite painful injuries enables the old man to wait out his opponent's strength. Finally, when the sharks attack and feed on the marlin until nothing is left, the old man kills or fends them off one by one, despite losing a weapon with each confrontation until he has nothing left but his bare fists.

Returning home with nothing but the skeleton to bear witness to the greatest catch of his life and his skiff badly damaged, Santiago is not defeated, nor is his spirit broken. Like Jesus bearing his cross, Santiago will carry his mast to and from his skiff day in and day out, doing what fishermen are meant to do: fish.

Pain and Suffering

The theme of pain and suffering is intricately connected to that of perseverance and appears in several ways. Pain is the price a fisherman must pay for a bountiful catch. The old man's hands are marred with scars, speaking to a lifelong history of struggles with opponents out at sea. In the course of the story, it becomes clear that while these scars are indeed a sign of age, hardship, and suffering, they are also a sign of strength, willpower, and victory. No pain, no gain: in the context of this story, the phrase means any worthwhile catch comes with painful physical injuries—cuts to the hands, arms, face, and back of a fisherman as he tries to hold and reel in the fish. To be a fisherman means enduring pain.

However, the theme of pain and suffering goes deeper. The capacity to endure pain and suffering distinguishes humans from other creatures. Although a strong opponent, eventually the marlin gives up and allows itself to be reeled in while the old man keeps going despite physical exhaustion, three painful wounds, a cramping hand, and alternating hunger pangs and disgust after eating raw fish. Furthermore, his capacity for pain and suffering distinguishes Santiago from other fishermen. Just as Joe DiMaggio overcame painful injuries to pull off an unparalleled hitting streak, Santiago defies odds that younger, stronger, and perhaps more successful fishermen do not try. None of them has ever fished as far out or encountered a fish as large, strong, and magnificent as Santiago has. The old man's ability to endure pain and suffering establishes him as a hero who rises above others.

Circle of Life

Life and death are prominent themes in The Old Man and the Sea. The old man muses that the sea, a symbol for nature itself, is simultaneously beautiful and cruel because it gives life and takes it away. Sea turtles swallow jellyfish, hawks hunt warblers, sharks devour marlins, and men catch fish. Each creature has its place in the food chain that keeps the circle of life going. The death of one creature provides life for another. The seemingly opposing forces of life and death are in fact in perfect balance.

However, there is another aspect to this theme. Although Santiago appreciates the circle of life and recognizes his own place within it, he fights hard to rise above it and survive. He risks his life sailing out farther and staying longer than anyone to catch a fish large enough to provide meat for him to eat and sell. He defends his catch against sharks, brute creatures out to satisfy the very bloodlust that kills them. Fishing is Santiago's livelihood; it's how he sustains the one life he has. While nature as a whole holds opposing forces in perfect balance, life and death are the poles that mark an individual life. Hemingway shows that what distinguishes humans from other creatures is the desire to persevere as individuals. The old man, who lives alone in his shack, illustrates the human condition: a struggle against death that each man must fight on his own.

Physical Strength and Skill

As his weather-beaten body shows, Santiago is not quite as strong as he used to be. However, in his epic struggle with the marlin, the old man makes up for that loss of vitality and strength with superior knowledge and skill. He knows how to read nature, he knows how to handle the line to gauge the movement of the fish, and he knows how to interpret these movements. That's not all—he also knows himself and his own limits. He knows exactly how far to push himself and how to counteract the harrowing effects of the long struggle on his physical strength. He knows exactly when to eat and when to rest, and he uses his skill to overcome his limitations. When he loses one weapon after another as he battles the sharks, the old man uses the resources at his disposal to create the makeshift weapons that keep him alive. However, throughout the story, it becomes clear that despite the old man's physical prowess, skill, and willingness to take risks, he lacks luck and therefore cannot find material success.

Pride, Honor, and Respect

Although the old man is humble and seems to care little about the other fishermen's opinions, he is proud of his skills and wants recognition for them. After all, he wishes Manolin were there with him, not only to help him fish and dispel loneliness, but also to show the boy what kind of man he is and to witness the greatest catch of his life. The catch is so great because the fish's size, strength, and perseverance—the marlin pulls the skiff for days—make it an opponent worthy of the old man's respect. Defeating it in a struggle that takes everything the old man has in turn demands respect from others. It matters little that he does not meet the original objective in catching the fish, to return with meat to eat and sell. The villagers' admiration for the magnificent skeleton tied to the old man's skiff shows there is honor in honest defeat. It is the struggle itself that counts, the willingness to exert all of one's strength, no matter what the outcome may be.

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