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.