Internal Conflicts in The Old Man and the Sea: Types & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

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

In ''The Old Man and the Sea,'' Hemingway illustrates how our existence is full of complex internal and external conflicts. We'll identify and analyze some of Santiago's internal conflicts in the novel.

Self-Reliance vs. Accepting Help from Others

One internal conflict Santiago struggles with in The Old Man and the Sea is that between self-reliance and accepting help from others. Assistance comes primarily from Manolin, Santiago's friend. We see the boy providing support to Santiago early in the narrative: he offers to go fishing with him, buys Santiago a beer, helps him carry his fishing gear home, and offers to bring him sardines and some bait. Knowing that Santiago has nothing to eat at home, Manolin also brings him food donated by Martin, the owner of the local restaurant. As they prepare for separate fishing trips the following morning, Manolin also sees to it that Santiago gets some coffee at the Terrace.

However, we also know that Santiago is uncomfortable with some of this support, because he doesn't want to be a burden to Manolin. Santiago has gone 84 days without catching any fish, and he knows he is considered salao, or extremely unlucky. He doesn't want the boy to share his misfortune, especially since Manolin currently works for a successful crew. Santiago accepts the beer, supper, sardines, and fresh bait from the boy, but he tries to limit these gifts. He tells the white lie that he has his own food to eat, and agrees to accept only two pieces of fresh bait from Manolin. He further plans to bring Martin some of his next catch to repay him for the food.

Hemingway and a friend with a marlin, mostly eaten by sharks
Hemingway and a friend with a marlin, mostly eaten by sharks

Similarly, Santiago struggles with self-reliance as he attempts to bring in the massive marlin he hooks. He wishes several times that he had the boy with him to help. However, in Manolin's absence, he reminds himself that he is a capable fisherman in order to keep a positive attitude during his exhausting ordeal at sea.

Empathy vs. Antagonism

While attempting to catch the marlin, Santiago expresses another internal conflict: empathy with the natural world versus his antagonism with it as a fisherman. He has a great respect for the sea and the living things in it. He thinks of the sea as la mar (the Spanish word that conceives the sea as a feminine entity) because he loves it. He identifies with all species of sea turtles, noting that his ''feet and hands are like theirs,'' and he is sorry when they have to die at the hands of fishermen like himself. He feels helped by the bird who signals the presence of fish, and he refers to fish as ''our true brothers.'' However, Santiago's survival depends on his ability to catch and kill whatever he can from the sea. This means that he is also in an antagonistic relationship with the animals.

A green sea turtle
A green sea turtle

Similarly, Santiago admires his marlin with a sense of wonder, noting its beautiful colors, powerful ''sword,'' and graceful movements. He repeatedly says he is sorry to have to kill such an awe-inspiring creature, feeling that it is ''unjust.'' Nonetheless, he is determined to do so, even praying to the Virgen de Cobre for the marlin's death ''in all his greatness and his glory.''

An Atlantic Blue Marlin, the species of fish Santiago catches
An Atlantic Blue Marlin, the species of fish Santiago catches

Optimism vs. Pessimism

A third conflict that Santiago struggles with is that between optimism and pessimism. Once he hooks the marlin, which he estimates must be about 1500 pounds, he faces many dire uncertainties. He is alone and far out at sea with few supplies and very little drinking water, and he doesn't know how long it will take to subdue and kill the enormous fish. It's too big to put into his boat, and another question is whether or not he'll be strong enough to secure it. Even when he manages to do this, he is aware that sharks may attack and consume his catch. His experience causes him to doubt the feasibility of his venture, yet his seasoned strength and desire to succeed keep him going.

A Mako shark, one species that attacks Santiagos skiff
A Mako shark, one species that attacks Santiagos skiff

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