The Old Man

There are few novels I identify with more than Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. On the simplest level, I like the fishing story itself. Santiago knows how to fish well, knows the rituals that should accompany fishing. We first meet Santiago in the midst of a string of bad luck, a string every fisherman has endured. Every fisherman worthy of his bait bucket also wants to catch “the big one,” the one that will truly show how good a fisherman you really are. It is what fisherman tales are made of.

More than that, though, I identify with the stoical philosophy that underlies Santiago’s actions. If I were put in his situation, I would hope that I would be strong enough to do exactly what he does.

Although the plot of this novella is remarkably simple and clear, the meaning of the story is anything but simple. Although realistically portrayed, Santiago seems more mythic and symbolic than realistic. Perhaps it is because we don’t see his flaws the way we see flaws in Hemingway’s characters in other works. Maybe Santiago is the embodiment of Hemingway’s Code without the all too human flaws that accompany most of his characters. In many ways The Old Man and the Sea seems more like an extended poem or a fable than a novel.

When we first meet Santiago, though, he seems an unlikely hero. Looking at his small boat, the reader sees that “the sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.” Santiago himself seems to reflect the state of his boat: “His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun.” Perhaps if we saw him in the distance like this, we would merely feel sorry, sorry that such an old man still had to set out to sea to earn his living, sorry that there wasn’t someone to take care of him and do his fishing for him. Maybe if we had true empathy we would even feel sorry for him the same way he feels sorry for the small birds he later meets at sea:

He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought, the birds have a harder life than we do except for the-robber birds and the heavy strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?

Santiago, in his quest to catch the big one, is like the small tern. His small sailboat, seen from a distance, must very much resemble a small bird hovering over the ocean. And the human soul, ever in search of life’s true meaning, is surely buffeted as roughly as any bird crossing the ocean.

If we judged Santiago by his boat’s appearance or by his own appearance, however, we would be very mistaken. Only by looking deeper, by looking into his very soul would we truly be able to measure this man. Hemingway reveal Santiago’s true strength by describing his eyes, the proverbial window into the soul, “ Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

It is, perhaps, only Santiago’s courage that saves him. Obviously life has turned against him. The boy who has accompanied him while fishing for years has been forced by his parents to leave Santiago’s boat because Santiago is “unlucky.” How else to explain why such an accomplished fisherman has gone 85 days without a catch, unless one believes in the Fates? When met by such misfortune, courage remains the last bastion against total defeat.

Santiago’s courage is revealed in his dreams of the lions he had seen when he had sailed to Africa as a young man:

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy.

All of the things he no “longer dreamed of” have been important in his life, but they are merely memories of the past, and, though memories of past victories or of past loves may comfort you in old age, alone, they cannot sustain you. Only the courage to face today’s challenges can help us prevail.

Repeatedly in the story Santiago turns to the great DiMaggio for inspiration. In the beginning this seems to be true merely because DiMaggio’s father was a fisherman, “I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing," the old man said. "They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand." But there is a lot more to the connection than this. First of all, DiMaggio plays for the Yankees, the greatest team in baseball. When he had won the arm-wrestling tournament, Santiago had been called The Champion, and DiMaggio is the champion of baseball.

Perhaps more importantly, Santiago identifies DiMaggio with perfectionism, “ But I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” Doing things “correctly,” “the right way” or “with precision” is the essence of Hemingway’s Code. The most obvious example of Santiago’s precision is the way he maintains his fishing lines:

He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dark of the water. He kept them straighter than anyone did, so that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there. Others let them drift with the current and sometimes they were at sixty fathoms when the fishermen thought they were at a hundred.

But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact.

Most people at this point would prefer luck because it brings quicker results, but Santiago knows instinctively that doing the “right thing” is the only way to win a true victory, a victory that can stand up to Death itself.

7 thoughts on “The Old Man

  1. This is a great analysis of old man and the sea. Right now i am doing a report about it and this is really helping me understand.

  2. Remember, Joshua, your experience and interpretation of the novel will probably be quite different from mine since we were brought up in very different times and places.

  3. I was just wondering if you could help me? What was the word that the old man was described as at the beginning of the novel? Meaning the worst form of unlucky? And what did this mean in his culture, and to the way he fished?
    Your analysis has really helped me so far thankyou.

  4. Sorry, but it’s been a long time since I read this novel, Lauren.

    I remember such a reference, remember it was italicized because it was a Spanish word, but don’t remember it exactly, much less what the other answers are.

  5. Just read the book, what a great story, it’s really moving and inspiring.
    Loren, the word is “salao” the worst form of unlucky.


  6. Students, be careful when using such sources. If you can find them, so can your teachers, and alarm bells go off in their heads when undergraduates suddenly start writing like English graduate students. If you must use sources like this, employ quotation marks and citation; better yet, think for yourself. Use your own words and risk being wrong; you just might learn something…or better yet, make something original.

What do you think?