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The Old Man and the Sea Ending: Meaning, Explanation & Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will offer an interpretation of the ending of Ernest Hemingway's 1952 novella 'The Old Man and the Sea' by analyzing the meaning of the sudden appearance of tourists and the ways in which Santiago differs from them.

The Old Man and the Tourists

At the end of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway introduces 'a party of tourists' who may seem out of place. After all, the entire book has painstakingly detailed the quest of the Old Man, Santiago, for a great and elusive fish. Furthermore, there have been very few characters, and all of them live at the Terrace. The abrupt appearance of these tourists and their dismissive comments can be confusing, even frustrating. You've invested a lot of time and sympathy with Santiago. You may even feel like you know him. So, who cares what these tourists think about the remains of Santiago's fish?

Santiago as 'Hemingway Hero'

The answer to this question may lie in an idea that Hemingway has developed throughout the story. Santiago has pursued the great fish for days, suffering exhaustion, injury, and, finally, a losing battle against sharks that devour his prize. However, he endured all of these difficulties as they arose with dignity and practical responses.

Characters that respond to trying circumstances by persistent adherence to a set of principles, or a code, are a recurring feature of Hemingway's fiction. So much so, that this kind of character has become known as the Hemingway Hero.

In a sense, this kind of hero is Hemingway's response to a modern world in which war, technology, and industrialism have radically changed the way that people live. In this new world, old institutions and values, especially religious beliefs, begin to seem meaningless. Santiago, for example, does not put any faith in cosmic forces or greater purposes. Instead, all of his thought and energy is focused on his pursuit of the fish. His suffering has no intrinsic meaning, and so he finds meaning in his responses to immediate circumstances.

Santiago imagines a kinship with the fish he pursues, catches, and tries to defend. He frequently refers to the fish as his 'brother,' and he laments the fact that he must kill him. He remarks on their similarities and their intertwined fate. Both Santiago and the fish are struggling to survive, at the mercy of forces they do not understand, and responding to their circumstances with strength and endurance.

Hemingway Hero vs Modern Values

With these things in mind, let's compare the qualities of Santiago with the tourists.

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