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Santiago's Dreams in The Old Man and the Sea: Symbolism & Examples

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Instructor: Holly Childers

Holly has taught at the college level and holds a law degree and a master's degree in history.

In ''The Old Man and the Sea,'' author Ernest Hemingway considers youth and old age through the dreams of the main character, Santiago, who dreams of lions. Updated: 01/11/2021

The Old Man and the Sea

Do you have any recurring dreams? Dreams where you are flying or falling, perhaps? In Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, a Cuban fisherman, dreams of lions he saw on the coast of Africa as a boy. The narrator describes Santiago's recurring dream:

''He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains. He lived along that coast now every night and in his dreams he heard the surf roar and saw the native boats come riding through it. He smelled the tar and oakum of the deck as he slept and he smelled the smell of Africa that the land breeze usually brought at morning.''

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  • 0:04 ''The Old Man and the Sea''
  • 0:53 Santiago's Lion Dreams
  • 2:26 Santiago's Lions as Symbols
  • 4:02 Hemingway and Lions
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Santiago's Lion Dreams

The setting for the story is simple: an old fisherman, Santiago, prepares for and then experiences a three-day fishing trip. The first night, before he sets out on his trip, Santiago dreams of Africa. The narrator notes:

''He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.''

On his second day at sea, Santiago stays awake, dragging the huge marlin hooked on his fishing line. He is tired; he wishes he could sleep and dream of the lions. He says to himself, ''Why are the lions the main thing that is left?''

On the second night at sea, Santiago sleeps. Initially he dreams of porpoises during mating season, leaping into the air. Then he dreams that he is in his bed in the village and is very cold. Then, ''he began to dream of the long yellow beach and he saw the first of the lions come down onto it in the early dark and then the other lions came and he rested his chin on the wood of the bows where the ship lay anchored with the evening off-shore breeze and he waited to see if there would be more lions and he was happy.''

The novella ends with Santiago in bed, resting after his three-day ordeal with the marlin. The last sentence reads:''The old man was dreaming about the lions.''

Santiago's Lions as Symbols

So what are we to make of Santiago's dreams of lions?

Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway compares and contrasts youth to old age. Sometimes he uses symbols to describe aging, and other times Hemingway directly comments on old age.

For example, ''I wish I had the boy,'' Santiago utters when the tasks required of fishing are too hard on his body. While Santiago is literally wishing that the boy Manolin were in the boat to assist him, on a symbolic level, Santiago is wishing he still had more of a boy in him, meaning he wishes he were young again to more easily handle physical tasks.

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