Theme of Strength in The Old Man and the Sea

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

There are a number of themes that come into play in Ernest Hemingway's, ''The Old Man and the Sea.'' In this lesson, we will go over the theme of strength and how it is used to develop the plot of the story.

What is Strength?

Strength can be defined and measured in many different ways. It can be defined as the ability to be physically strong by exerting great force; or, it can be defined as the mental or emotional ability to endure great stress or hardships. If you sit back and think about it, you can probably come up with many examples of people who have exhibited great strength. For example:

  • A parent who can suddenly find the strength to lift a wreckage that has collapsed on their child.
  • An athlete who is physically exhausted, yet still finds the strength to complete a race.
  • A military member who spends years away from their family in war torn locations.
  • A student who struggles in academics, but still studies and works their hardest to succeed.

Like the examples above, there are different types of strength that show up in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. In this lesson, we will go over examples of this theme and discuss how it impacts the story's characters and plot.

Strength: The Old Man and the Sea

As mentioned, there are different elements of strength that show up in this story. The obvious, is the physical and mental strength that is shown as Santiago is out to sea. Additionally, the strong bond between Santiago and Manolin, adds to the overall theme of strength by bringing in an emotional dynamic. These are the elements we will cover as we go over the impact of strength on this short story.

Physical Strength

It is not difficult to determine that physical strength is a clear theme for this story. From the very beginning, Manolin and Santiago discuss the old fisherman's strength and abilities to continue his work on the sea. After a long streak of bad luck, Santiago believes he can push his efforts further by relying on more than just strength. Their discussion focuses on the idea that strength is important, but it is not everything when it comes to fishing.

  • '''I may not be as strong as I think', the old man said, 'But I know many tricks and I have resolution''' (p. 5).

When Santiago realizes he is about to catch a great Marlin he begins to physically struggle against the fish's size and reluctance to get caught. After days of baiting the Marlin, Santiago harpoons it, but is then forced to fight off sharks. His strength is tested repeatedly at a time when he is mentally and physically exhausted. It is skill, not strength, that enables Santiago to defeat the first shark; he states:

  • ''The dentuso is cruel and able and strong and intelligent. But I was more intelligent than he was'' (p. 29).

Just as he and Manolin had discussed, physical strength is important, but sometimes resolution and skill are more important for a fisherman. In the end, Santiago was injured; however, he survived against the sharks because of his tricks and resolution.

Mental Strength

The theme of mental strength is best revealed by the dialog Santiago shares with himself while out to sea. He speaks of loneliness, self-doubt, and pain; however, he then talks himself out of these negative frames of mind. Every time he says something defeating, he is quick to retort with a motivating or uplifting response.

  • '''He took about forty pounds,' the old man said aloud… 'Think about something cheerful, old man,' he said. 'Every minute now you are closer to home. You sail lighter for the loss of forty pounds''' (p. 29).
  • ''What will you do now if they come in the night? What can you do? 'Fight them,' he said. 'I'll fight them until I die''' (p. 32).

Santiago's self-talk demonstrates a great amount of mental strength that clearly helped him survive his difficult days at sea. Santiago's experience proves that mental strength may be more important than physical strength when it comes to facing defeat.

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