Santiago's Courage in The Old Man and the Sea

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The old man, Santiago, displays several different types of courage throughout Ernest Hemingway's ''The Old Man and the Sea'' as he continues his quest to reel in that one big fish.

Eighty Five Consecutive Days

Everyone has a rough day now and then. Imagine having several bad days in a row. For a fisherman, several days without catching anything are very bad days. Santiago, however, has 'gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.' Imagine having that many days of failing at anything! It's surprising that Santiago doesn't look at this lack of success, decide he isn't very good at fishing, and just quit. But he doesn't. He gets up early every day and goes out onto the ocean.

Santiago's lack of success would be enough to consider a career change in almost anyone. In addition to this, Santiago has even more adversity. He hears how 'many of the fishermen made fun of (him).' Santiago not only has to process his continued lack of success, but become the subject of ridicule. He is labeled 'salao', which is the worst form of unlucky. No one wants to be around him for fear that they will become unlucky as well. How does Santiago find the strength to get up each morning, knowing the adversity before him? With courage.

His determination, or his strong sense of purpose, to go out on the ocean every day shows great fortitude and a lot of courage, or bravery. He believes that he'll be successful every time he heads out onto the ocean. It doesn't matter to him what others say or do. He's faced this type of adversity before, going eighty seven days before catching a fish. Then he had three weeks of nothing but big fish. Santiago attributes this success to luck, but also believing that it still takes courage to face this hardship on a daily basis.

The Big Fish

Santiago shows courage getting up every day and going out onto the sea. But it needs to be asked: does it take courage to catch a fish? Under most circumstances, probably not. Eventually, Santiago hooks a marlin that's larger than his boat. The fish uses Santiago and his boat as 'the towing bit,' pulling the boat along. This is obviously a problem, but Santiago also has to hold onto the fish. He knows that he must 'hold him all I can and give him line when he must have it.' Santiago endures three days of being at the mercy of this fish.

Santiago must also withstand physical ailments and the elements. The sun beating down on him throughout the day with no shelter from the heat leaves him tired. At night, Santiago's 'sweat dried cold on his back and his arms.' He also has little opportunity to sleep. Santiago is alone on the ocean, holding onto a very big fish, and bearing the physical discomfort of cramping in his hands and back. Santiago doesn't shy away from pain or discomfort. He fights through all of this in order to hold onto his prize fish.

So how do these acts signify courage? It would've been far easier for Santiago to just let the fish go, right? He would've been able to sleep. His hands wouldn't be cut from the lines digging into his skin. But this would mean going home empty-handed yet again. He does have doubts about actually killing the fish, even beginning 'to pity the great fish that he had hooked.' He fights through these doubts, and acknowledges he has to do this. He doesn't take the path of least resistance, but fights for what he wants, despite his pain and doubts. This is why Santiago's actions on the ocean are signs of courage.


Against the sharks, Santiago's fear is defined by survival rather than inner conflict and doubt. Santiago is initially afraid that the sharks will eat the fish he's caught, but since the fish is likely gone and nothing will remain, his fear shifts to his own survival. Any of these sharks could tip his boat over, and with his hands bleeding, the sharks would come after him. Santiago must overcome his fear and fight the sharks, or face death.

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