And Remains Standing at the End

After Santiago loses his knife while fighting off the two sharks, he was left thinking, “Now they have beaten me, he thought. I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try it as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller.” In the end, he loses everything to the sharks for the marlin is reduced to a skeleton before he can reach shore. We see Santiago climbing up the hill to his shack carrying the mast of his boat on his shoulders like a cross, again recalling the crucifixion.

At first glance, one is tempted to see Santiago’s story as a tragedy, a noble man brought down by a fatal flaw. If we take that approach, it is easy to see that the fatal flaw is simply that Santiago went out “too far:”

I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,” he said. “Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry fish.”

Santiago always knew that the great fish waited further off shore, but he had chosen to stay closer to shore as long as his luck held. Only when luck turns against him, 85 days without a catch, does he consciously choose to go further out, knowing that here is where the big fish wait. Now, having “failed,” he feels he should not have violated those boundaries:

Maybe I’ll have the luck to bring the forward half in. I should have some luck. No, he said. You violated your luck when you went too far outside.”

We all know what is “safe,” and spend most of our life in those waters, content to flourish in the easy places. It’s only when life turns against us, when “our luck runs out,” that we are forced to face the unknown, the deep waters that challenge our easy truths.

In a sense, Santiago is right to regret catching the marlin, because, unlike him, the marlin had made a very different choice:

His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world. Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us.

Driven by bad luck, Santiago had chosen to risk the unknown rather than to be content with having to live on the charity of those who felt sorry for him. He had gone beyond the boundaries of his fellow fisherman and caught the big one, proven that he was, indeed, one of the great ones. In going beyond his limits to prove himself worthy, though, he had also carried the seeds of his own “defeat.” Those who dare the impossible often discover why it is called the “impossible.”

Of course, there is another way of seeing the story, the way I think Hemingway intended for it to be seen, and the one I choose to see it by. In this view, Santiago is not a tragic hero. He cannot be a tragic hero because he does not fail. He is not defeated. He is not defeated because he does not allow himself to be defeated.

In the end, what sets Santiago apart from others is not his intelligence, but his will, as symbolized by his turtle-like heart, his determination not to fail, not to accept defeat.

The sharks, those dark forces from the underworld that tear away at life’s short-lived victories, rendering them meaningless in a short amount of time, cannot defeat us unless we allow them to. When Santiago realizes the sharks have won the battle for the marlin, he tasted, if just for a moment, defeat:

The old man could hardly breathe now and he felt a strange taste in his mouth. It was coppery and sweet and he was afraid of it for a moment. But there was not much of it.

He spat into the ocean and said, “Eat that, galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man.”

We’ve all tasted defeat, and too many of us give up after multiple defeats. The remarkable ones, though, are the ones that just keep trying again and again until they succeed, and, in the end, succeeding even if they don’t attain their goal because they have kept trying. We admire these people when we find them because of their sheer tenacity.

Santiago is right when he says, “But man is not made for defeat,” and, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

In the end, we can choose courage like Santiago, fighting the good battle again and again, or we can be like the uninformed tourists, the “ugly Americans,” who do not even understand there is a battle going on, much less what the rules of battle are:

“Tiburon,” the waiter said. “Eshark.” He was meaning to explain what had happened.
“I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.”
“I didn’t either,” her male companion said.
Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still, sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.

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.

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.