Theme & Role of Luck 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 luck from Ernest Hemingway's ''The Old Man and the Sea''. In this short story, Santiago's break might be coming after a long streak of bad luck.


The musical group Cream's hit, 'Born Under a Bad Sign' lamented, ''If it wasn't for bad luck, I would have no luck at all…'' Luck is good fortune that is brought about by coincidence. In The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Santiago, the fisherman, experiences both good luck and bad luck. Luck is one of the central themes, or main points, of this short story. Let's look at some examples of luck from this story.

A Long Streak of Bad Luck

At the beginning of the story, Santiago is on his 84th straight day of not catching any fish. At one point, a boy named Manolin helped him on his boat, ''But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.'' Now Santiago fishes alone, but the boy still helps him carry his things at the end of the day.

Even though Manolin's parents have written Santiago off as unlucky, Santiago still maintains hope. He tells Manolin, ''Eighty-five is a lucky number…How would you like to see me bring one in that dressed out over a thousand pounds?'' Maybe Santiago's luck is about to change.

Luck Changes

Unlike many of the other fishermen, Santiago is very diligent about keeping his lines precise. As he sets them, he thinks, ''Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.'' Santiago gets the payoff he has been working towards when a marlin that weighs over a thousand pounds is hooked on his lines. This leads the reader to wonder how much luck has to do with it.

As he is waiting for the marlin to tire enough to bring in, Santiago catches another fish to eat raw while he is waiting. After catching a tuna, Santiago thinks, ''It is a strong full-blooded fish…I was lucky to get him instead of dolphin. Dolphin is too sweet. This is hardly sweet at all and all the strength is still in it.'' Unfortunately, it doesn't taste as good without lime and salt, but it is Santiago's fault that he was not prepared.

Is Luck Really Happenstance?

After he finally harpoons the marlin, Santiago realizes his mistake when it is time to bring it back to shore. After the sharks attack, Santiago thinks, ''Maybe I'll have the luck to bring the forward half in. I should have some luck. No, he said. You violated your luck when you went too far outside.'' Although Santiago attributes his successes and failures to luck, he knows that it is his own fault that he went too far out to sea, providing the sharks with too much opportunity to attack.

Santiago realizes that getting home safely is more important than bringing the fish in after he injures himself. He thinks, ''Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her? I would take some though in any form and pay what they asked. I wish I could see the glow from the lights, he thought. I wish too many things. But that is the thing I wish for now.''

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