‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway is about Santiago, the old man and the three days and three nights that he spends at the sea, all by himself and his marvelous catch – the marlin fish. The ‘Old Man’ from the title is Santiago and Hemingway addresses him this way throughout the book.
Manolin was around 5-years-old when he was introduced to the Old Man by his parents. Santiago cherished the first time that he had caught a fish with Manolin; how the fish was still alive, wiggling its tail that scared the young boy.
When for forty days Santiago accompanied by Manolin went without a single catch, the young boy’s parents told him that the Old Man was ‘salao’ meaning unlucky. His parents put him in another boat and within the first week itself, three fishes were caught.
The lonely, Old Man living in a shack with bare necessities on the shore was indeed in the times of bad luck. He had taken down the picture of his wife which had made him feel lonelier. It was Manolin who sometimes brought food, coffee, and newspaper for the old man and talked about baseball. While other fishermen mocked and laughed at Santiago, it was Manolin who respected the Old Man and had faith in his abilities.
Santiago ate white eggs all through May to give him strength in September and October to catch big fishes. He also drank a cup of shark liver oil each day. The other fishermen hated the taste but Santiago had realized that anyways a fisherman’s life is harsh; waking up at early hours and facing the odds.
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
For eighty-four days, Santiago had not caught a single fish. But, instead of distress, Santiago felt confident that his luck would favor him on the eighty-fifth day at Sea. With this thought, Santiago had slept nicely and had dream about lions playing on the sea beach. Usually, he would dream about storms, fishes, fights, women or his wife.
On the morning of the eighty-fifth day, he woke up very early and set sail in his skiff.
“The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.”
By noon, he was able to catch a big fish, surely a marlin but instead of the Old Man dragging it back to the shore, the fish sets the course. Santiago is pulled far into the sea, without the land in sight. His sole companion in this vast expanse of sea is this huge fish.
Santiago’s relationship with the Sea
When Santiago had set sail and was led some distance at Sea, he saw the fluorescence of the Gulf weed in water indicative of a large number of shrimps, squids and bait fishes. It made him think of the hardship of the birds, sometimes going hungry without catching a fish. He thought of them as delicate creatures except for robber fish and strong ones and how cruel the sea is to them.
“Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.”
The young fishermen who used newer means of fishing addressed the ‘Sea’ as masculine. But, for Santiago, ‘Sea’ was always a woman, just like a woman being affected by the moon. Santiago holds a strong bond with the Sea.
“It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it.”
At Sea, Santiago talked to himself. In the earlier times, he used to sing and with Manolin in the boat, they only spoke when it was necessary, at night or during storm bound weather. During this venture, he was talking to himself to be entertained. The rich fishermen had a radio in their boats that brought them news about the baseball. But, the Old Man had nothing except his thoughts to keep him entertained.
Hemingway’s knowledge at the sea and fishing is evident in the way he develops Santiago’s character. The Old Man shows his knowledge on how dolphins are caught, skinned and cut from each side, head to toe. And, when Santiago contemplates on another night at sea perceiving the fish to continue its sail, he has no food and is running low on water. He anticipates whether to eat dolphin or a flying fish, obviously eating it raw without nauseating and maintaining physical strength. There is so much information on a fisherman’s life at sea that it is overwhelming to read.
Old Man and the Fish
After much effort when the Old Man had caught the big fish finally, he felt sorry for the fish. He didn’t want the fish to go hungry and thought of the people who would feed on this fish. There was repentance in Santiago for having caught this fish, he deemed the fish brave, an equal.
‘This fish is my friend too…I have never seen or heard of such a fish…There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.’
The tussle with the fish reminds him of a similar feat of strength at Casablanca, a fistfight that continued from Sunday morning to Monday morning. It was Santiago who had finally won. So for now, after almost two days of meager sleep and meals of raw fish alongwith cramp and the wound was, ‘I could not fail myself and die on a fish like this.’ Will a similar feat of strength be orchestrated between the Old Man and the fish is where Hemingway draws us to?
Under these harsh conditions, Santiago wishes the boy to be there, Manolin could have helped him handle the situation. He saw a little bird and spoke to it, thinking about the hawks that fly above the ocean.
Once this dark purple striped fish with a long sword nose was two feet longer than the skiff reveals completely to Santiago, he couldn’t believe his eyes. This was the biggest fish that Santiago had ever seen in his life. He now falls on faith and religion, even though he admits that he is non-religious but chant ‘hail Marys‘ if the fish is caught.
A Fortune at Stake
Santiago’s prized fish would weigh over fifteen hundred pounds and if he could dress two-thirds of it, then he could make a fortune at thirty cents a pound. As Santiago set his sail for the south-west, a shark smelt the blood in the deep sea and came to attack the Old Man’s catch. The old man had the strength in him to hit the shark with a harpoon and kill it. But it led to a trail of sharks who took bites into the fish, though Santiago steadily kept fighting with the sharks. By night, he was able to save atleast half the fish but by morning, nothing was left.
Finally, the Old Man reached Havana. He reached his shack and went off to sleep. While Manolin tended to Santiago, the fishermen on the shore were busy inspecting the skiff. What was left of the great fish was measured eighteen feet from nose to tail.
The book ends with a tourist asking about the skeleton on the shore and a waiter replying it to be a shark. She replies, ‘I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.’ And, Manolin having decided to stay with Santiago is at his shack while the Old Man dozed off to dream about the lions.
‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’.