Theme of Isolation in The Old Man and the Sea

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the theme of isolation from Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea', which is a short story about an old fisherman who is a lonely widower on an extended streak of bad luck.


'Cast Away' starring Tom Hanks is the story of a man who is the sole survivor of a plane crash that finds himself on a deserted island with nothing to keep him company except a volleyball he names Wilson. One of the themes of the movie is about retaining his sanity while he is isolated from all human contact. The theme of a story is the main subject that the story is about. Like 'Cast Away', one of the themes of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea deals with isolation. Isolation is being secluded from others. Sometimes isolation is a good thing and sometimes it is not. Let's look at some examples that are involved with the theme of isolation in this short story.

The Lonely Widower

The narrator introduces Santiago as 'an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.' He did not necessarily want to fish alone, but after 40 days without a catch, the boy who once fished with him, Manolin, was forced by his parents to work on another boat. Although they do not fish together, Manolin cares for the old man by helping him carry his things to his shack each day and making sure he is fed.

Except for Manolin, Santiago really has no one. The other fishermen make fun of Santiago because of his bad luck or they pity him, but only Manolin really looks after him. Living alone in his shack, the place is decorated with a few of his deceased wife's remnants. The narrator writes, 'Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.' The impression is that Santiago is an old, forgotten widower who barely manages a meager existence through the help of his only friend.

Catching the Marlin

Generally, fishermen remain quiet while at work so they don't scare away the fish, but since Manolin is no longer with him, Santiago has started talking to himself. He knows that others will think he is crazy if they hear him talking, but he doesn't care because he enjoys the company.

After the marlin takes the bait, Santiago wishes Manolin was with him so he could get some help bringing it in. He thinks, 'No one should be alone in their old age, he thought. But it is unavoidable.' As friends, spouses, and family members die, those who survive the longest are forced to live in isolation. When night falls and he has still not brought the marlin in, Santiago 'looked cross the sea and knew how alone he was now.' At this point, Santiago's hand is cramping and he sees a hurricane forming in the distance. He feels vulnerable and weak in this moment and wishes someone was there to help him, but then he saw some ducks 'and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.'

When the marlin jumps out of the water, Santiago is impressed with its great size. He has caught huge fish before, but this is the first time he has ever tried to catch one like this on his own. It becomes a challenge of wits to see if he can manage to persuade the marlin to come close enough to harpoon. Even though Santiago doesn't want to be alone, the only way he can prove himself is if he brings in this huge fish on his own.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account