The Old Man & The Sea by Ernest Hemingway: Summary, Symbolism & Themes

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Megan Pryor

Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

In this lesson we will learn about Ernest Hemingway's short novel, The Old Man and the Sea. After we discuss the novel's plot, we will analyze its main symbols and themes. A short quiz will follow.

We also recommend watching Symbolism & Imagery in Literature: Definitions & Examples and Elements of Drama: Characters, Plot, Setting & Symbolism

Introduction

Ernest Hemingway was a popular minimalist writer. He was born at the turn of the century, in 1899, and wrote up until he committed suicide in 1961. Unlike many writers, he went on a lot of adventures in his life, including working as an ambulance driver during World War I in Italy, a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and going on an African safari. Hemingway was a minimalist writer. Minimalism is defined as writing that is whittled down to the basics with the greatest weight of the work put on context rather than the use of extensive descriptive language. During his life, he published several novels and short story collections, but several of his works were published posthumously, too.

The Old Man and the Sea was the last novel Hemingway published before his death. In 1951, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in two months while in Cuba. He was proud of his own work. The slim novel received a lot of critical and commercial success. It was a major factor in Hemingway being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and the Noble Prize in Literature in 1954. The novel is still widely taught in schools today.

Ernest Hemingway, Minimalist Author
Photo of Ernest Hemingway

Summary

At only 27,000 words The Old Man and the Sea is a fairly short novel. The main character, Santiago, is a down-on-his-luck Spanish fisherman in Cuba. Everyone looks down on him because it has been so long since he has caught a fish. His only friend is his apprentice, Manolin, who believes in him even though Manolin's family wishes he would not. One day, after a dream about his youth, Santiago takes his boat out farther than any of the other fisherman. He hooks a marlin, but it takes him two nights and two days to battle the fish to the point of exhaustion. When the fish is finally defeated, Santiago is exhausted and wounded (the line having cut into his palms), but the hardest part of the experience is yet to come: he still has to bring the massive fish carcass back to shore. Santiago starts sailing home, but the bleeding fish carcass, which he has roped to the side of his boat, attracts sharks. Santiago battles the sharks unsuccessfully. There are too many of them and they eat the flesh off the fish. When Santiago finally makes it back home with the skeleton, he leaves the skeleton by the boat and carries the mast of the boat back to his home. Once home, he collapses in bed and falls asleep. Meanwhile the villagers see the skeleton and are impressed by its length (18 feet). Manolin, relieved that Santiago is safe again, makes plans with him to go fishing together. Santiago falls back asleep and dreams the same dream that prompted him to go fishing in the first place.

Symbolism

Overview

Hemingway definitely used symbolism in his books. He even talked about it in reference to The Old Man and the Sea. He mentioned how each item in his book--the fish, for example--had two levels: the literal (the fish) and a deeper meaning.

The Marlin

The marlin is one of the biggest symbols in The Old Man and the Sea. The marlin is, of course, first and foremost a fish. As a fish, it has an important role in the book. Santiago, a fisherman, has experienced social isolation because of his inability to perform his job and catch a single fish. Everyone else views him as bad luck. Santiago could just have caught a fish and then gone back to shore immediately. Instead, he wrestles with the fish for two days and two nights and is wounded in the process. He speaks to the fish and considers it a worthy opponent. Even though he is determined to catch the marlin, he regrets the necessity, since he respects this particular fish so much because of how hard it struggles. By putting these associations on the fish, Santiago elevates it to the status of a symbol. It is no longer just a fish, but also symbolizes his triumph and rebirth as a respected fisherman.

The Sharks

Santiago has a completely different attitude toward the marlin and the sharks. While he respects the marlin as a worthwhile opponent, the sharks use their numbers and ferociousness to overcome Santiago. They are merely predators attracted by the blood in the water. In many ways, the sharks are a symbol for the other fishermen who think Santiago is bad luck because it has been so long since he caught a fish. They are not worthy of respect from either Santiago or the reader.

Themes

There are many themes in The Old Man and the Sea. As a minimalist author, Hemingway had a knack for saying a lot even while using only a few words.

Struggle

The theme of struggle shows up in several ways in Ernest Hemingway's novel. Santiago struggles socially because the other fishermen believe he is bad luck. He also struggles to perform his job. As a fisherman, he is supposed to catch fish, but at the beginning of the novel it has been almost three months since he caught his last fish.

Santiago's internal struggle is made physical through his struggle with the marlin. Despite his stretch of bad luck, Santiago possesses many qualities of traditional heroes. He is moral, determined, and has an incredible amount of physical strength. Santiago's struggle to subdue the marlin mirrors his internal struggle, and his triumph over the marlin means he is victorious. Even though the sharks eat away at the fish before he can get home, Santiago still has the skeleton to prove that he fought a tremendous battle and is a respectable fisherman. Like good heroes, Santiago does not stick around to brag about his catch, but goes straight home and falls asleep.

Biblical Themes

In addition to the theme of struggle, The Old Man and the Sea has many biblical parallels. Ernest Hemingway converted to Catholicism partway through his life. Despite Hemingway's sparse style, Santiago is clearly a Christ figure. When he is wounded trying to subdue the marlin, his palms are cut, which is reminiscent of the stigmata, also known as the wounds Jesus Christ suffered during his crucifixion. Santiago wrestles with the fish for two days and two nights. This is the same amount of time between Jesus being crucified and his triumphant resurrection. Furthermore, on his way back to his home at the end of the novel, Santiago carries the heavy mast of his boat back up the hill. This physical struggle is akin to Jesus carrying the cross to the place of his crucifixion.

Lesson Summary

Ernest Hemingway's short novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was the last novel he published before he committed suicide. He considered it one of his best works. It won Ernest Hemingway both the Noble Prize in 1954 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. The novel is typical of Hemingway's work, including his minimalist style and is, in part, based on Hemingway's own experience living in Cuba. The novel is about the struggle of an old Spanish fisherman, Santiago, to redeem himself in the eyes of his community. Santiago's struggle is a major theme in the book and exemplified through the additional theme of religion and the symbols of the marlin and the sharks.

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