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The Old Man and
the Sea
Study Guide by Course Hero
What's Inside
The Old Man and the Sea is narrated in the past tense.
j Book Basics ................................................................................................. 1
The title refers to the novella's main character, Santiago, an old
fisherman, whose struggle with a marlin plays out in the open
d In Context ..................................................................................................... 1
sea, symbolizing humankind's epic struggle with nature.
a Author Biography ..................................................................................... 2
h Characters .................................................................................................. 3
k Plot Summary ............................................................................................. 6
c Plot Analysis ............................................................................................... 8
g Quotes ......................................................................................................... 14
l Symbols ...................................................................................................... 16
m Themes ........................................................................................................ 17
d In Context
Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is an allegory—a
story that reveals a deeper meaning or truth about human
existence. One of the main ideas in The Old Man and the Sea is
the eternal struggle of humankind versus nature.
b Motifs ........................................................................................................... 19
In Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719,
e Suggested Reading .............................................................................. 19
castaway Robinson Crusoe comes to a closer understanding
of God in his struggle to survive in a hostile natural
environment. James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel The Last of
j Book Basics
the Mohicans advocates a respectful attitude toward nature,
warning that human exploitation as illustrated by appropriation
and exploitation of Native American land could lead to the
downfall of a rich cultural heritage. In Herman Melville's 1851
Ernest Hemingway
signature work Moby Dick, Ahab fights fiercely and ultimately
loses an epic struggle with a whale, confirming that an
individual cannot defeat or conquer nature but can only exist
within it.
Hemingway illustrates his own notion of humankind's
relationship with nature. In The Old Man and the Sea, the old
A third-person omniscient narrator tells the story of The Old
Man and the Sea, often revealing the main character's
man is a fisherman; his livelihood depends on the sea, a symbol
for all nature. He is an experienced fisherman with a deep
understanding of nature as well as a deep love for all its
creatures. To him, they all have a specific personality: the sea
The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Author Biography 2
is female and both beautiful and cruel because she gives and
shoulders, and bone spurs in his feet, requiring repeated
takes life; conversely, the marlin is male because of his
surgery. Playing superbly through severe pain is the source of
strength and calm. The old man does not question the order of
Santiago's admiration in The Old Man and the Sea.
things. On the contrary, he accepts that every creature, himself
included, has a place in the natural circle of life. He declares he
was born to be a fisherman as much as the marlin was born to
Response to Critics
be a fish. Therefore, as a fisherman he must fish to survive.
There is no moral judgment; it simply is the way nature
The Old Man and the Sea is likely the least autobiographical of
Hemingway's work. Just over 50 years old, Hemingway was
not an old man at the end of his life. However, he had not
Deep-Sea Fishing
published much in over 10 years, and critics had practically
pronounced him dead as a writer. The harsh reception of his
novel Across the River and Into the Trees in 1950 has been
After returning from Europe following World War II, Hemingway
likened to the sharks' feeding frenzy in The Old Man and the
and his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, lived in Cuba. Hemingway
Sea. Similar to the novella's title character, Santiago, who, by
spent much of his time deep-sea fishing on his boat, the Pilar.
capturing the biggest marlin of his career, shows he is still a
These experiences provided background for the vivid
powerful fisherman, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the
descriptions of a fisherman's skill in The Old Man and the Sea.
Sea, showing himself still a powerful writer. On submitting The
Hemingway was an accomplished fisherman himself,
Old Man and the Sea to his editor, Wallace Meyer, Hemingway
participating in and winning competitions in the waters around
presented his opinion of the work: "the best I can write ever for
Key West, Havana, and Bimini in the Bahamas soon after
all of my life." Indeed, the critical and commercial acclaim of the
purchasing his boat in 1934. Then in 1936 Hemingway
story finally silenced his critics.
published an essay in Esquire about an old man being pulled by
a huge marlin for several days before returning ashore with
less than half the fish remaining. While Hemingway never
claimed his story was based on a particular person, this essay,
as well as his acquaintance with Carlos Gutierrez and Gregorio
Fuentes, both captains on the Pilar, appear to be seeds for the
novella. Like his fascination with fishing, the story itself had
been developing inside him for a number of years.
a Author Biography
Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois, near Chicago,
on July 21, 1899. In his career as a journalist he often covered
wartime hot spots. As a novelist he is acclaimed for works such
as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell
Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, for which he received the
Joe DiMaggio
Pulitzer Prize in 1953.
As a teenager Hemingway began his writing career as a
It is no secret that Hemingway appreciated physical prowess
reporter for the Kansas City Star. Rather than go to college, he
and athleticism. The frequent references to baseball in general
volunteered in 1918 as an ambulance driver in the Italian army
and Joe DiMaggio in particular speak of Hemingway's
during World War I. He returned to the United States after
admiration for athletic ability, strength, endurance, and
being severely injured, staying at his family's home in Michigan
perseverance. These traits defined Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio
to recover.
was born to Sicilian immigrants in California in 1914 and made
his major league debut in 1936 with the New York Yankees.
In 1921 Hemingway married his first wife, Hadley Richardson,
DiMaggio played center field and was an All-Star every one of
and within months the couple moved to Paris. While in Paris,
his 13 years with the team. With an unparalleled 56-game
Hemingway joined the expatriate artistic community centered
hitting streak, DiMaggio led the Yankees to win the World
around the American writer Gertrude Stein, who hosted a salon
Series nine times. Perhaps most impressive about DiMaggio's
where writers and artists frequently met. Hemingway
success was that he played a consistently flawless game
socialized with well-known modernists such as F. Scott
despite numerous injuries—twisted ankles, dislocated
Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound; Stein
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Characters 3
famously referred to this group as the "lost generation."
became an international best seller, making its author a
Modernist writers commented on the insecurities and lack of
celebrity after almost 10 years of virtual literary silence. The
direction in a world that seemed to have lost all meaning after
novella's critical acclaim helped cement Hemingway's
the brutality of World War I.
reputation as a literary giant, and in 1954 he won the Nobel
Prize in Literature.
The Hemingways found Hadley was pregnant with a child,
Jack, in 1923, and so they moved to Toronto, Canada (believing
Hemingway sustained many injuries throughout his lifetime of
the hospitals were better there), where Hemingway worked as
adventures. He was a heavy drinker who suffered from
a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star.
depression and several chronic ailments, among them liver
disease. When Hemingway and his fourth wife moved to
Soon after publishing The Sun Also Rises (1926), a novel
Ketchum, Idaho, after buying a house in 1959, his mental health
heavily drawing on what Hemingway learned about bullfighting
deteriorated. On July 2, 1961, Hemingway committed suicide.
during frequent trips to Spain, he and Hadley divorced in 1927.
He was 61 years old.
Hemingway then married journalist Pauline Pfeiffer later that
year and returned to the United States to live in Key West,
Florida. In 1928 their son Patrick was born, followed by another
son, Gregory, in 1931. During this marriage Hemingway
h Characters
published A Farewell to Arms (1929), a World War I novel.
In the 1930s Hemingway engaged in adventurous outdoor
activities such as hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, and
deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Always drawn to the
sea, Hemingway bought a boat, the Pilar, in 1934. He equipped
it to catch big fish and traveled extensively around the
Caribbean, gathering the experiences he would later use in his
novella The Old Man and the Sea.
An old fisherman down on his luck, Santiago, alone, goes
farther out to sea than ever before. He hooks a marlin bigger
and stronger than any he has caught previously and engages
in an epic struggle as the fish pulls him even farther out to sea.
Defying hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and pain, he perseveres and
In 1937 he covered the Spanish Civil War as a foreign
finally reels in the marlin, only to lose it to sharks. Destroyed
correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance.
but not defeated, the old man arrives home with his skiff
While in Spain he met fellow journalist Martha Gellhorn. In 1939
damaged. Knowing he will go out again, doing what a fisherman
he sailed on his boat the Pilar to Cuba, where Gellhorn joined
must do, he accepts his fate, thus rising above it.
him. Pauline then left him, and Hemingway and Gellhorn
married in 1940, settling on a farm near Havana, Cuba.
Hemingway served as a war correspondent in Europe during
World War II. He met his fourth wife, Time magazine
Manolin sees Santiago as his mentor whom he meets at the
correspondent Mary Welsh, while living in London from 1944 to
end of every day to help pack up the equipment and bring him
1945. Always aiming to be at the center of events, Hemingway
food. Manolin's parents no longer allow him to fish with
witnessed the Normandy landing at Omaha Beach on June 6,
Santiago because of the old man's unfortunate luck. Upon
1944; the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944; and the Battle
Santiago's return with the marlin's skeleton, Manolin vows to
of the Bulge in December 1944. In 1946 Welsh and Hemingway
restore the old man's boat and fish with him again, convinced
married in Cuba.
his presence will turn the old man's luck for the better. As a
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway's novel about the Spanish
Civil War, had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1941, but
representative of youth, he guarantees Santiago's great feat
will live on in the future.
he did not win. However, in 1953 Hemingway won the
prestigious award for The Old Man and the Sea. Appearing in
1952, the novella is the last complete work published before his
death. An immediate commercial and critical success, it
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
The 18-foot marlin is the old man's worthy adversary. Although
it has been hooked, the marlin shows no sign of defeat; instead
it pulls the old man's skiff for several days and nights, taking
control of the situation until exhaustion defeats it. Yet even in
death, its skeleton bears witness to the magnificent struggle
that took place out on the ocean.
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Characters 4
The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Characters 5
Character Map
Young boy; kind,
helpful, and optimistic
Strong, huge fish; fights
formidably; eaten by sharks
Kind man; works in
the village bodega
Old fisherman; down on
his luck; unbroken in spirit
Live in village near
Havana, Cuba
Provides free
free food
Generous café owner
Main Character
Other Major Character
Minor Character
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Full Character List
Plot Summary 6
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
From a small village near Havana,
Cuba, Santiago is an old and destitute
fisherman who has not caught a fish in
a long time.
Manolin is a young boy, who loves and
cares for the old man.
The marlin is a huge fish—bigger and
stronger than any the old man has ever
Although the village fishermen first
look down on Santiago because of his
long streak of bad luck, they admire
the sheer size of the marlin's skeleton.
Owner of the local café, Martin allows
Manolin to take free food to the old
Although Perico never appears, he
provides newspapers for Santiago.
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
Strong man
Remembering how he won a long and
difficult arm-​wrestling match and an
easier rematch against the "strong
negro," Santiago associates this
opponent with loss of confidence.
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
k Plot Summary
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
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
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.
of struggles with strong fish. His eyes, however, are young,
Suddenly the fish lurches forward as if, Santiago thinks, it has
hopeful, and undefeated. While many fishermen laugh about
been hurt by something, and the line cuts deeply into
him, Manolin—a young boy who used to fish with Santiago until
Santiago's hand. As the day wears on, his hand cramps, forcing
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
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.
Plot Summary 7
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,
As the fish comes up from the depth of the ocean, Santiago
and that it might as well have been a dream. Yet when the
notices it is two feet longer than his skiff. Santiago fears a fish
shark takes a bite, it comes close enough for the old man to kill
of that size might take out all the line and be strong enough to
it with his harpoon. Dying, the shark takes the harpoon with it.
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.
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
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
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.
and win the game for the New York Yankees. As the sun sets,
When two sharks appear, Santiago fights off the first of the
Santiago remembers an exciting arm-wrestling match that
pair but loses an oar. Leaning over the side of his skiff, he
lasted 24 hours. Coming from behind and defying the odds,
fights off the second, hitting it with his fist and a second knife.
Santiago persevered and won the match. He later won the
While swallowing part of the marlin, that shark dies too, but a
rematch more easily because losing in the first match had
quarter of the marlin is now gone. When the next shark arrives,
shaken his opponent's confidence.
Santiago lets it take a bite and then hits it with the second
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
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.
porpoises, of his village, and of the lions on the beaches of his
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
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
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.
fisherman and the beginning of the end for the fish. Indeed,
Santiago feels defeated. Nonetheless he keeps going, using
when the sun rises on the third day, the marlin begins to circle.
the jagged edge of the tiller to steer the skiff, marveling at its
With each subsequent circle, Santiago recovers some of the
speed without the extra weight of the marlin. Beaten and
line, bringing the marlin closer and closer to the skiff. Finally,
exhausted, he reaches the shore with nothing but the marlin's
once the fish is alongside the skiff, Santiago harpoons it. As
skeleton tied to his boat. He admires the outline of the skeleton
the fish goes belly-up, dying, the old man mourns it, as if he has
in the moonlight before he fights his way up the hill to his
killed a brother. Carefully tying the marlin to the side of his
shack, carrying his mast on his shoulders.
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.
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Plot Analysis 8
Every Day Is a New Day
The Circle of Life
The next morning Manolin looks in on the sleeping Santiago.
Santiago reads nature the way others read books; he
When Manolin sees the injuries on Santiago's hands, he cries.
understands that the presence of flying fish signals dolphins
The local fishermen measure the marlin's skeleton with
nearby, and he handles the line in a way that will tell him the
admiration, realizing it is bigger than any fish they've ever
depth of the fish he's hooked. His expertise, knowledge, and
caught. Manolin goes to get some coffee for the old man.
courage establish him in a class by himself, as a hero who
When he returns, Santiago tells him the sharks beat him. When
stands alone.
Manolin tells him he wants to go fishing with the old man,
Santiago first resists, reminding the boy of other boats' better
With his intuitive understanding of nature, Santiago recognizes
luck. Manolin insists, claiming he will bring luck with him. He
the sea is both beautiful and cruel in its power to give life to
promises to get the boat in order while the old man heals his
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
As tourists look at the enormous skeleton, mistakenly
comment on the circle of life. Agua mala, the purple, iridescent
assuming it is a shark, the old man falls asleep and dreams of
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
c Plot Analysis
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
A Spirit Unbroken
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
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
individual's struggle against and within nature. In such a
struggle, Santiago is elevated to a hero of mythical
physical characteristics—his body emaciated—support the idea
he is indeed a man beaten by life. However, his eyes—young
Having grasped the intrinsic interconnection of all life, Santiago
and hopeful—hint that, despite his age and physical limitations,
feels akin to the marlin that has swallowed his hook. In his
Santiago's spirit remains unbroken. Even after nearly three
three-day journey with the fish, Santiago oscillates between
months without a catch, he does not rage against his
admiration for the fish's strength and perseverance and then
detractors or bemoan his fate but instead endures it every day,
pity for the fish's hopeless situation. Their established kinship,
aiming to rise above it. The struggle between body and spirit is
however, extends Santiago's empathy with the marlin's
one of several epic battles Hemingway's novella illustrates.
dilemma to his own very human plight. After all, Santiago is out
there to catch a fish not for sport but to sustain life.
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
Grace under Pressure
are more likely to bite. Santiago may be in complete denial,
In The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway comments on the
living in the past, as his dream of lions playing on the white
heroic stance of man facing his ultimate, inescapable defeat:
beaches of his youth seems to suggest. The stage is set for
death. For Hemingway the idea of heroism is inextricably
one last journey out to sea, in which Santiago will either
connected to displays of physical prowess and determination
persevere or suffer ultimate defeat.
of will even in the face of insurmountable odds—qualities
displayed in the marlin and in the old man. For two days the
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Plot Analysis 9
marlin calmly pulls the old man's skiff out to sea, unlike other
Santiago to persevere. As in the beginning of the novella, when
fish that panic and thrash about trying to get free of the hook,
a string of bad luck seems to have defeated him in the eyes of
thereby drilling it deeper into their skin and sealing the fate
the village fishermen, he seems doomed. However, Santiago
they are trying to escape. This particular marlin displays more
does not give in. In the baseball terminology the novella often
grace, strength, and vitality than other fish, qualities that make
evokes, Santiago goes down swinging—and literally so. Losing
him a worthy adversary. A typical Hemingway hero, Santiago
his harpoon to the first shark, then a makeshift harpoon to
must prove his manhood in a battle of wills.
another, and then his second knife to yet another, he resorts to
beating the sharks first with his tiller—as his hero DiMaggio hits
Knowing the fish eventually will tire and surrender, Santiago
a baseball with a bat—and finally with his bare fists. He does
vows not to do so himself. This determination is what ultimately
not give up, even as he realizes with every shark he kills or
distinguishes man from fish, no matter how magnificent a
drives away, his catch has dwindled.
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
Santiago as a Christlike Figure
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.
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
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
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.
less worthy opponents than the marlin. Drawn to the marlin's
As he arrives ashore with nothing but his skiff and the marlin's
blood, they engage in a feeding frenzy that ultimately seals
skeleton stripped of the meat of his catch, Santiago is left with
their death. One by one, Santiago kills them as they take a bite:
the realization that what drives individuals forward is the spirit
what sustains them destroys them.
of survival. There is no redemption in the material successes of
However, more sharks keep coming—too many, it seems, for
the here and now, and there is no deliverance in an afterlife. As
he carries his mast on his shoulders toward his shack, much
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
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.
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Plot Analysis 10
The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Plot Analysis 11
Plot Diagram
Rising Action
Falling Action
1. Santiago has not caught a fish in 84 days.
9. Santiago kills the marlin and ties it to his skiff.
Rising Action
Falling Action
2. Santiago sets out to fish on the 85th day.
10. Santiago fends off sharks as they eat the marlin's flesh.
3. Santiago hooks an 18-foot marlin.
11. Santiago returns with the skeleton and carries his mast.
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.
12. Attending to Santiago, Manolin vows they'll fish together.
7. Santiago's hand cramps.
8. Tired, hungry, and in pain, Santiago thinks of Joe DiMaggio.
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Plot Analysis 12
Timeline of Events
Day 1, September
On the evening of the 84th day without a catch, Santiago
and Manolin reminisce about better days.
Day 1, night
Santiago falls asleep and dreams about lions.
Day 2, morning
Santiago sets out to fish, sailing past the other
Day 2, noon
Santiago hooks a huge marlin.
Day 3
As the marlin surges, the line cuts Santiago below the
Day 3
Santiago catches a dolphin and guts it for food.
Day 3
Santiago's hand cramps.
Day 3, night
Santiago falls asleep and dreams about lions.
Day 4, morning
Santiago wakens as the line cuts his hand because the
fish jumps.
Day 4
Santiago reels in the fish, harpoons it, and ties it to his
Day 4
Fending off sharks pecking at his catch, Santiago loses
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Plot Analysis 13
his weapons.
Day 4, evening
Santiago's body begins failing as he fights sharks with
his fists.
Day 4, night
Sharks eat all the marlin's flesh.
Day 4, later at night
Santiago arrives ashore with nothing but the marlin's
Day 5, morning
Manolin wakes Santiago, promising to fix his boat and
fish with him.
Day 5, morning
Santiago goes back to sleep and dreams of lions.
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
g Quotes
Quotes 14
— Narrator
Speaking of the jellyfish that can hurt with their sting, the
"Everything about him was old
narrator explains that nature is both beautiful and cruel in its
ability to give and take life.
except his eyes and they ... were
cheerful and undefeated."
— Narrator
Speaking about Santiago, the narrator explains that despite his
"No one should be alone in their
old age ... But it is unavoidable."
— Santiago
old age and going out to fish every day and returning without a
catch for 84 days in a row, Santiago is not daunted and his
Santiago refers not only to his loneliness after his wife's death,
spirit is unbroken.
but also to the loneliness of a fisherman out on the sea. Neither
situation can be avoided; in the end each fisherman must face
his catch by himself, and all men must die alone. It is the human
"It is better to be lucky. But I'd
rather be exact."
— Santiago
Despite what others call his string of bad luck, Santiago
condition that cannot be avoided and therefore must be
"'Fish,' he said softly, aloud. 'I'll stay
with you until I am dead.'"
believes he can turn things around with his skill, experience,
and knowledge. Ultimately, luck may have nothing to do with
— Santiago
The old man is willing to give his all to keep the magnificent fish
he has hooked. While lesser men might give up, the old man
"All my life the early sun has hurt
my eyes. Yet they are still good."
vows not to, even if it costs the ultimate price: his life. This is
the fundamental expression of the old man's strength of will
and persistence.
— Santiago
"He felt the line ... with his right
Although the old man has lived a long and hard life as a
fisherman, his body is still strong. He has persevered in the
struggle to carve out a life despite the harsh elements by his
hand and noticed his hand was
willingness to suffer pain.
— Narrator
"The iridescent bubbles were
beautiful ... But they were the
falsest thing in the sea."
The narrator shows Santiago as so focused on his work he
does not notice his injury. This wound is one of three bleeding
wounds the old man suffers during his struggle with the marlin,
likening him to Christ on the cross. The old man's ability to
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
endure pain and suffering is his ultimate strength.
"He is my brother. But I must kill
him and keep strong to do it."
— Santiago
The old man feels kinship to the marlin he has hooked. Like the
fish, the old man is part of the circle of life, and in that eternal
struggle to survive, man must kill even a magnificent animal.
Quotes 15
— Santiago
Referring to the fish, the old man admires that despite the pain
the hook must cause, the fish has pulled him along for several
days instead of trying to rid itself of the hook or allowing itself
to be reeled in. This action elevates the fish to a worthy
"A man can be destroyed but not
— Santiago
"I wish I could show him what sort
of man I am."
— Santiago
Somewhat defenseless after having lost his harpoon when
protecting his catch from the sharks, the old man shows an
individual's willpower and resourcefulness will ultimately help
him persevere.
The old man wishes Manolin were with him so the boy could
help dispel his loneliness and help him catch the fish. Most of
"It is silly not to hope."
all, Santiago wishes Manolin could witness the greatest catch
of Santiago's life. He wants to show Manolin that despite old
age and a long streak of bad luck, Santiago is still a great
— Santiago
The old man recognizes that even when a person faces
insurmountable odds, hope is what keeps people going. Hope
"The thousand times he had
is eternal and ultimately leads to triumph.
proved it meant nothing. Now he
was proving it again."
"He leaned ... against the stern and
knew he was not dead. His
— Narrator
The old man's previous catches might be testaments to his
great skill, yet past accomplishments mean nothing. A
shoulders told him."
— Narrator
fisherman has to prove his physical prowess and his skill each
time he hooks and reels in a fish. A man can never rest on his
The narrator explains Santiago knows he is alive because of
the pain he feels in his shoulders. At the moment the old man
faces the struggle that could kill him, he feels most alive.
"The punishment of the hook is
"Then he shouldered the mast and
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
started to climb."
Symbols 16
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.
— Narrator
As Jesus carried his cross, Santiago carries his mast and
accepts his fate. Pain and suffering notwithstanding, he will go
back to fish the next day, regardless of whether he wins or
loses. The old man does not succumb but rises above his fate
by accepting it willingly. Triumph is not the same as success.
The mast of the old man's skiff is an allusion to the Christian
Triumph is never giving up.
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
l Symbols
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.
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
Joe DiMaggio
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
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
Although both the marlin and the old man are part of the
catches the greatest fish of his career after a long dry spell,
natural order of life, locked in the struggle between predator
survives for days out on the ocean without proper supplies,
and prey, perseverance distinguishes the two. To triumph in his
and emerges the victor against aggressive sharks. His skill and
struggle against the marlin, the old man must dig deep within
perseverance while facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles
himself to overcome not only the marlin's strength but his own
make him a hero worthy of respect even though he does not
limitations: age, exhaustion, pain, hunger, and thirst. The battle
succeed in bringing home his catch.
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.
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
Themes 17
Symbolizing the brute force of destruction, the sharks are
in different ways and on different levels. First, although the old
mindless creatures following their base instincts: the bloodlust
man has not caught a fish in 84 days, he does not bemoan his
that lures them to their prey. Yet their very bloodlust also lures
fate or rage against his detractors. Instead, defying his streak
them to their death. As they take bites out of the marlin in a
of bad luck, the old man keeps going out to fish, trying even
feeding frenzy, they come close enough to the skiff for
harder by fishing farther out in the open sea than anyone else.
Santiago to kill them. What sustains them kills them. Neither
Second, like the old man himself, the marlin does not surrender
their lives nor their deaths serve any purpose. Defeating them
and go belly-up but uses its size and strength to pull the old
with sheer willpower and innovation, Santiago not only survives
man's skiff even farther out to sea, thus making it a formidable
himself but also defends the magnificent marlin. He brings
adversary. Third, seemingly dwarfed by the marlin's size and
home the skeleton and thus captures the creature's majesty
strength, Santiago defeats the mighty fish after all because he
and glory.
is willing to endure exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and pain. The
same willpower that enabled the old man's hero, Joe DiMaggio,
In a different interpretation, the sharks also symbolize all the
to play a flawless game despite painful injuries enables the old
critics Hemingway faced in real life. Hemingway hadn't
man to wait out his opponent's strength. Finally, when the
produced much writing publicly in many years, and his most
sharks attack and feed on the marlin until nothing is left, the
recent publication had received a negative reception. This
old man kills or fends them off one by one, despite losing a
novella seems to liken those critics to sharks who circle and
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:
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.
Pain and Suffering
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 theme of pain and suffering is intricately connected to that
the battered skiff and to return to fishing with the old man,
of perseverance and appears in several ways. Pain is the price
Manolin offers the help the old man needs to keep going.
a fisherman must pay for a bountiful catch. The old man's
Manolin believes in the old man and therefore will carry on his
hands are marred with scars, speaking to a lifelong history of
legacy and bear witness to his achievement.
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,
m Themes
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
The Old Man and the Sea illustrates the theme of perseverance
from other creatures. Although a strong opponent, eventually
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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
the marlin gives up and allows itself to be reeled in while the
old man keeps going despite physical exhaustion, three painful
Themes 18
Physical Strength and Skill
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.
As his weather-beaten body shows, Santiago is not quite as
Just as Joe DiMaggio overcame painful injuries to pull off an
strong as he used to be. However, in his epic struggle with the
unparalleled hitting streak, Santiago defies odds that younger,
marlin, the old man makes up for that loss of vitality and
stronger, and perhaps more successful fishermen do not try.
strength with superior knowledge and skill. He knows how to
None of them has ever fished as far out or encountered a fish
read nature, he knows how to handle the line to gauge the
as large, strong, and magnificent as Santiago has. The old
movement of the fish, and he knows how to interpret these
man's ability to endure pain and suffering establishes him as a
movements. That's not all—he also knows himself and his own
hero who rises above others.
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
Circle of Life
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
Life and death are prominent themes in The Old Man and the
the story, it becomes clear that despite the old man's physical
Sea. The old man muses that the sea, a symbol for nature
prowess, skill, and willingness to take risks, he lacks luck and
itself, is simultaneously beautiful and cruel because it gives life
therefore cannot find material success.
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.
Pride, Honor, and Respect
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.
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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The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide
b Motifs
Motifs 19
Man and the Sea: A Collection of Critical Readings. Mellen,
Prescott, Orville. "The Old Man and the Sea." Books of the
Times. The New York Times, 28 Aug. 1952.
The lions, a connection to youth and virility, are a recurring
motif. The old man repeatedly dreams about lions playing on
the beaches of his past. Their playfulness suggests Santiago
sees them not as predators but as carefree creatures and part
of his youth. Santiago returns to this dream each time he faces
a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: on the night of the 84th
day without a catch, on the open sea as the elements threaten
to defeat him, and on the night he returns home without a
catch yet again. Taking him back to his youth, the dream
reminds him of his own vitality and strength, reenergizing his
determination to keep going against all odds. Additionally,
Santiago's dream of the lions at the very end of the story
signals hope that Santiago's strength, perseverance, and skill
will live on forever as Manolin will carry on his legacy.
Santiago's Hands
Santiago's hands are mentioned several times throughout the
story. When the old man first appears, they are full of age
spots, hinting at the old man's age, and marked with scars,
implying the physical toll a fisherman pays. In his struggle with
the marlin, the old man suffers a new cut on one hand and a
severe cramp in the other; however, he does not give up, and
he fights through his pain. Suggestive of the wounds Christ
suffered on the cross, the old man's scarred hands represent
his willingness to endure pain and suffering. In the end it is his
strong willpower that enables Santiago to survive his ordeal.
Although he returns without his catch, the marlin's skeleton is a
testament to his feat.
e Suggested Reading
Bryfonski, Dedrai. Death in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man
and the Sea. Greenhaven, 2014.
Hendrickson, Paul. Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in
Life, and Lost. Vintage, 2012.
Hurley, C. Harold, ed. Hemingway's Debt to Baseball in The Old
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