The Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Background

Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, Illinois where his father worked as a doctor and his mother was musician. Hemingway started working with a newspaper before he was eighteen. At eighteen, at the height of the First World War, he volunteered to be an ambulance driver in Italy. His experiences in the front, the injuries he suffered and the war itself made a profound impression on him colouring his attitude to life in general. These experiences have been fictionalized in his novel, A Farewell To Arms which many consider his finest book.

While recuperating in Italy, he met and fell in love with a nurse who was seven years older to him. Though they had informally decided to get married once the war was over, she broke up, an incident that coloured all his future relationships with women. Soon he moved to Paris and became a part of the writer’s scene over there. Most of his writing is marked by that spare, pared down style that he perfected. It became fashionable for all further writers to emulate it though few did it with equal success. For Hemingway, along with war, big time hunting, adventure and masculine adrenaline charged sports like bull fighting held lifelong fascination.

Towards the end of his career, Hemingway had trouble producing work that could match up to his own earlier standards. His Across the River into the Trees was published after a gap of ten years, a period marked by accidents and ill health that nearly took his life. Writing the book was laborious; an effort that critics thought produced a poor imitation of his earlier works. That was in 1950. In 1952, came the Old Man and the Sea, a novella that vindicated Hemingway’s standing as one of the finest writers of the 20th century. This work won for Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and very likely, the Nobel Prize too.

Summary

Santiago is a champion fisherman who has fallen on bad times. He has gone for eighty-four days without a catch and the local fishermen have branded him ‘salao’, the person with the worst kind of bad luck that can ever befall anyone. Santiago’s story of bad luck has spread so far that Manolin, who is Santiago’s apprentice, has been banned from associating with Santiago by his parents. But Manolin continues to serve Santiago bringing him food and hauling in his nets. On the eighty fifth day, Santiago sails far into the Gulf Stream beyond the shallow coastal waters frequented by the local fishermen. Sometime around noon, he feels a tug on the lines that he knows must have been made by a large fish like a marlin. Santiago hooks the fish but he is not able to pull it in because the fish is too powerful for him. The fish pulls the skiff far out into the sea.

The old man does not want to tie the line as he fears that the line might snap when the fish pulls so. He ends up taking the strain of the pulling fish and keeping the skiff erect, on his body. His back, neck and hands are sore and his hands are bleeding. For two full days and nights, the marlin pulls the boat this way and that. Tired and hungry, the old man perseveres. He is filled with admiration for the fish and thinks of it as a brother. But all hunts end in a death. The old man kills the fish with a harpoon. The marlin is one of the largest he has seen and to keep it safe, he lashed it to the outside of his boat and turns home.

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The blood from the marlin that flows into the sea attracts sharks and it is not long before they begin attacking the carcass. Santiago kills the first shark using his harpoon but in the process his harpoon breaks. He fashions a crude spear tying an ordinary knife to an oar. Though it is effective for the moment, Santiago soon finds that more and more sharks preying on the marlin. Santiago feels it is useless to protect his catch any more. He chastises himself for losing such a worthy opponent with whom he had felt a kinship. He feels that he should not have ventured out so far into the ocean. Soon there is nothing left of the marlin except the skeleton. Santiago is completely exhausted by the time he reaches home and falls asleep as soon as he falls down, arms outstretched, in his shack.

In the morning a knot of inquisitive tourists gather around the small boat that still bears the skeleton of the marlin. When it is measured, they find it to be 18ft, a truly outstanding specimen but they mistake it for a shark. Manolin who has been worried for Santiago’s safety arrives there and is moved to tears by the sight of the sleeping man. Manolin fetches him coffee and newspapers with baseball news and waits for him to wake up. When the old man wakes up briefly, they plan to go fishing again. Santiago falls asleep once again and he dreams again of the lions that play on the beach in Africa.

Plot

Santiago was once upon a time a champion fisherman but he has now fallen upon bad times and he is considered to be unlucky. “Salao” is what the other fishermen call him. Manolin, his boy apprentice has been told by his parents not to associate with the old man as they think some of his bad luck will rub off on him. Eight four days have already gone past without a catch and the old man decides to try his luck by going farther afield into the Gulf Stream leaving behind the shallow coastal waters. On the eight fifth day, the old man sets out early in the morning and drops a line a hundred fathoms deep and waits. Around noon, he feels the bait taken by a large fish, very likely, a marlin. He hooks the fish expertly but cannot bring it in. Unexpectedly, the fish starts pulling the boat out into the sea with unusual strength. The old man does not want to lose the fish so he gives it more and line. He is worried the taut line might snap if he pulls too hard.

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The fish races and plunges and the old man takes the strain of the movement on his arms, his shoulders and his back. The line cuts into his hands and they bleed. All the while the old man dreams of the sensation the fish will make when he takes it ashore. The fish pulls for two full days without tiring though it is hooked. The old man begins to have a kind of fraternal love for the fish and admires its spirit that does not allow it to give up. On the third day, the fish tires and starts circling the boat. Though the old man’s heart swells with admiration for the fish, this is a hunt that has to end with the death of the hunted. The old man harpoons the marlin and kills it. Exhilarated by the successful expedition, the old man has a burst of energy and secures the fish to the side of the boat and begins his homeward journey.

The blood from the marlin leaves a trail in the sea that attracts sharks to it. The first shark to arrive is a great mako which the old man kills with a harpoon. But the harpoon breaks in the effort. More sharks arrive which the old man fights using a crude spear and his oars. But he is no match for their sustained attacks and soon most of the marlin is gone. The old man is saddened that he could not protect the marlin from the predators. The marlin had been such a worthy adversary. By the time he reaches the shore, the fish has been reduced to its skeleton and the old man is exhausted. He abandons his boat on the beach and falls to an exhausted sleep in his shack.

In the morning curious tourists spot the boat with its strange cargo. They think the skeleton belongs to a shark. When measured, it is found to be 18ft long. Manolin who has been worried sick over the old man’s long absence is moved to tears seeing the old man sleeping. He fetches coffee and the newspapers that carry baseball news for the old man and waits. When the old man wakes briefly, they talk about the possibility of once again going fishing as a team. Once again he falls asleep and the recurring dream of the lions playing on the beach comes to him.

Characters

Santiago, the old man who at one time was a champion fisherman is the hero of the novella, The Old Man and the Sea. But when the story opens, he is the butt of jokes that refer to him as “salao” meaning the man who has the worst kind of bad luck. This is because he has gone for eighty four days without a catch. Even his apprentice Manolin has been told by his parents to work with someone else who has better luck. The old man’s heroic status begins to develop when he leaves the safety of the shallow coastal waters and sails into the Gulf Stream where dangers lurk. The subsequent battle with the marlin which is the stronger of the two and takes the old man farther out to the sea firmly establishes the old man’s credentials as a hero in the classic mould. Even though the fight in the sea nearly destroys Santiago, it is really a reaffirmation of life. Classical heroes can be destroyed but they cannot be defeated.

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Even while the epic struggle with the huge fish is going on, the old man recognizes the power and the strength of the fish. He feels a kinship with the fish, referring to it as his brother. When the old man and his apprentice make plans to fish together again, there is a promise of everlasting life; the old man’s skill will live long after he is gone. Like other classical heroes before him, Santiago also suffers hubris – punishment for overweening pride. When he catches the marlin, he does not think of the consequences but thinks only of the money the catch will bring in. Later when the sharks have destroyed the marlin, he realizes the consequences of his pride. It is his pride in his craft and his stoic determination that lets him hold fast for three days though he is drained of energy and at the edge of delirium. Very often the novelist describes his hero using Christ like imagery. The wounds he gets on his palms where the line bites into his flesh resemble the stigmata of Christ and later when he stumbles into his shack spent and almost lifeless, he falls with his arms outstretched in a position that recalls the crucifixion. The physical suffering that the old man undergoes leads to his spiritual salvation and the promise of eternal life.

Manolin

Manolin, the fisherman’s boy apprentice is the only other character in the novella, The Old Man and the Sea. Though his role is minor, it is needed to bring in another human element into the story. In Manolin’s devotion to the old fisherman, we see him as a person. Though his parents don’t want him to associate with Santiago as he is “salao”, or unlucky, Manolin is still devoted to his the old fisherman. When he sees the old man after three days, when he was missing from his shack, Manolin is moved to tears to see he is alive.