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Symbolism of the Marlin in The Old Man and the Sea

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  • 0:04 Big Fish, Little Old Man
  • 0:30 Redemption
  • 1:16 Communion
  • 2:06 Martyrdom
  • 3:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joe Ricker
The marlin in 'The Old Man and the Sea' isn't just a fish; it also offers the reader a much wider perspective of Hemingway's literary prowess as it brings forward many religious symbols. Learn more about them in this lesson.

Big Fish, Little Old Man

Santiago's three-day struggle to bring in the biggest catch of his life means more than just the end of a long streak of unsuccessful fishing. The 1,500-pound marlin that Santiago brings in symbolizes Communion, martyrdom, and redemption. Because the fish is attacked by sharks only an hour after Santiago has landed it and is ultimately destroyed, the meaning of the fish to The Old Man and the Sea expands beyond the pages of Hemingway's novella.

Redemption

Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish. The other fisherman look upon him as nothing more than bad luck. Manolin, the boy that Santiago usually fishes with, is forced by his parents to go out to sea with other fisherman.

On his first day out, Santiago hooks into the giant marlin and spends the next three days being pulled out to sea by the great fish. During the ordeal, Santiago suffers from lacerations on his hands from the fishing line, exhaustion, and doubt in his ability to land the fish. Santiago successfully overcomes his struggle and the fish, finally pulling it in close enough to harpoon the marlin through the heart. Not only does the catch end Santiago's 84-day stretch of bad luck, but it's the biggest fish he has ever caught, bringing a symbolic meaning of redemption to the marlin.

Communion

The Old Man and the Sea is rife with religious symbolism. The marlin is no exception. In addition to symbolizing redemption for Santiago's unlucky stretch of fishing, it also symbolizes redemption in a religious context. The marlin is a symbol for Christ and Communion, the symbolic ritual of The Last Supper. As Santiago ponders the importance of the most impressive catch in a lifetime of fishing, he thinks upon the fish and says:

'How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.'

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