The Old Man and the Sea is often considered to be Hemingway’s finest work. His unique style of writing is exemplified through short, concise sentences and a factual approach to the events he portrays. Within the novella, a reader will come across complex themes of strength and perseverance, as well as symbols of perfection and age which are all addressed directly.
The Old Man and the Sea Themes
Hardship and Perseverance
Of the variety of themes to be found in The Old Man and the Sea hardship and the perseverance needed to surmount those hardships is one of the most prominent. The majority of the novel, whether Santiago is onshore or at sea, is punctuated by struggle. It’s clear through context clues, as well as Manolin’s desire to care for the old man, that Santiago is very poor. He suffers without complaint in his poverty. It’s seen through his small shack, the bed he sleeps on, his lack of food, and in the eyes of the other fishermen.
Once he gets to sea his suffering only increases. He bears the weight of the fish as it pulls his skiff along. The line cuts into his hands and his back. His body, which was not in a good state to begin with, is forced to contend with three days at sea without real rest or respite from the pressures the hooked marlin imposes on his body.
Suffering, at least in the snapshot the reader gets of the old man’s life, seems central. But, so is perseverance. These two themes are linked as because of Santiago’s perseverance is the reason he continues to wake up every day, go out to sea, and return empty-handed. Only to do it all again during his eighty-four days of bad luck. His ability to withstand pain and hardship, while keeping in mind his end goal of killing the fish, is remarkable and is one of the defining features of his personality. Plus, there is the suffering at the end of the story, after the sharks eat the much laboured for marlin to contend with as well. These moments can also be connected to another theme, man vs. nature.
Another prominent theme, friendship, between human beings and amongst the wider non-human animal world spans the length of the novella. The most important human relationship is that between Santiago and his young pupil and fellow fisherman, Manolin. The boy cares deeply for Santiago, often berating himself for not doing more to take care of him. They share a passion for baseball, something that helps sustain Santiago while he’s at sea.
A reader must also consider the relationship between humans and animals. Santiago spends a great deal of time while sailing thinking about the relationship between himself and the marlin. He feels as though they are brothers, connected by their mutual existence on earth and desire to survive. In fact, the old man feels as though he is the brother of every living thing on the planet and shows the utmost respect for the lives he encounters.
Memory, and the power it has over the present and future, is important in The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago navigates the Gulf of Mexico he often becomes distracted by thoughts of the past. He can recall the strong young man he used to be and believes that some of that strength should still exist inside him. There are moving moments in the novella when Santiago thinks back to one specific memory that doesn’t seem to fade. He recalls the time he spent on a turtle fishing boat along the coast of Africa. While there, he saw lions playing on the beach. He isn’t sure why, but this image continues to come to mind. In fact, it ends the novel.
Analysis of Key Moments in The Old Man and the Sea
- The novel opens, the reader learns that Santiago hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days.
- Santiago spends time with Manolin, their relationship is defined.
- He heads out to fish the next morning, prepared to go to a distant spot.
- The old man considers his relationship with the natural world and thinks about the past.
- He gets a fish on his line but isn’t sure how large it is.
- Santiago commits to catching this fish, coming to the understanding that it’s enormous. He wills it to jump and show itself.
- The old man catches a dolphin and eats.
- After a prolonged battle, he kills the fish with his harpoon and ties it to the side of the skiff.
- Sharks descend on the vessel, he kills some but they take the majority of the fish.
- He returns to land, collapses in exhaustion and everyone marvels over the fish’s remains.
- The novel ends with Santiago dreaming about the lions once again.
Style, Tone and Figurative Language
Hemingway was known for his concise, to the point style of writing. His syntax is straightforward and simple. This is mostly due to the time he spent working as a journalist. Throughout this novella, he doesn’t employ complicated metaphors or refer to things far outside the average reader’s understanding of Cuba, fishing and the battle between life and death. He is best known for his “iceberg theory”. When reading, there is a little information on the surface, but a breadth of detail to explore beneath the waves. Hemingway described it as “seven-eighths” of the story existing below the surface.
In regards to mood, it is quite depressing and solemn. Throughout much of the novel, the frailty of life is exemplified through a very human struggle for survival that ends in defeat. The tone is less emotional. Through Hemingway’s style of writing, it comes across as factual and at times sympathetic and hopeful.
Hemingway makes use of multiple narrative perspectives in The Old Man and the Sea. The story begins with a third-person, omniscient narrator that doesn’t have access to Santiago’s thoughts. But, as the story progresses, the reader receives a third-person narration of Santiago’s state of mind and musings on the past and present. He speaks to himself, creating the majority of the dialogue in the novella.
The most prominent uses of figurative language include personification, hyperbole, as well as metaphors and similes in which two unlike things are compared with or without using like/as. Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. This is obvious through the way Hemingway treats the depictions of the marlin, as well as other fish and the birds in the sky. Hyperbole is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader.
Analysis of Symbols
The lions on the beach are a mysterious symbol in The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway does not reveal what exactly they represent but the reader can come to a few conclusions. They seem to be symbols of the past, dreams, other worlds and harmony in nature. Santiago’s mind returns unbidden again and again to the African seashore as a place of respite. The lions represent a perfectly functioning world Santiago would like to return to.
The most obvious symbol in The Old Man and the Sea, the marlin represents the unattainable. It is Santiago’s ideal foe, one against whom he can measure himself. The fish is magnificent, enormous and seemingly one of a kind. It also represents the past and an attempt to return to previous ways of being as Santiago seeks to regain the strength of his youth.
Santiago’s left hand
His hand is a less obvious symbol, but one that connects to the larger struggle in The Old Man and the Sea. His left hand, which Santiago believes he didn’t “train” properly, “betrays” him throughout the novella. It cramps up when he needs to use it, and only comes to his aid, seemingly, when it chooses. As it weakens, along with the rest of Santiago’s body, he becomes angry, punishing it with harder tasks. It represents the fragility of old age and foreshadows disappointment and defeat.