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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......The Old Man and the Sea is a short novel
(novella) about an elderly Cuban fisherman who goes out alone in a small boat and hooks into a huge marlin.
.......The Old Man and the Sea was first published in Life magazine in its issue of September 1, 1952. Charles Scribner's Sons published the book in New York City later in the same year. An immediate success, it won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize and helped Hemingway win the 1954 Nobel Prize for
.......Ernest Hemingway is believed to have based the plot of the Old Man and the Sea on a story he recounted in "On the Blue Water: a Gulf Stream Letter," an article he published in the April 1936 issue of Esquire magazine. In this article, Hemingway recalls a conversation he had wih a friend who thought
the most exciting sport for outdoorsmen was hunting elephants. As for fishing, "Frankly, I can't see where the excitement is in that," he said. In an attempt to enlighten his friend about the challenges of fishing at sea, Hemingway told him the following story
[A]n old man fishing alone in a skiff out of Cabañas hooked a great marlin that, on the heavy sashcord handline, pulled the skiff far out to sea. Two days later the old man was picked up by fishermen sixty miles to the eastward, the head and forward part of the marlin lashed alongside. What was left of the fish, less than half, weighed
eight hundred pounds. The old man had stayed with him a day, a night, a day and another night while fish swam deep and pulled the boat. When he had come up the old man had pulled the boat up on him and harpooned him. Lashed along side, the sharks had hit him and the old man had fought them out alone in the Gulf Stream in a skiff, clubbing them, stabbing at them, lunging at them with an oar until
he was exhausted and the sharks had eaten all that they could. He was crying in the boat when the fishermen picked him up, half crazy from his loss, and the sharks were still circling the boat.Settings
.......On land, the action takes place in a small village on the
northern coast of Cuba, below the Tropic of Cancer and not far from the capital city of Havana. At sea, the action takes place in the boat of an old man, Santiago, who is fishing for marlin north of Cuba in the Gulf Stream of the Gulf of Mexico. The time is September in the late 1940's. Hemingway lived near Havana from 1940 until 1959.
Santiago: Proud old Cuban
fisherman. He knows well the sea and its creatures and is expert in his trade. But he has a long slump in which he fails to catch a single fish. There is talk that he is no longer up to the task of deep-sea fishing. However, he refuses refuses to yield to old age and bad luck and continues to go out in his skiff, if only to prove that he can still reel in a big one. Santiago, a Spanish name,
means St. James in English.
Manolin: Adolescent who loves the old man and never loses his faith in him.
Manolin's Father: Man who forbids his son to continue fishing with Santiago after the first forty days of the old man's slump. He thinks Santiago is
Martin: Cafe owner who gives Manolin food and drink to take to Santiago.
Rogelio: Villager who
sometimes helps Santiago with his fishing gear.
Pedrico: Villager who also helps Santiago with his gear. Santiago gives him the head of the fish.
Perico: Man who provides Santiago newspapers so he can check baseball scores.
Tourist: Woman who thinks the remains of the marlin caught by Santiago are those of a shark.
Point of View
.......Hemingway wrote the story in third-person point of view. In some parts of the novel, the narrator is an aloof observer, seeing only the actions of the main character, Santiago. In other parts of the novel, the narrator enters the mind of the old man and reports what he sees. In the latter case, the narration
becomes omniscient third-person point of view.
.......Although the narrator presents an objective account, at times he exhibits sympathy for the old man in his exhausting struggle against the marlin and the elements.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
.......Eighty-four days pass and still Santiago has not caught a fish in the familiar waters of the Gulf of Mexico north of his seacoast village in Cuba. Has old age robbed him of his once-great skill? Is he just having bad luck? Will his scarred hands ever again pull in a prize catch?
.......His boat is empty not only of fish but also of his friend, Manolin. Santiago had taught the boy to fish, beginning when the boy was just five. He showed Manolin all the subtleties of the art, and Manolin was deeply grateful. More than that, he loved the old man. Often,
he would take food to Santiago, and they would talk baseball, usually discussing the exploits of the great Yankee center fielder, Joe DiMaggio, who played magnificently even when bothered by a physical ailment. (DiMaggio was operated on in 1947 to remove a bone spur from the heel of his left foot. He also developed a bone spur in his right foot and sometimes dislocated his shoulder during games.)
Whenever Santiago went out to fish, Manolin would go with him, happily and excitedly. But after the first 40 days of Santiago’s 84-day slump, the boy’s parents ordered him to go out with one of the other fishing boats; Santiago was bad luck, a defeated old man.
.......So Santiago–sun-wrinkled and gaunt–would go out alone, in his single-masted skiff, to catch wind and, eventually, a great fish. But Manolin was always there in the morning to help him load his gear and in the evening to greet him and help him unload.
.......During the night before the 85th day, Santiago, sleeping in his dirt-floor hovel, dreams of Africa, which he had once visited while serving on a ship. In his dream, he sees native boats, hears the roar of the surf, and watches young lions frolicking on the beach. The lions seem to represent Santiago’s youth, in all of its feral vigor. In the morning, before sunrise,
Manolin helps him load his gear as usual and gives him small fish to use as bait. Then the old man rides the wind and the waves into deep water, beyond the pale of his earlier expeditions.
.......He catches a small tuna and thinks perhaps it is an omen of
good fortune. Later, he feels a strong pull on his line, suggesting that a great fish, a marlin, is on the other end. The fish nibbles, then nibbles again. Finally, it bites down and the war is on. The marlin hauls the skiff effortlessly through the Gulf waters while Santiago lets out the line when necessary, then holds fast to it, sometimes wrapping it around his shoulders. The give and take
goes on and on. Santiago’s left hand cramps up, but he is determined to stay with the fish, which he respects as a worthy opponent even though he has only the tuna and his water bottle to sustain him. As the sun sets, the fish heads farther out to sea.
.......When it finally surfaces, Santiago beholds the fish, a gigantic marlin that is longer than his boat. The struggle reminds the old man of an arm-wrestling match he won; it lasted through an entire day and night. He eats part of the tuna he caught, wraps the line around himself, and sleeps awhile, dreaming of Africa and those lions on the beach. But the sleep is brief, a
mere wink of his heavy eyelids.
.......The struggle goes on all through the next day and night and into the following day. Santiago’s body aches, and his raw hands sting under the tug of the hot, slicing rope. He thinks often of the great DiMaggio, who
played frequently in pain. If DiMaggio could succeed under the stress of suffering, why couldn't Santiago? And then comes a hopeful sign: The marlin, which has been traveling northwest, slows and turns eastward, riding a current. He is tired. The end is near. When the big fish swims close to the boat, Santiago harpoons it; the fight is over.
.......After lashing the fish’s head and tail to the back and front of his boat, Santiago heads for home, toward the glow of the Havana lights. However, the blood from the harpoon wound attracts a shark. Santiago kills it with the harpoon, but is unable to retrieve his weapon.
There will be more sharks, he knows, so he ties a knife to an oar and waits. When the sharks eventually arrive--in a brutal hungry horde--he stabs some of them and clubs others with his tiller. But there are too many, and they eat away all of the flesh, leaving only the head, the tail, and the skeleton.
.......Santiago has won, and he has lost.
.......After arriving onshore in the morning, he drags his aching body across the beach, bearing the mast on his back and collapsing under its weight--then
picking himself up, and the mast, and completing the journey to his home, where he falls into bed. While he sleeps, fishermen gather and stand in awe at the size of the fish, at 18 feet the largest seen in local waters. Manolin, who has been terribly worried about the old man, is happy to find him home and in bed. When Santiago awakes, they have coffee and discuss baseball. Manolin informs
Santiago that a villager, Pedrico, is taking care of the old man's boat and fishing equipment. Appreciative, Santiago tells the youth to give Pedrico the head of the marlin to slice up and use as fish bait. Manolin says he will get Santiago some food and some medicine to treat his injured hands. Later, they agree to become partners again, and that afternoon Santiago falls asleep again and dreams
of two young lions.
Writing Style .
.......Hemingway's style–developed when he worked as a newspaper
reporter and correspondent early in his career–is simple and compact, with short sentences and paragraphs devoid of verbosity. However, this straightforward style often conveys complex themes. In the The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway uses the third-person-limited point of view in some sections and third-person omniscient in others. The book won Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize and later helped
win him a Nobel Prize.
.......What ennobles a man and makes him a success is his perseverance against overwhelming odds. Whether the central character, Santiago, wins or loses his battle with the great fish is less important than waging a good and honorable fight. Critics have interpreted this theme in many ways, seeing Santiago as a Ulysses
or a Jason accepting a formidable challenge and seeing it through to the end.
Man vs Nature
.......Santiago's struggle against the marlin and the sea represents the struggle of every human being against nature, or the inscrutable universe–the same struggle as Ahab in Moby Dick when he battles the great white whale. Unlike Ahab, however, Santiago regards his quarry and the sea as noble and worthy foes.
Other literary works depicting human beings struggling against nature include the John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," and Edgar Allan Poe's A Descent Into the Maelström.
.......Literature is full of stories about quests--for the Holy Grail, for battlefield glory, for new worlds, for revenge, for scientific discoveries. In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago goes on a quest to catch a great fish and win the respect of others. Although the sharks dine on his catch, he has its skeleton
as proof that, though old, he remains an accomplished fisherman.
.......Manolin remains fiercely loyal to Santiago even though his father look down upon weary old man and forbids his son to fish with him. After Santiago returns from his long struggle at sea, Manolin decides to become Santiago's fishing partner once again in opposition to his father's wishes.
.......Santiago admires Joe DiMaggio, the centerfielder for the New York Yankees, in large part because of DiMaggio's ability to carry on against adversity. DiMaggio, of course, performs before tens of thousands of baseball fans in Yankee Stadium. Santiago also carries on against adversity. But he is alone in a boat, far
out at sea, when he battles the gigantic marlin. No one witnesses his extraordinary performance. Life is like that. Every day, people in every country perform magnificently in ordinary, mundane tasks even though no one is there to cheer them on.
.......The climax of the novel occurs when sharks swarm and begin devouring the marlin. Rather than giving up, Santiago fights to save his prize catch. Although the sharks consume the marlin, Santiago proves that he is still a great fisherman.
Santiago as a Christ Figure
.......Apparently Hemingway wished to compare Santiago with Christ in His struggle to redeem fallen man. Santiago, weighted down with the “sin” of 84 days of failure at sea, undergoes a three-day ordeal–suffering piercing injury to the palms of his hands and back, experiencing raging thirst, enduring the “gibes” of a mob
(the attacking sharks), and staggering and falling as he bears his mast across the beach. Nevertheless, he has achieved his goal and, after a sleep, awakens to a new day.
What Is a Skiff?
.......Santiago's skiff is a small boat propelled with oars. Some skiffs use an outboard motor or sails. To view pictures of various types of skiffs, click
DiMaggio, Joe: Indomitability of the human spirit. Santiago, whom people believe no longer
has what it takes, identifies with the injured DiMaggio.
lions: Youth, virility, power, the promise of a better future.
lost harpoon: Temporary loss of power,
Manolin: Faith, hope, love, loyalty.
marlin: Noble foe.
mast: Cross of Christ;
sea: Indifferent nature; life; the universe.
sharks: Cruel vicissitudes of life.
skiff: With its patched-up sails and fragile frame, Santiago himself.
.......Ernest Miller Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American writer of novels
and short stories. Before turning to fiction, he worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and served as a First World War ambulance driver before enlisting with the Italian infantry and suffering a wound. After the war, he worked for the Toronto Star and lived for a time in Paris and Key West, Fla. During the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he served as a newspaper
correspondent, then lived in Cuba until 1958 and Idaho until 1961, the year of his death by suicide.
.......His narratives frequently contain masculine motifs, such as bull-fighting (Death in the Afternoon), hunting (The Green Hills of
Africa), war (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell
Tolls), and fishing (The Old Man and the Sea). All of these motifs derive from Hemingway’s own experiences as a traveler, a soldier, and an adventurer. Arguably, he was a better short-story writer than a novelist,
although it was his longer works that built his reputation.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Write an informative essay that identifies and analyzes Santiago's external and internal conflicts.
- What is Santiago's most admirable quality?
- In what way does the presence of Manolin help to define Santiago?
- What is the significance of Santiago's recollection of the arm-wrestling match?
- Research the life of Hemingway. Then write an essay explaining how his experiences as a hunter and fisherman influenced him when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea.