The Human Condition
In his novella about a fisherman who struggles to catch a large marlin only to lose it, Hemingway has stripped down the basic story of human life to its basic elements. A single human being, represented by the fisherman Santiago, is blessed with the intelligence to do big things and to dream of even grander things. Santiago shows great skill in devising ways to tire out the huge fish he has hooked and ways to conserve his strength in order to land it. Yet in the struggle to survive, this human must often suffer and even destroy the very thing he dreams of. Thus Santiago cuts his hands badly and loses the fish to sharks in the process of trying to get his catch back to shore. Yet the struggle to achieve one’s dreams is still worthwhile, for without dreams, a human remains a mere physical presence in the universe, with no creative or spiritual dimension. And so at the end of the story, Santiago, in spite of his great loss, physical pain, and exhaustion, is still “dreaming about the lions”—the same ones he saw in Africa when he was younger and would like to see again.
Against the seeming indifference of the universe, love is often the only force that endures. This force is best seen in the relationship of Santiago and Manolin, which has endured since Manolin’s early childhood. Over the years, Santiago has taught Manolin to fish and given him companionship and a sense of self-worth that Manolin failed to get from his own father. Manolin in return shows his love for Santiago by bringing him food and by weeping for him when he sees how much he suffered in fighting the marlin. Manolin also plans to take care of Santiago during the coming winter by bringing him clothing and water for washing.
Santiago’s love, of course, extends to other people as well. He loved his wife when they were married, though when she died he had to take down her portrait because it made him feel lonely. Similarly, even in his suffering he thinks of others, remembering his promise to send the fish head to his friend Pederico to use as bait. Santiago’s love also extends to include nature itself, even though he has often suffered at its hands. His love for all living creatures, whether fish, birds, or turtles, is often described, as is his love for the sea, which he sees as a woman who gives or withholds favors. Some of the younger fishermen, in contrast, often spoke of the sea as a “contestant” or even an “enemy.”
Youth and Old Age
The comparison and contrast of these two stages of human life runs throughout the...
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In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway presents the fisherman Santiago as the ideal man--independent in his action, eager to follow his calling, and willing to take chances in life. The old man's most notable attribute, however, appears to be his unquenchable spirit: no matter how his body is beaten, his spirit remains undefeated, undefeatable, through all trials.
Even in his squalid existence, the old man is proud, saying that he will have fish to eat at home, even though he knows he hasn't any. He prefers hunger to shame. Also, Santiago faces risk by choosing to go "too far out." Ignoring the hardships involved in his duel with the great fish, Santiago catches the marlin, thus justifying his pride and reliance upon himself. His attitude toward this great fish shows the true extent of his honor, for he takes pride in the strength and endurance of his opponent, calling it his brother. To die battling such a powerful fish would not be dishonorable. In a strange way, Santiago loves the fish even as his kills it. The carcass of the fish is devoured by sharks, much as Santiago's body is torn; but the skeleton, along with the old man's inner spirit, remain unconquered.
As Hemingway once wrote, "Courage is grace under pressure," and this definition suits Santiago's courage perfectly. Santiago never gives in to fear or recriminations. He does not whine about his bad luck, nor does he blame the hand which temporarily betrays him, the marlin who challenges his strength, or the sharks who steal his catch. Instead, he does the best he can, without complaint or boasting. He honors the marlin for its dignity and tries to protect it against the sharks who would ravage it. To Santiago, it takes little courage to strike the sharks with his harpoon, with his oar, with his knife. He wishes only that he had brought a stone so he could keep fighting. For one brief moment, Santiago accepts defeat, saying, "I never knew how easy it is when you're beaten." But, of course, Santiago is not beaten. He has the courage left to return home, to drag himself to his hut, to face Manolin, and to accept the loss of his greatest catch. This, too, takes courage.
If DiMaggio can endure his bone spur, if the great fish can bear to pull the weight of his boat, then a simple old man can at least endure the discomforts of his existence. To Santiago, his hands, unwilling to open, responsive only to pain, have minds of their own and are traitors to his will. Even when his ordeal at sea is over, the old man, by himself, must carry home the mast of his ship, a symbol of his burden and suffering. He may be old, but he still has the endurance of El Campeon.
He dreams of days long gone by--of hand-wrestling and of golden lions on the beach of Africa. He tries to be like Joe DiMaggio who overcame pain (a bone spur) and believes the baseball player would be proud of him. Santiago has faith that he can be like the sea turtle whose heart keeps beating even in death, and so the old man will never give up. At the end "something is broken inside," but the old man's eyes remain alive. The body may be weak, temporary,vulnerable; the spirit is enduring, invincible, eternal. Although he prays and promises to say hundreds of Hail Mary's, Santiago's faith is in himself, not in God. When anyone else would give up, Santiago and Manolin have faith in each other and make plans to fish together. The very last line foreshadows the old man's renewal in his dreams about the lions of his youth.
Our battles are not with marlins, with sharks, with poverty, or even with old age; yet we all struggle against some foe at some time in our lives. Hemingway has created a character whose experience can help us in our own battles. Santiago shows us that defeat lies only in refusing the battle, not in losing the fight.