by James Quinn
"Ernest Hemingway is one of the most renowned writers in American history, with classics such as "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "The Sun Also Rises" to his credit. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. He constructed a new literary style characterized by lean, hard, sparse dialogue. He influenced literature and young authors for decades. As a teenager I was immediately drawn to his gritty realistic novels. There was no nonsense to his novels. They always involved man’s struggle against death and hardship. Most of his best work was done in the 1920s and 1930s, but he produced one of his finest works in 1951 towards the end of his life. Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his story about an epic battle between an old man and a great marlin.
Ernest Hemingway was bigger than life. Hemingway’s real life reads like a Stephen Spielberg Indiana Jones movie. He was an ambulance driver in World War I, where he was seriously wounded. He had four wives. He lived in Paris during the 1920s associating with other famous “Lost Generation” writers. He was a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, while also joining in the fighting. He survived two plane crashes and multiple car accidents. He battled alcoholism and mental illness, eventually taking his own life, just as his father, brother and sister had done before him. His novels reflected the pain, struggle and inevitability of death that permeated his own life.
"The Old Man and the Sea" is a novel about Santiago, an old fisherman whose life is approaching its conclusion, and his final heroic struggle against a great marlin and the evil sharks that ultimately devour his prize. The mark of a great writer is the ability to tell a story that means many things to many people. Hemingway described his aim in writing this novel: “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”
His novels always had a gritty reality to them. This particular novel is rich with symbolism and life lessons that are timeless and relevant today. The plot of the story is quite basic, but the character analysis reveals much deeper insights. For eighty-four days, Santiago, an aged Cuban fisherman, has set out to sea and returned empty-handed. So strikingly unlucky is he that the parents of his young, devoted apprentice and friend, Manolin, have forced the boy to leave the old man in order to fish in a more prosperous boat. On the eighty-fifth day he decides to sail far into the Gulf Stream past where most fishermen would dare venture alone. A big fish, which he knows is a marlin, takes the bait that Santiago has placed one hundred fathoms deep in the waters. The old man expertly hooks the fish, but he cannot pull it in. Instead, the fish begins to pull the boat.
Unable to tie the line fast to the boat for fear the fish would snap a taut line, the old man bears the strain of the line with his shoulders, back, and hands, ready to give slack should the marlin make a run. The great fish pulls the boat for two straight days. The entire time, Santiago endures constant pain from the fishing line. Whenever the fish lunges, leaps, or makes a dash for freedom, the cord cuts Santiago badly. Although wounded and weary, the old man feels a deep empathy and admiration for the marlin, his brother in suffering, strength, and resolve. On the third day, the fish tires and Santiago is able to kill him with his harpoon. He lashes it to the side of the boat and begins the long journey home.
As Santiago navigates toward his destination, the marlin’s blood leaves a trail in the water and attracts sharks. The first to attack is a great mako shark, which Santiago manages to slay with the harpoon. In the struggle, the old man loses the harpoon, which leaves him vulnerable to more shark attacks. The vicious predator sharks continuously attack Santiago’s trophy and despite killing several of the sharks, his battle became ultimately hopeless. He fights a gallant fight, revealing man’s finest qualities of bravery, confidence, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence during the struggle.
The scavengers devour the marlin’s precious meat, leaving only skeleton, head, and tail. Santiago chastises himself for going “out too far,” and for sacrificing his great and worthy opponent. He arrives home before daybreak, stumbles back to his shack, and sleeps very deeply. The next morning, a crowd of amazed fishermen gathers around the skeletal carcass of the fish, which is still lashed to the boat. Manolin, who had been worried sick over the old man’s absence, is moved to tears when he finds Santiago safe in his bed. The boy fetches the old man some coffee and the daily papers with the baseball scores, and watches him sleep. When the old man awakens, the two agree to fish as partners once more. The old man returns to sleep and dreams his usual dream of lions at play on the beaches of Africa.
Sadness, resignation and the inevitability of death permeate the pages of this brilliant novel. But it is grace under pressure in the face of overwhelming odds that is the true message Hemingway leaves with the reader. There is no avoiding death, but the critical test of mankind is how you live your life and how you endure the suffering and pain that are inflicted upon you.
Life is a journey. At the end of every worldly journey, death awaits. That is a certainty. The ending will be the same for everyone who walks this earth. What matters is the course chosen on the voyage through life. The vast sea represents life’s journey, with its ebbs, flows, and storms that must be navigated. In Hemingway’s portrait of the world, death is inevitable, but the finest men will nonetheless refuse to give in to its power. In both the sea and in life, there are a number of possibilities that lie hidden from the common eye; some are gifts to be treasured and some are problems to be defeated. Neither will be found unless man embarks upon the journey. If man is lucky enough to discover a treasure he must fight until death to retain it; if man is unlucky enough to discover an evil lurking underneath the surface of the sea, he must fight it bravely and nobly until the end. In either case, it is the struggle that is all- important, and a man obtains the status of hero if he battles the sea (life) with grace under pressure. The only way to obtain the status of hero is to set sail on the uncertain sea of life.
Winning and losing are not what is important in life, as we all will lose out to death in the end. It is the honor gained during the struggle that matters. It’s the legacy we leave for future generations. Did we fight the good fight, or did we sit idly by while life passed by? Did your life mean something to someone? You can stay safely on the shore or you can jump into your skiff and sail into the deep water and conquer your marlin. Both Santiago and the marlin display qualities of pride, honor, and courage, and both are subject to the same eternal law: they must kill or be killed. As Santiago reflects when he observes the weary warbler fly toward shore, where it will inescapably meet the hawk, the world is filled with marauders, and no living thing can escape the unavoidable struggle that will lead to its demise. Man and fish will struggle to the death, just as ravenous sharks will ravage an old man’s prize catch.
Hemingway’s novel suggests that it is possible to transcend natural law. The very inescapability of destruction creates the terms that allow an admirable man to rise above it. It is specifically through the endeavor to combat the inevitable that a man can prove himself. Indeed, a man can prove this resolve over and over through the worthiness of the adversary he chooses to fight. Santiago, though devastated at the end of the novel, is never defeated. Instead, he emerges as a dignified conqueror. Santiago’s struggle does not enable him to change man’s position in the world. Rather, it enables him to meet his most noble destiny.
“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.” - Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea"
The reason Santiago ventured into the deep waters of the Gulf, far past where a lesser fisherman would dare endeavor, was pride. It wasn’t the false pride of vanity, but the pride described by St. Augustine as "the love of one's own excellence". It was a virtuous pride revealing his greatness of soul and faith in his own abilities. Santiago’s pride ended up being his tragic flaw. He went out beyond the boundaries of a normal fisherman. In the end he was ruined, along with his prize, by the malevolent sharks. His run of bad luck was an affront to his pride and drove him to go beyond his limits.
Hemingway does not denounce Santiago for being full of pride. On the contrary, Santiago stands as testimony that pride inspires men to greatness. Because the old man concedes that he killed the mighty marlin largely out of pride, and because his capture of the marlin leads in turn to his heroic transcendence of defeat, pride becomes the source of Santiago’s greatest strength. Without a fierce sense of pride, that battle would never have been fought, or would have been forsaken before the end.
“Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” - Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway unquestionably likens Santiago to Christ throughout the novel. Like Christ, he is filled with goodness, patience, and humility. The forces of evil, however, are arrayed against Santiago, as seen when he fends off the sharks. Similarly, Christ had to clash with the wicked Pharisees in Jerusalem. Both men’s struggles end with shame and humiliation. Christ is betrayed, beaten, forced to carry his own cross, and is crucified, with arms outstretched and bleeding hands nailed to the cross. Santiago is betrayed by the sharks and his spirit crushed. Arriving home a disconsolate man, he struggles up the hill with his mast across his back, much like Christ bearing the cross up to Calvary. When he finally lies down in his bed, his arms are stretched straight out with palms up, and his hands are bleeding. It is an obvious reflection of Christ on the cross.
All of the symbols employed by Hemingway add to the premise that life is an endless struggle with illusory rewards. In order to achieve nobility in life, a person must exhibit bravery, poise, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence during the struggle. Then, even if the prize is lost, the person has won the battle, proving himself capable of retaining grace under pressure, the ultimate test of mankind.
“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.” - Ernest Hemingway, "The Old Man and the Sea"