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The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2021

Ernest Hemingway emerged as one of America’s more colorful writers in the early to mid-1900s, presenting himself as the ultimate man’s man, worldly traveler, mighty hunter and hard-drinking spinner of tales. Within a short span of time, 1925-1929, he had established himself as having produced some of the most important literary fiction in his century. His short stories focused on the virtues held by men a generation or two earlier than him as well as the effects and aftereffects of war. He was able to keenly observe what was going on around him in nature as well as in human affairs thanks to his early years while his newspaper experience gave him the ability to cut to the heart of a story (Griffin, 1999). Yet each story contained a deeper message within the lines, if the reader felt the desire to go searching for it. He believed in omitting extra details as a way of strengthening his stories. He compared this to an iceberg. Just like only the top 1/8th of an iceberg can be seen above the water with the rest remaining below the surface providing it with its momentum and dignity, Hemingway believed his stories should follow the same structure. Although some critics loved him, others said his stories were shallow. “He had no sympathy for women, they said, portraying them either as manhood-destroying bitches or as mere objects of sexual domination” (Lynn, 1987: 10). A close reading of his stories reveals not only the messages the author intended to send, but also some insights as to the way he felt about things. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway reveals his conception of heroism not as a measure of the glory and recognition his character receives, but instead in the determination of the struggle.

The story is not a long one, although it is longer than a short story. Comprised of approximately 100 pages, The Old Man and the Sea details five days in the life of Santiago, who is an old Cuban fisherman who was once known as the champion fisherman of his village but has recently had a streak of bad luck, not having caught a single fish in 84 days by the time the story opens. Santiago is attended by his young apprentice, Manolin, who seems to be the only person in the village he still loves, but Manolin’s parents are concerned about their boy working on a boat that catches no fish and order him to work on someone else’s boat. Despite this, Manolin remains dedicated to Santiago, recognizing in him qualities that are not present in any of the other fishermen. In an effort to try to break his losing streak, Santiago sets off alone into the Gulf Stream in his little boat to try to catch one of the big fish that live out there. He hooks a giant marlin by noon, but the fish is too strong for Santiago to pull in and the little boat is dragged behind the fish as it tries to get away. Santiago fights with the fish for two days and nights before it finally begins to show signs of fatigue, but in the process, Santiago’s hands have been ripped open, he has suffered numerous pains and damaged his back. Finally, on the third day, the fish begins to give in and Santiago manages to get it close enough to his boat to stab it with his harpoon and end the fight. After strapping the fish to the boat, Santiago heads home but must fight off the many sharks that come to take his prize fish away from him. He is able to fend off some of the sharks, but eventually, the sharks get all of the marlin’s meat and Santiago returns to the village empty handed with only the skeleton still attached to the boat.

Although the action of the story does not seem to be all that in-depth, Hemingway, in true characteristic approach, leaves a great deal of the story underneath the surface. In many ways, the events that surround Santiago’s story can be said to place him within the realm of the tragic hero as the story touches on the three primary characteristics of the classic Greek definition. These characteristics include hamartia, anagnorisis and peripeteia. Hamartia is commonly referred to today as a tragic flaw (“Aristotle”, 1998). It is the concept that a noble man will fall as a result of some inherent flawed portion of his character that causes him to act in a specific way or make a particular mistake in judgment. For Santiago, this flaw emerges very obviously as his pride in his abilities as a fisherman which drives him to go out to deeper waters as a means of showing up the other fishermen who have been saying things against him. Hamartia is followed by an eventual clarity of perception which is referred to as anagnorisis. In Aristotelian terms, this word translates to mean recognition (“Aristotle”, 1998). As he realizes that he will be unable to fend off the sharks long enough to get the marlin home, Santiago recognizes the destruction his pride has brought on both the fish and himself and suffers remorse for it. This concept leads naturally into the third element, that of peripeteia. Literally translated, the word means something akin to a sudden reversal based upon logic and intellect (“Aristotle”, 1998). As Aristotle used it, it meant the sudden reversal of fortunes for the protagonist that was at once surprising to the audience, but that also followed naturally as the result of prior actions and events. Since Santiago returned home even more empty-handed than when he left (he lost his harpoon in his struggles against the sharks), it can be said he has suffered a reversal of fortunes. “In its narrow confines, its reduction to fundamentals, the purity of its design and even in [its hubris] (for Santiago exceeded his limits and went out too far) … It is much in the spirit of the Greek tragedies … in that as the hero falls, one gets an unforgettable glimpse of what stature a man may have” (Young, 1968: 22). While this interpretation of Santiago as a tragic hero remains open for argument, further investigation reveals that Hemingway intended this character to be seen as a modern hero according to his own conception of the term.

Hemingway’s vision of the hero was profoundly different from the classical interpretation. Santiago was a common fisherman and an old one who had not been successful enough in his earlier life to have provided himself with a relatively comfortable retirement. In this, he is an Everyman yet is still capable of attaining the heroic through his own fortitude and determination. He is a prime example of the Code that Hemingway believed in as the only true defining characteristic of the hero, in which man never loses hope and faith in himself: “Hemingway – himself a great sportsman – liked to portray soldiers, hunters, bullfighters – tough, at times primitive people whose courage and honesty are set against the brutal ways of modern society, and who in this confrontation lose hope and faith” (Frenz, 1969). The fact that Santiago never gives up, never loses hope and never loses his faith in himself establishes him as the hero of Hemingway’s lexis despite his age, his wounds, his extreme fatigue and his failure, even now, to have brought home the great fish that would have brought him glory and recognition. All that remains is evidence of a great battle having been fought, but no prize. “He [Hemingway] sees the unheroic hero in the world of his imagining and consistently mistrusts the elevated, the mystical, the glorious, the grand” (Fuchs, 1965: 432). This is because it is only in the honest struggle, brought down to the level of the true center of the man without concern for posterity, glory or aggrandizement, that heroism can be found. According to Melvin Miles (2002), “the Hemingway code consists of standards and forms of conduct by which a man can confront the realities of nada with dignity, and thus by which he can impose a measure of purpose, order, meaning and value upon his life. The concept of ‘dignity’ is both the basis and the goal of the code. For Hemingway, dignity is the expression of true moral integrity, and it is the highest possible attainment of character.” Through his portrayal of Santiago, Hemingway illustrates his full conception of what is meant when he says hero.

It is a given that this old man does not fit with many modern conceptions of the hero upon his first introduction. Even in the arena of the classical tragic hero, the character in question begins from a place that is high and exalted. He is easily recognized as a man of noble birth. Santiago, in contrast, is nothing more than a very poor old fisherman who seems to have lost any chance he once had of being the kind of hero today’s audience might expect. “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” (Hemingway, 1952: 1). There is a tattered quality about him that pervades the mental picture we have of him. The sail of his boat is described as “patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat” (1). The shack that he lives in is also quite poor, made of palm fronds with “a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal” (3). His personal appearance, too, takes on a similar look as the sail: “His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun” (4).

These descriptions establish a connection between Santiago and the small birds that are among the first animals mentioned in the story. “He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought, the birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?” (7). As he floats in the dark and relies on his other senses, dressed in his tattered shirt with his tattered sail, hovering just above the water’s surface, Santiago himself takes on the same delicate and fragile appearance he is associating with the birds. Taken one step further, he becomes a symbol of all of mankind as they bob along in the dark and seek but don’t often find an elusive something. Thus, Santiago passes out of the world of the mortal human beings and into the realm of the emblematic as he demonstrates for Hemingway’s audience just what Hemingway’s conception of the true, modern hero might be once the concept of God is removed from the picture.

The first suggestion that Santiago is a heroic figure in Hemingway’s conception comes in his unwavering faith in himself despite the hardships he’s suffered lately. These are made apparent immediately as it is mentioned that Santiago’s young helper had been removed from his boat forcibly by the boy’s parents and placed on a more successful one after 40 days of no fish and the conditions of Santiago’s properties are detailed. As has been mentioned, the boat is tattered and the shack is little more than a lean-to built of palm fronds, but Santiago’s position is made clearer by his lack of food and supplies as well as by the laughing of the young fishermen along the wharf. Although it has now been 84 days since he caught a fish, Santiago’s “hope and his confidence had never gone.” He has a plan for the morning that he’s going to pursue and he has a true belief that he will catch a fish in the next few days, because it cannot happen that he will go 87 days (his old record) without a fish twice in one lifetime. It is with confidence that he heads out to the deep water despite the smallness of his boat and the uncertainty of being all alone in the water. This vulnerability is illustrated, as discussed, through the delicacy of the small terns he watches as the morning breaks. And it is with confidence that he undertakes his great battle with the fish. When the marlin takes his hook, and he is aware that it must be a marlin even though he hasn’t yet seen the fish, Santiago tells it, “Fish, … I’ll stay with you until I am dead” (Hemingway, 1952: ). This sense of confidence and determination is one of the characteristics Hemingway prized in his heroes. “He alone has to endure the sufferings to fulfill his destiny” (Harada, 1961: 270), but he is undaunted in accomplishing just that. Although he suffers through every step of the story, he remains consistent in his resolve to do what is necessary.

Rather than focusing upon the concept of the noble hero, the genteel birth or the concept that only the wealthy might be great men, Hemingway’s heroes were often just regular guys, just like Santiago. This was because their heroism did not depend upon such material things as wealth or power, but instead rested upon their ability to become master of something. For Santiago, this master skill is obviously fishing. This is again exemplified in Santiago’s willingness to go out into much deeper water than the other fishermen but is also reflected in the sadness and respect given to him by the middle-aged fishermen who knew of his former greatness, respected his abilities and were now saddened to see them so diminished. Santiago’s skill is also depicted in his intimate knowledge of the sea and her ways. The terns and the feel of the air tell him when morning is about to break and a diving man-of-war bird alerts him to the presence of fish nearby. While this may be a skill many fishermen had developed, it having been mentioned already by Manoli, Santiago’s mastery is further shown as he makes his way to the diving bird. “He rowed slowly and steadily toward where the bird was circling. He did not hurry and he kept his lines straight up and down. But he crowded the current a little so that he was still fishing correctly though faster than he would have fished if he was not trying to use the bird” (Hemingway, 1952: 8). The behavior of the bird in this scene and the reaction of the flying fish as he approached the area enable Santiago to identify what might be under the waves as dolphin. Further observation tells him the story of what was happening even though he cannot see it: “The old man could see the slight bulge in the water that the big dolphin raised as they followed the escaping fish. The dolphin were cutting through the water below the flight of the fish and would be in the water, driving at speed, when the fish dropped. It was a big school of dolphin, he thought. … That school has gotten away from me” (8-9). Rather than being a master of men, Santiago is a master of his craft and uses every element of this skill in hauling in the marlin, measured as 2 feet longer than the boat that means the difference between Santiago’s life and death.

The third element of Hemingway’s heroic code is that his hero must accept the truth when he’s been defeated. For Hemingway, defeat is the realization that one has come to a place where he can no longer do any better or that he has done his best and from this point forward, he is little more than marking time. “He lives in time. And the goal of time is death and destruction” (Harada, 1961: 276). This defeat is Santiago’s realization that, although he caught the big fish that would save him, he went out too far and without enough resources so he ultimately failed. He will not get the fish back to harbor and will not reap the benefit of the catch. Although he wonders if anyone is worthy to eat such a courageous creature, the point is lost as the sharks continue to take off bits and pieces until the fish is no more. “The important thing was the code fought by, and keeping the right feeling toward what was fought for, and when something had been won, not to let the sharks have it” (Davis, 1952). However, Santiago, using all the tools at his disposal, is unable to keep the sharks from eating his fish as first the mako takes his harpoon and then one of the shovelheads breaks his knife. “Now they have beaten me, he thought. I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try it as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller” (Hemingway, 1952: 31). Although he is aware of the fact that there is little he can do to actually bring the fish home, already apologizing to it following the mako attack because he knows other sharks will soon follow, Santiago continues to fight to protect as much of the fish as he can until he runs out of weapons and fish to protect. Santiago acknowledges he’s been beaten to Manolin, telling him “In the night I spat something strange and felt something in my chest was broken” (35), but he continues to plan for Manolin’s further education as a fisherman and tells him of the things he has learned. That he has not lost his courage is depicted in the final line as Santiago again dreams about the lions which are, for him, the ultimate symbol of regeneration, strength and pride. “If the hero does not win, neither does he lose. If one may pursue the figure, he holds life to a draw, with, among others of a very different stamp, the almost feminine virtues of sensitivity, sympathy, intuition” (Fuchs, 1965: 448). Through his experience and his ties with Manolin, Santiago has accomplished his own version of immortality.

Hemingway’s hero is thus seen to be radically different from the classical heroes of old in that tragedy is one of the major elements of what defines a hero rather than what destroys him. He has been defeated, but not by the great fish that was his adversary. Instead, he was beaten by the sharks, learning again that humility he had thought he’d learned long ago. “The old man has learned humility, which he knew ‘was not disgraceful and carried no less of true pride.’ Humility understands the limits of what a man can do alone, and knows how much his being, the worth and humanity of his being, depends on community with other men and with nature, which is here the sea” (Davis, 1952). He understands that he has gone too far and felt he was capable of too much and must now suffer remorse that he was unable to bring his stupendous catch home. However, he is not so defeated that he can no longer be useful or continue to live on. He has tested himself to his limits and discovered what they were. Now it is time to pass his knowledge on to another generation, continuing the circle of life and death to which everyone must eventually succumb. “What he [Santiago] brings back to the boy at the end of the story implies a human continuity and development that far transcends this individual relationship. When Santiago says, ‘Man is not made for defeat,’ he is not thinking primarily of the individual” (Davis, 1952). The progression of Santiago’s story reveals that, although he has found the limits of his own mastery and strength, the struggle continues as Manolin attempts to learn all the wisdom stored in Santiago’s body, recognizing in the old man a true hero among fishermen. This action serves to perpetuate Santiago’s accomplishments and highlights Hemingway’s belief that the mark of a hero is not in the glory and wealth he receives, but in the fierceness of the struggle he undertakes.

Works Cited

“Aristotle.” Critica Links. The University of Hawaii, (1998). 2008. Web.

Davis, Robert G. “Hemingway’s Tragic Fisherman: The Story of a Humble Man Who Exceeds His Limits and Accepts His Bitter Defeat.” New York Times. (1857-Current file). New York: (1952). ProQuest. Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2004): BR1. ProQuest Newspapers, Criminal Justice Periodicals. ProQuest. Columbia College of Missouri.

Frenz, Horst. “Ernest Hemingway: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1954.” Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. 2008. Web.

Fuchs, Daniel. “Ernest Hemingway, Literary Critic.” American Literature. Duke University Press. Vol. 36, No. 4, (1965): 431-451. JSTOR. Columbia College, Missouri. 2008. Web.

Griffin, Redd F. “A Short Biography of Author Ernest Hemingway.” Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. Oak Park, IL: Ernest Hemingway Foundation, 1999. 2008. Web.

Harada, Keiichi. “The Marlin and the Shark: A Note on The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway and his Critics. New York: 1961: 269-276.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. 1952. Web.

Lynn, Kenneth S. Hemingway. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987.

Miles, Melvin. “The Undefeated and the Code of Conduct.” Hemingway: An Introductory Overview. (2002). 2008. Web.

Young, Philip. “The Old Man and the Sea: Vision/Revision.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea: A Collection of Critical Essays. Katharine Jobes (Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968: 18-26.

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