Meets a Sea of Troubles

Santiago shows great courage while following Hemingway’s code in catching the giant Marlin. Like a good athlete, he respects his opponent, never underestimating his abilities. In fact, sometimes Santiago seems almost awed by the marlin:

You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

Santiago realizes the greater your opponent, the greater your victory because more is demanded of you. "Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so." And to his credit, Santiago sometimes feels the marlin is even more noble and able than he is:

He is a great fish and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what be could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able.

It’s almost as if they are two gladiators thrown into a ring, each of them worthy in their own right, and one has to kill the other in order to survive:

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they, worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

Just as an opposing athlete is not truly an enemy but merely a fellow participant in a game, Santiago and the Marlin are not truly enemies, rather, they are both participants in the great dance of life.

I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

In the end, it is Santiago’s intelligence and will to win which defeats the marlin, “I wish I was the fish, he thought, with everything he has against only my will and my intelligence.” It took great courage to go out so far to try to catch the marlin, but in the end it is Santiago’s intelligence and his will to endure that prevails. It is Santiago’s understanding of the fish’s habits that allows him to know when to let the marlin run with the line and when to reel it back in. But more than anything else, it is his endurance that overcomes the fish. Just as most people could not have arm wrestled through the night to become an arm-wrestling champion, most people would not have endured three days of intense pain to bring the marlin in.

Santiago’s comment on the sea turtle he observes gives insight into Santiago’s endurance:

Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs.

We discover just how much Santiago’s hands and feet are like the turtle’s when he has to deal with the cramp in his left hand. His immediate reaction is to condemn the hand, “But a cramp, he thought of it as a calambre, humiliates oneself.” Later he even thinks the hand should be cut off, but, upon reflection, says he has gone too far. Still, it’s obvious that he feels strongly that the body should serve man’s will, not vice-versa, certainly an idea I have found more and more true as I have aged, and pain is, at best, to be ignored because “... pain does not matter to a man.” As he fights the giant marlin day after day Santiago says to himself, “But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.”

When Santiago finally lands the marlin and discovers just how magnificent it is, the first-time reader wants to savor Santiago’s victory. Hemingway, however, does not allow the reader much time to dwell on the victory.

The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true. It was an hour before the first shark hit him.

It’s clear that the real enemy here isn’t the giant Marlin, Santiago and the Marlin are brothers. On the marlin’s death, Santiago forms an immediate alliance with it, an alliance against those dark forces that wait to steal Santiago’s victory from him. It is possible to see the shark as merely the natural result killing such a fish. They are attracted by blood, and the harpoon would create a trail of blood for them to follow. However, it is also possible to see it as far more than a physical enemy:

The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea. He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution that he broke the surface of the blue water and was in the sun. Then he fell back into the sea and picked up the scent and started swimming on the course the skiff and the fish had taken.

These forces “come up from deep down” where the “dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile deep sea.” These are clearly those dark forces that await each of us, those Fates that tempt us to reach out for the good things in life only to snatch them away at the last moment, or render them meaningless once we have them:

The old man's head was clear and good now and he was full of resolution but he had little hope. It was too good to last, he thought. He took one look at the great fish as he watched the shark close in. It might as well have been a dream, be thought. I cannot keep him from hitting me but maybe I can get him. Dentuso, be thought. Bad luck to your mother.

Santiago senses that he has been too lucky, good luck like this is impossible to maintain. It as if the very Gods are jealous of us, as if we threaten their very domination. Such happiness comes only in dreams or Hollywood movies.

Knowing he cannot win, Santiago still fights back, striking the oncoming shark “without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy.” He kills the first shark but loses his harpoon in the battle. Knowing more sharks will be coming, he ties his knife to a pole and awaits the inevitable.

Soon enough, Santiago sees two more sharks, scavengers, approach:

“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.

Hemingway makes this sound like the ultimate defeat, crucifixion, with its inevitable comparison to Christ’s end. Santiago, Spanish for Saint James, a martyred apostle of Jesus, appears to be crucified by those same dark forces that crucify anyone who demands too much of life or who dares to go out too far.

Man’s lot is, after all, finally death and defeat.

What do you think?