Descriptive Language in The Old Man and the Sea

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Descriptive language can gives us insights into the nature of character, experience, and the environment. We'll look at examples of descriptive language and what they communicate in 'The Old Man and the Sea.'

What is the Purpose of Descriptive Language?

Descriptive language in literature doesn't exist just to sound pretty. In fact, it can be anything but, as we see in Manolin's memory of fishing with Santiago. Descriptive language is a tool: it can give hints about a character and his or her point of view. It can also tell us something about relationships between characters or between characters and their environment. It can additionally be used to set the mood of a narrative, or to present the world of its characters in a way that is memorable and vivid for the reader. Keep in mind that sometimes descriptive language can have more than one function at a time!

Descriptive Language in The Old Man and the Sea

Colors: Describing Character, Relationships, and the Natural World

Hemingway pays careful attention to color in The Old Man and the Sea. He doesn't use it too frequently, but he does use it in ways that draw our attention to a particular image. For example, the first use of color in the novel is used to depict Santiago's face.

His cheeks are brown from years of fishing in the sun, and importantly, his eyes are 'the same color as the sea and (are) cheerful and undefeated.' Here, the brown points to hard manual labor and exposure to the elements. The sea-colored blue, green, or gray of Santiago's eyes indicates that he has a special relationship with that body of water. Although 'cheerful and undefeated' aren't colors, they are descriptors that also tell us he has a positive outlook on life.

A weather-beaten fisherman in his element
A weather-beaten fisherman in his element

In his novel, Hemingway additionally uses color to show how the sea and its creatures are both aesthetically pleasing and dangerous. He sometimes pairs or blends two colors together to emphasize this duality.

While fishing, Santiago observes a Portuguese man-of-war, which is both purple and iridescent. He describes the purple filaments as 'deadly,' because contact with this organism causes an extremely painful sting to human skin. However, he also says the iridescence of the man-of-war is 'beautiful,' even though he curses the sea as agua mala ('bad water' in Spanish. Aguamala as one word is also slang for a Portguese man-of-war). This reveals Santiago's respect for and appreciation of all sea creatures, even those that can harm him.

This Portuguese man-of-war is both purple and iridescent.
This Portuguese man-of-war is both purple and iridescent

In another example, Santiago recalls an optical illusion created by dolphins swimming. He notes that in the water, '(t)he dolphin looks green of course because he is really golden.' Here, we see the relationship between the dolphin and its environment (golden yellow and blue) as symbolically blended together in a deceptive play of color. Together, they also create a green visual impression that Santiago and other fishermen observe, but that the dolphin does not. This becomes part of the relationship between man, the sea, and its wildlife.

Finally, Hemingway uses the word 'phosphorescent' to describe seaweed, Santiago's fishing line at night, and the trailing color of the flying fish parts the old man throws in the water. Both 'phosphorescent' and 'iridescent' are terms that describe a quality of light as well as color. Phosphorescence refers to colors that glow, and something that's iridescent is a rainbow-like mixture of colors with a particular oily sheen.

By using complex colors closely related to light quality, Hemingway paints the natural world as a complex and transcendent place, full of hidden beauty.

Sounds, Smells, and Textures: Creating a Vivid Reading Experience

As many authors do, Hemingway sometimes uses descriptive language to make a scene more vivid. He does this by appealing to multiple physical senses. For example, when Santiago and Manolin reminisce about an exciting but dangerous catch long ago, Manolin describes the sounds, smells, and textures he remembers.

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