The Old Man and The Sea by Earnest Hemingway- The Summary & Character Sketch

Updated October 10, 2022

‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Earnest Hemingway is a short Novel and an acclaimed fiction work of 20th century. Instant novel is a tale of an old fisherman viz. Santiago who could not catch a fish for 84 straight days.

The plot of the novel is simple yet gripping. And, the narrative covers a full cycle taking the reader from land to the sea and then back to the land.

Earnest Hemingway was a great 20th century literary figure who received posthumous recognition. His body of work includes “the Sun Also Rises” “A Farewell to Arms”, “To Have and Have Not”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, and “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952).

Hemingway is famous as a classic modern writer of American literature who gave this genre its quintessential realism and contemporariness.

“The Old Man and the Sea” is considered as his best literary work. He was also awarded Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953. This short heroic-novel centres on the aging fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin.

The Old Man and The Sea Summary

A fairly short novel “The Old Man and the Sea” is a tale of an old fisherman named Santiago who has not caught a fish for 84 days. He is old withered yet spirited fisherman, who has been shunned from his community for his 84 unlucky days. His community considers him a “Salao”, the worst form of unlucky.

Even, the family of his apprentice, Manolin, forced him to keep away from the unlucky fisherman (Santiago). He has been left alone in his community because Manolin is the only well- wisher of Santiago, and he has been asked by their family to fish with successful fisherman instead of helping him.

This young boy is Santiago’s sole confidante who believes the old fisherman has years of experience and will definitely get his big catch one day. Interestingly, Manolin is mostly in his adolescence but does not mistake Santiago for a failed fisherman as other adults in his neighborhood do.

He convinces him that one day his luck must change. Manolin and Santiago share a relationship of mutual respect despite the noticeable age difference between them. Santiago believes that Manolin is now with lucky fisherman and will be happy with the luck fisherman. So, he does not agree to take him along his next three-day voyage far into the sea (Gulf of Stream).

Manolin brought sardines and other stuff from his shack for the voyage far out into the deep waters of Gulf of Stream. Even, mandolin wishes Santiago luck. Santiago sets on his “Skiff” before the break of dawn on the 85th day. What occurs next is an intense old meaningful episode.

Santiago chances upon his luckiest catch when a considerable proportionate marlin lands into his bait. For two days and nights, Santiago, with all his great experience and strength, he struggles with the fish, admiring its strength, dignity, and faithfulness to its identity.

His tussle ends up in injuring himself with numerous marks on his body. During his fight with fish, Santiago does not give up but develop a strange compassion and appreciation for his opponent. Hemingway expresses this feeling in these words:

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to claim his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him.

Santiago is finally able to overpower the great fish and stabs it with a harpoon. His endurance has paid off. But unlike other fisherman, he has immense respect for his competitor. Hemingway highlights the compassionate nature of Santiago when he presents Santiago thinking himself that “man is not much beside the great birds and beasts”. Santiago acknowledged that marlin gave him a tough fight and should be left to be devoured.

After strapping the fish to the side of his “skiff”, Santiago heads back home, feeling accomplished and optimistic. On the way, a huge number of sharks are attracted by the Marlin’s blood and come to attack Santiago from all sides. The old fisherman tries his best to fight these sharks away. He keeps reminding himself that “A man can be destroyed but not be defeated”. Santiago manages to reach ashore long after midnight, when the entire village is asleep.

Unfortunately, the huge marlin that Santiago had caught has left only a piece of carcass because all its flesh was eaten by the sharks. This leaves Santiago distressed and vanquished. He heads for his shack leaving the carcass near his boat. When other fisherman gathered around the dead fish, they are amazed with the size of the carcass which is 18 feet long.

Manolin sees the condition of the carcass and rushes to see if Santiago is fine. He tries to convince Santiago that they will definitely make a better catch next time. The novel ends with Santiago’s dream of one of the African beaches, the dream that had inspired him to go on the great hunt.

Analysis of The Old Man and The Sea

Santiago, Spaniard by culture and Cuban by emigration, is a true-valued fisherman, struggling amongst his young generation fishermen to keep up with his occupation, passion, for his craft, his identity and more. He refers to the sea La Mar (Sea as a feminine in Spanish) and considers it both beautiful and cruel. But his contemporaries consider the sea as an enemy that needs to be overpowered and refer to it as El Mar (Sea as a Masculine in Spanish).

Hemingway’s narrative is made of simple sentences that convey more than said in words, reflective of his famous “Iceberg Theory”. With respect to his style of writing, Hemingway changed the nature of American writing as said by James Nagel who appreciated the writer for his lean and his “Iceberg Theory”.

Hemingway believed that prose should be crafted in a way that more can be stated in less. “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water”, is what the writer had mentioned once. Hemingway’s syntax is simple, almost photographic, static sentences with much use of ‘and’ in place of commas. Many believe that his writing style owes to his career in journalism. The Old Man and the Sea is a prose with short, simple sentences, vivid and factual descriptions and allusions.

The concept of “The Old Man and the Sea” reflects Hemingway’s personal journey as a writer. In many ways, Santiago’s struggle to reestablish himself as an able fisherman is Hemingway’s struggle to regain his lost recognition as an able writer. Hemingway’s last work before this novel, “Across the River into the Tress (1950)”, was not well received by critics and readers alike. Some experts believe that “The Old Man and the Sea” served as a comeback for the novelist.

The plot of the novel is simple yet gripping. The narrative covers a full cycle taking the reader from land to the sea and then back to the land. Hemingway introduces Santiago’s character and the inspiration that made him take up a new voyage in the first part of the novel that happens on the land. It is here that we get a glimpse into Santiago’s regular life, the way his community treats him and about his apprentice, Manolin.

As Santiago begins on his journey into the sea, the writer creates crisp episodes where the old fisherman reflects on his contemporaries, his lost luck and his will to regain the same. We see Santiago in a constant struggle of self doubt and self-belief. Santiago gradually cuts himself from his life on the land and goes far into the sea in search of redemption.

The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.

The characters in the novel are common men facing the common struggles of life. Santiago is portrayed in contrast with the younger generation of pragmatic fishermen who unlike Santiago disregard nature and believe in mechanical approach to their profession.

Manolin, Santiago’s apprentice, is almost like his guardian angel that believes in Santiago’s abilities and encourages him throughout the novel to keep aiming at better days. The absence of any notable female character in the novel also speaks about Hemingway’s approach to the natural order of things where men have a due course of life irrespective of any female companions. But a lot is still being discovered about how Hemingway gave the world meaningful female characters and a different approach to gender issues in his works.

The novel also comments on the changing socio-economic scenario of the world in 1950’s with many traditional occupations losing their charm for a more modernized way of work. The Old Man and the Sea” also touches themes of love, wilderness, loss and war, while respecting the natural lifecycle is well represented in Santiago’s battle with the great fish and him becoming a target of the ferocious sharks. The novel is realistic in its style as well as concept and is part to the naturalism of American literature.

One can say that Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is almost a classic novel-universal in its reflection of the predicament of humans, their struggle to keep up with the changing times and their victories, defeats, doubts and beliefs.

Main Characters of The Old Man and The Sea

The plot of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” includes both human and natural characters. Santiago, Manolin, Martin, Pedrico, Rogelio and Perico are the human characters in the novel.

The writer has also infused Marlin, the billfish, Mako, the mackerel shark and Shovel-nosed sharks with Characteristics traits to which Santiago responds at different points in the novel.

Apart from these, the Writer also comments on the sea birds, the sea and nature in general, as if they are important entities in Santiago’s life, giving all of them some shades of character.

About Santiago, the Central Character aka Protagonist  

The central character of the novel is Santiago. He is an aging fisherman who has been mocked by his young generation fishermen for being unable to catch a single fish for 84 days. There are some traits of the Santiago that will portray the true figure.

Strong Willed

Hemingway has created this character in the most realistic manner with several feelings of anxiety, loneliness, hope, and aspiration constantly surfacing in the novel. Santiago is an aging fisherman, who is struggling to get his chance of catching fish.

The old Cuban fisherman has several marks on his body that speak of his years of experience in the fishing sport. Hemingway tells us about Santiago’s “Cheerful and undefeated” eyes that defy his aging body and convert his invincible will.

Committed Fisherman

As he is unable to catch a single fish for 84 days, he has been shunned from the community. He has one companion, Manolin, who always convinces him that he must get a lucky chance to catch the fish. Despite, Manolin, he has some well-wishers in the village who help him with his daily needs.

Due to his unlucky streak of not catching a fish, Santiago is made to feel defeated by the other fisherman. Yet, his almost divine commitment to his occupation is remarkable. We see the fisherman maintaining the sanctity of his profession amidst the profoundly changing socio-economic conditions. He keeps reminding himself that he has to be correct in his craft:

It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.

Physically Worn

We see Santiago’s unparallel resolve to turn his luck in his favour. He might be physically worn out but he keeps his mental strength in place. When alone on the boat, Hemingway reveals deeper character shades of Santiago.

We see the old fisherman keeping his calm in troubled waters as well as acting with wisdom. His loneliness makes him sad at times. He looks at the birds, thinks about the other fisherman and finally begins talking aloud to keep himself company. At one point Santiago says to himself,

If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am Crazy. But since I am not, I do not care.”

Humble and Lonely

Santiago is a humble, lonely man. His wife has passed away and his only companion is Manolin, his apprentice. “No one should be alone in their old age, he thought” is just one of the many such lines that reveal the inner struggle of Santiago.

Santiago’s relationship with Manolin is one of the mutual respect and compassion. He is fond of the boy yet abstains from showing his emotions. Santiago wishes him good luck and wants Manolin to stay with other lucky fisherman. He does not take Manolin along with him but surely he manages to catch and finally kill in his odyssey.

True Admirer of His Competitor

Never have I seen a greater, more beautiful, or a calmer or more nobel thing than you, brother.” This tells us that Santiago acknowledge the other living creatures around him and the surroundings. He admires the marlin for its perseverance and will fight his predator.

Santiago’s journey from the land to the sea and back transforms him as a human being. At the end of the novel we see Santiago rising above from materialistic gains of catching the big fish to finding his own peace.

His tussle with the big fish and the sharks makes him reflect on the natural order of things. He feels a part of the world around him and respects all the objects in it. This makes him feel elevated beyond his defeat. In an almost Biblical resemblance, Santiago’s physical torment leads him to a spiritual enlightening.

Beyond The Old Man & The Sea Under Literature Reads

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