The story focuses on old Santiago and his two most important relationships: to a young boy, and to nature. Santiago has not caught a fish in many days when the story opens, and his young companion has been forced by his parents to fish on another boat. His love for the old man, however, prompts him to look after his needs nonetheless.
Santiago goes further out than usual and hooks a giant marlin. The major part of this brief and very spare work traces the three days that Santiago fights against this mighty fish. We see not only his courage, strength of will, and knowledge of his craft, but also his deep respect for and understanding of nature.
Santiago defeats the fish, which he addresses as a comrade and fellow-sufferer throughout the struggle, but loses his catch at the end to sharks. The old man returns to port exhausted and with only the skeleton of his great fish.
Hemingway suggests, however, that the old man cannot ultimately be defeated because he conducts himself with dignity and self-respect, no matter what the external circumstances. The young boy lovingly receives him back, heartbroken at Santiago’s suffering but glad for the vindication of the skills of his master.
The story lends itself to many symbolic interpretations. Some see it as an allegory of Hemingway’s life as an artist, laboring alone to realize the elusive prize of art, only to have his efforts torn apart by sharklike critics.
Others emphasize the distilled expression here of the famous Hemingway code: courage, endurance, suffering without complaint, and the like. If so, the code has been expanded somewhat to include humility, pity, loyalty, and love--though life is no less killing for these things.
Brenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.
Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.
Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.
Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.
Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s roots in previous Hemingway works and discusses Santiago as a “code hero,” as distinct from a “Hemingway hero.” Claims simple interpretation of the book’s symbols reduces their meanings.
In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway presents the fisherman Santiago as the ideal man--independent in his action, eager to follow his calling, and willing to take chances in life. The old man's most notable attribute, however, appears to be his unquenchable spirit: no matter how his body is beaten, his spirit remains undefeated, undefeatable, through all trials.
Even in his squalid existence, the old man is proud, saying that he will have fish to eat at home, even though he knows he hasn't any. He prefers hunger to shame. Also, Santiago faces risk by choosing to go "too far out." Ignoring the hardships involved in his duel with the great fish, Santiago catches the marlin, thus justifying his pride and reliance upon himself. His attitude toward this great fish shows the true extent of his honor, for he takes pride in the strength and endurance of his opponent, calling it his brother. To die battling such a powerful fish would not be dishonorable. In a strange way, Santiago loves the fish even as his kills it. The carcass of the fish is devoured by sharks, much as Santiago's body is torn; but the skeleton, along with the old man's inner spirit, remain unconquered.
As Hemingway once wrote, "Courage is grace under pressure," and this definition suits Santiago's courage perfectly. Santiago never gives in to fear or recriminations. He does not whine about his bad luck, nor does he blame the hand which temporarily betrays him, the marlin who challenges his strength, or the sharks who steal his catch. Instead, he does the best he can, without complaint or boasting. He honors the marlin for its dignity and tries to protect it against the sharks who would ravage it. To Santiago, it takes little courage to strike the sharks with his harpoon, with his oar, with his knife. He wishes only that he had brought a stone so he could keep fighting. For one brief moment, Santiago accepts defeat, saying, "I never knew how easy it is when you're beaten." But, of course, Santiago is not beaten. He has the courage left to return home, to drag himself to his hut, to face Manolin, and to accept the loss of his greatest catch. This, too, takes courage.
If DiMaggio can endure his bone spur, if the great fish can bear to pull the weight of his boat, then a simple old man can at least endure the discomforts of his existence. To Santiago, his hands, unwilling to open, responsive only to pain, have minds of their own and are traitors to his will. Even when his ordeal at sea is over, the old man, by himself, must carry home the mast of his ship, a symbol of his burden and suffering. He may be old, but he still has the endurance of El Campeon.
He dreams of days long gone by--of hand-wrestling and of golden lions on the beach of Africa. He tries to be like Joe DiMaggio who overcame pain (a bone spur) and believes the baseball player would be proud of him. Santiago has faith that he can be like the sea turtle whose heart keeps beating even in death, and so the old man will never give up. At the end "something is broken inside," but the old man's eyes remain alive. The body may be weak, temporary,vulnerable; the spirit is enduring, invincible, eternal. Although he prays and promises to say hundreds of Hail Mary's, Santiago's faith is in himself, not in God. When anyone else would give up, Santiago and Manolin have faith in each other and make plans to fish together. The very last line foreshadows the old man's renewal in his dreams about the lions of his youth.
Our battles are not with marlins, with sharks, with poverty, or even with old age; yet we all struggle against some foe at some time in our lives. Hemingway has created a character whose experience can help us in our own battles. Santiago shows us that defeat lies only in refusing the battle, not in losing the fight.