Old Man and the Sea: Theme Analysis

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Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is the deceivingly simple story of an old Cuban fisherman who undergoes the most difficult struggle of his life. Despite being a relatively short work, the novel is filled not only with drama but with the parable of one man's perseverance through the hardest of times. In the title character, Santiago, Hemingway depicts one of the most distinguished examples in American Literature of an individual looking deep within to summon the courage necessary to get through the triumphs and tragedies that life -- represented by the sea -- presents. 

Alone on the sea, Santiago continuously struggles to find hope in several seemingly hopeless situations. The old man exemplifies Hemingway's ideal of exhibiting "grace under pressure," as he refuses to submit to the overwhelming obstacles presented by the sea. Santiago's attitude seems to be that although he is faced with tragedy -- as everyone is sooner or later in life -- he will not cease struggling. Relying on memories of his youth, news of the Great DiMaggio's recovery from injury, and thoughts of the boy, Santiago finds the strength to physically and emotionally carry on throughout the story. 

After hooking the great marlin Santiago realizes he is unable to quickly kill the fish, and it proceeds to tow him farther out to sea. Yet, throughout the test of endurance between man and fish the old man begins to recognize a bond between he and the marlin, repeatedly referring to it as his brother; he elaborates, "Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either one of us" (50). The old man and the fish are both mere inhabitants among the diverse tropical life residing in the Gulf Stream, bonded by the fact that they are at the mercy of the sea. 

The fish, therefore, transforms from merely being Santiago's prey to serving as a metaphor reflecting the old man's emotional and physical state. When the sharks mutilate the dead marlin hanging off the side of the skiff as Santiago struggles to sail home, the old man fights them off as if they were attacking him. Only when the marlin's carcass has been entirely eaten away does Santiago give up, knowing he "was beaten now finally and without remedy" (119). 

Although the old man seemingly fails once the sharks steal his prize fish, they cannot take away the fact that Santiago -- the primary target for the jest and pity of other fishermen -- has done the unthinkable by staying with and catching a fish "bigger than he had ever heard of" (63). According to the "Hemingway Code," based on principles of courage and endurance, the old man has actually triumphed in spite of his loss. In spite of not successfully bringing the fish back, Santiago fights with dignity -- first to land the marlin, then to protect his fish from the sharks -- and in doing so asserts his humanity. Santiago endures and successfully survives his supreme ordeal, fighting the timeless battle of man vs. fate, with honor by remaining resilient in the face of triumph and tragedy.

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