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The Old Man and the Sea: Summary, Characters & Themes

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  • 0:01 The Old Man and the Sea
  • 1:50 Santiago & Manolin
  • 3:05 Santiago vs. the Marlin
  • 4:04 Sharks & Santiago's Return
  • 5:54 Themes
  • 9:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Old Man and the Sea was the last novel Ernest Hemingway published before killing himself in 1961. In many ways, the novel gives us a glimpse into the award-winning author's mind as this story's events and themes connect to Hemingway's life.

Hemingway and 'The Old Man and the Sea'

Have you ever heard someone tell a tall tale about the day they caught the biggest fish in the sea? Well, Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea creatively tells the story of an old man who struggles to reel in an enormous marlin. But, it is actually about much more than a guy and a fish. We're going to examine how Hemingway uses this seemingly simplistic plot to convey two important themes: there's dignity in determination and religion can connect people to the cyclical nature of life. This novel also gives us a glimpse into Hemingway's mind, as it was sadly the last novel he had published before killing himself in 1961.

Hemingway wrote this novel ten years before his death while living in Cuba. He was a big fan of Cuba, but he wasn't Cuban. He was a native of Illinois who traveled a great deal and often lived abroad in places like France and Cuba.

He also went on hunting safaris in Africa and enjoyed big fishing trips. Hemingway's love of fishing and his time in Cuba presumably inspired this novel.

The Old Man and the Sea was first published in its entirety in Life Magazine in 1951. It received a great deal of praise from critics and became a bestseller. Even Hemingway (who had become quite a morose alcoholic) was proud of his work, and in 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And, thanks in part to The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Hemingway was often praised for his minimalist style, which meant he was able to convey a great deal while using very few words. He avoids lengthy descriptions and focuses more on context. Hopefully, after you learn more about this novel, you will want to read it yourself to see just how skillfully Hemingway uses his minimalist technique.

Santiago and Manolin

The main character in The Old Man and the Sea is an old man named Santiago, who is a fisherman in Cuba. Santiago hasn't had any luck at sea for 84 days. He's poor and looked down on by the younger and much luckier fishermen.

He would be completely alone were it not for a young boy named Manolin. Manolin used to be Santiago's apprentice and still believes in him, even though Manolin's family wishes he wouldn't.

Even though Manolin now works for a more successful fisherman, he continues to spend time with Santiago, bringing him fresh bait and food. Santiago humbly accepts these gifts and enjoys talking with the boy.

As a fan of the Yankees and of 'the great DiMaggio', whose father was a fisherman, Santiago likes talking about baseball with Manolin. Santiago seems to admire baseball legend Joe DiMaggio as much as Manolin admires Santiago. Manolin even declares that Santiago is the greatest fisherman. Santiago is touched by this.

That night he has a recurring dream in which he sees lions playing on an African beach, which is something he saw as a child. This may seem random right now, but it's actually significant and we'll come back to it.

Santiago vs. the Marlin

The next day, Santiago takes his skiff way out beyond where the other fishermen's boats are, hoping to catch a big fish.

Fortunately, he hooks a giant marlin. This fish is so big that it pulls his boat along. Determined to wear this marlin out by playing a very strategic game of tug-of-war, Santiago engages in a battle with the fish that lasts two days and two nights.

During that time, Santiago deals with the pain of wounded hands, since they get cut by the fishing line. He also endures an aching back and a painfully cramped up hand, all while keeping a firm grip on the fishing line that has hooked the massive marlin. Though he struggles to maintain his hold on the fish, and repeatedly wishes that Manolin were there to help him, he never considers giving up and letting the fish go. Thankfully, Santiago wins the man vs. fish battle. But now he faces an even bigger challenge: getting the marlin back to shore.

The Sharks and Santiago's Return

It turns out that the fish is so big that he can't load the carcass into his boat. So, Santiago straps the bloody fish to the side of his boat. By doing that, Santiago basically invites every shark for miles around to come enjoy a ton of free fish. Try as he might to bravely fend off the sharks by stabbing them in the head with his spear, Santiago loses more and more of the fish as each shark takes massive bites out of the marlin.

Although there's nothing left of the fish but its 18-foot skeleton, Santiago is grateful to have made it back to shore alive. Too weak and exhausted to deal with the remains, he leaves the fish skeleton by the boat and slowly carries the boat's mast back up the hill to his little shack where he falls asleep. In the morning, everyone is impressed by the extensive fish skeleton and Manolin is relieved that Santiago is okay.

After talking to Manolin, Santiago goes back to sleep and has the same dream that he had before going on this adventurous fishing trip. Remember the dream about the lions playing on the beach? Well, that's what Santiago dreams of again as the book ends. The memory of lions playing like young cats on the beach represents Santiago's yearning for the past, for easier times.

Let's not forget that Hemingway wrote this during a difficult time in his life. Though he had become a very successful writer, he suffered from alcoholism and depression, was on his fourth marriage, and he hadn't had a major literary work published in ten years before he wrote 'The Old Man and the Sea.'

So, a little reminiscing about the good ol' days seemed in order for Hemingway, and similarly for old Santiago. Also, remember how Hemingway loved going on African hunting safaris? Well, that also makes this lion dream seem even more fitting.

Themes

Now that we know and understand what happens in 'The Old Man and the Sea', let's discuss two of its powerful themes, or central ideas.

Catholicism is used in different ways to point to the cyclical nature of life. When the fishing line cuts Santiago's palms it is reminiscent of Christ's stigmata.

Santiago also promises God that he'll say 100 'Hail Marys' and 100 'Our Fathers' in the hopes that God will help him endure and survive the struggle with this fish in spite of his pain and exhaustion.

Santiago's success with the marlin gives him hope for his future. He will no longer be the failing fisherman but the victor of his village. His religion helps him experience a sense of renewal.

Later, when he sees the first shark he lets out a sound that is described as, 'a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.' When an exhausted Santiago struggles to carry the skiff's mast up the hill, he carries it across his shoulders, much like Christ was forced to bear a wooden cross.

Finally, when he reaches his shack, Santiago collapses onto his bed, where he 'slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up.' This description conjures up the image of Christ suffering on the cross.

In the morning, Manolin comes to Santiago's shack just as he has every day since Santiago left. He is so relieved to see Santiago sleeping that it makes him cry. The villagers marvel at the huge fish's skeleton, and thus Santiago's old reputation as the extremely unlucky fisherman has died, and a heroic image of a fisherman who endured a great deal rose up in its place. Someday when Santiago dies, his memory and his teachings will live on in Manolin. All of this helps illustrate the theme: religion can connect people to the cyclical nature of life, which parallels the biblical story of Jesus Christ.

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