Posted: March 17th, 2022
Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, narrates the story of an older man named Santiago who fishes for his living. Frustrated by his failure to catch anything for many days, Santiago ventures out into the ocean, in a very small boat, further than he ever has before, facing multiple struggles and crises. Throughout the story we see references and images to both youth and to the determination to fight great battles against all odds. He repeatedly dreams of seeing young lions playing on a beach in Africa, multiple images of Christ’s crucifixion appear throughout the story, and he revels in the stories of an American baseball player who fights through the effects of age to continue playing. Santiago emphasizes his fixation on growing older by calling his young friend Manolin a “boy” when the story indicates that Manolin is actually a young man. Santiago’s story is the story of a man doing battle with the one force he can never win: the inevitability of age’s effect on the body.
The writer reveals Santiago’s struggles with the physical effects of growing old in a variety of ways. First there is his intense interest in aging baseball players and what he admires about them. Then there are Santiago’s dreams. The references to Christ’s crucifixion evoke other images not only of death but of conquering death. Finally, the author uses the names of major characters to emphasize the issue of age in this story.
Santiago has a friend who clearly is much younger than him by the name of Manolin. Both men’s names indicate Santiago’s struggles with growing old. Although Santiago repeatedly refers to Manolin as a “boy,” this is apparently just an old man’s tendency to emphasize that Manolin still has a lot of living left to do, because the author reveals that Manolin is at least as old as a major league baseball player. The word “man” in Manolin’s name juxtaposed with Santiago’s repeatedly calling him a boy emphasizes Santiago’s struggles with aging.
Santiago’s name is interesting because it contains the word “ago.” Some time ago in the past, Santiago was a great fisherman, so great the people of the village called him “Santiago the Champion.” During the period of this story, however, it is clear that the villagers believe his time has passed. In fact, Manolin’s father wants Manolin to find someone else to fish with because Santiago hasn’t caught a single fish in over 80 days. The “ago” also emphasizes that Santiago remembers when he was younger and more vigorous and dreads the loss of the kind of physical strength it takes to go to sea to fish. Santiago’s body is beginning to fail him, but in his heart and mind he longs to be physically robust.
Santiago’s dreams about the young lions emphasize how he identifies with his youth and resists growing frail. The image of young lions playing on a beach is a vivid one because of the way lions play, intensely and in mock combat. In addition, it brings Santiago back to a time in his life when he was young and strong, sailing around the world. He saw the lions from the deck of a great sailing ship as a young man. He could relate to the young lions playing on the beach then because he was so young and strong himself. In his mind he still sees himself that way. Santiago has lived a full life, but in his dreams he does not dream of other fish he has caught, or of important events in his life. He does not even dream of his wife. He only dreams about the young lions in mock battle on the beach. Santiago wants, more than anything, to be a young lion again.
His fascination with baseball heroes reveals how Santiago believes a man should live his life. He has great admiration for baseball players who keep playing even though they may be past their prime. He particularly admires Joe DiMaggio, who had a long career in baseball. He insists to Manolin that even though baseball is played as a team sport, DiMaggio stands out as a player who remains vigorous. He believes that the Yankees cannot win without DiMaggio even in DiMaggio’s declining years as a ball player.
However, the most revealing information about Santiago’s determination to remain undefeated by age may be in the images of Christ. At one point Santiago is trapped under the mast of his boat, on his back with his arms outstretched. He sleeps in this position, an image of Christ’s death on the cross. But like Christ, he awakens, and somehow makes it back to life, if only for a short time. In the process of trying to catch and hold on to a huge marlin, Santiago’s hands are badly cut. He feels his hands against the wood and thinks of the nails going through Christ’s hands. The Bible says that Christ bore all and endured all, and this is how Santiago believes a man must live his life — even when he is approaching the end of his life. It reminds the reader of the poet who wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night …” Knowing that eventually he must lose, Santiago relishes the battles of life and death.
To Santiago, the battle to catch and then keep the Marlin is ultimately about life and death. He knows that eventually death will have to prevail. He knows that he will die, and that eventually DiMaggio will have to stop playing baseball, a career death. In the story, Santiago’s great struggle with life and death begins when he hooks a huge marlin. The marlin is so strong that it pulls Santiago’s very small boat out to sea. It is a life and death battle between Santiago and the fish. If Santiago catches the marlin, the marlin will die, but Santiago may die himself in the process, because the marlin is pulling him so far out to sea that he may not be able to get back. To many men, they might view such a situation as time to take a knife, cut the line to the fish, and live to fish another day. But to Santiago, it is a great battle, and the triumph comes in how he fights the battle more than whether he lives or dies.
Santiago also admires the marlin. Although eventually Santiago does catch the fish, lashing it to the side of his boat, he recognizes the valiant fight of the fish, and he realizes that the contest may actually end in a draw: Santiago is now in grave danger as a result of his relentless determination to catch the fish. He may also die at sea as a result. By comparison, Santiago has little regard for the sharks who attack his catch because it was easy to do so. Santiago admires the ones in battles where the outcome is uncertain and where tremendous effort will determine who wins and who loses.
At the end of the story the reader has the feeling that Santiago may not live much longer, but now he can die as a warrior. The villagers once again know that Santiago is a great fisherman. They see the head, tail and skeleton of the marlin, Santiago’s proof that once again, perhaps for the last time, and in spite of his age, he fought and one. As he sleeps he dreams again of the young lions. One last time, Santiago was able to be one of the young lions.
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