Setting of The Old Man and the Sea: Description & Importance

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Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Ernest Hemingway thought so much of the importance of ~'The Old Man and the Sea's~' setting that he included it in the title. In this lesson, you'll learn more about the setting of the novella and why it's important. Updated: 09/17/2021

''The Old Man and the Sea'': Setting

Think about your favorite book. Maybe you like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or perhaps you favor J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Compare it to Ernest Hemingway's famous novella, The Old Man and the Sea, and you'll immediately notice an important difference: it's in the title.

Hemingway placed so much importance on the setting, or surroundings where events take place, of his book about the aged fisherman's struggle with his great catch that he gave it permanent placement in the title itself. Hence the title, The Old Man and the Sea.

Though the opening and closing of the novella show the characters in a small fishing village, the bulk of the story is presented during the fisherman's struggle on the sea in his small boat. Hemingway takes great pains to describe the fisherman's surroundings, calling the water ''dark blue'' and ''almost purple'' and describing the fish jumping through the current.

This setting makes for great storytelling as the old man battles for the fish while having to fight with the elements, as well as the sea itself. Much of Hemingway's description of the old man is based on his interactions on, and with, the sea. It's extremely important to the story, which is why it's included in the title.

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Importance of the Sea

Hemingway's attention to the sea, as we've noted, is apparent from the very beginning, and we can't understate its importance to the novella. Why is the setting so significant in this text? Here are some possible reasons:

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Additional Activities

The Old Man and the Sea Writing Activity

Short-Answer Essay Questions

For this activity, you will respond to the following short-answer essay questions about The Old Man and the Sea. Write 2-3 well-developed paragraphs for each question, and make sure to include text evidence whenever possible to support your answers.

  1. Describe the relationship between Santiago, the old man, and the sea. Is the old man's relationship with the sea mostly positive or negative? Explain.
  2. Analyze the following quote from the book: "No man was ever alone on the sea." What does this quote mean? Explain.
  3. How does the setting of The Old Man and the Sea relate to the theme of defeat? Explain with specific details from the novella.

Possible Response to Question #3:

Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago struggles with the sea and other elements of nature. At the beginning of the novella, it is revealed that the old man has gone 84 days without catching a fish. This means that for nearly three months, the old man, who is a fisherman, has been defeated by the sea.

Toward the end of the novella, Santiago is once again bested by nature. After he catches the magnificent marlin, sharks come along and devour his impressive catch. Once again, Santiago faces defeat, and he returns home empty-handed. However, the old man does not see his losses as defeats. He says that "a man can be destroyed but not defeated." This suggests that although the sea defeated him physically, it did not defeat his spirit.

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