Read about the key The Old Man and the Sea themes
Meaning in a novel is often more about how readers make meaning as they read a text than about an author consciously making meaning. Hemingway, the great writer that he was, hit the nail on the head when he said in an interview with Time Magazine in December 1954:
“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in.. I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”
The Old Man and the Sea is a good example of a text that tells a simple story that allows the reader to find whatever meaning she likes in it. Critics have been very active in interpreting this struggle between a man and a fish on a wide sea– their relative strength; the death of one of them, and the activity of sharks. For critics, it cannot be a simple story: it must mean something. For some it’s an allegorical reading of his career as a writer – a writer who takes risks, takes on huge subjects, struggles with them, conquers them by completing novels, only to have them torn apart by rapacious critics who circle him like sharks and attack him at his finest moments.
In the light of that, there are several strands, or themes, that point to what this novella may mean.
Man versus nature
This is a story that pits man against his natural surroundings. Santiago faces several challenges from nature, with his battle with the giant marlin being the most obvious. He is, alone on the ocean, being towed along by the marlin, with the marlin in charge. Their struggle lasts two days, after which Santiago defeats the marlin and kills it.
It is a prophetic story. It tells us that man’s strength and determination can triumph over nature. During the battle these qualities are at the forefront. Santiago is exhausted, in pain, but he ‘will try…as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller.’ He will fight to the death and not be defeated until then. A man will keep fighting as long as he has breath, and that is the way to prevail over nature or die trying.
Hemingway is making the point that being determined and never giving up indicates what kind of human being one is. This is a universal theme. Reflecting on the old man’s experience is an inspiration for living one’s own life and dealing with its problems.
In this novella the sea as a symbol for the whole of nature. It is both cruel and beautiful because it takes life away, but also gives and nurtures life and man has to learn how to live with it and gain the advantages it offers.
The novella is partly about the friendship between an old man and a boy who have a strong bond as a result of their common experience in fishing together, and as a tutor and student. This is apparent in the sincere sadness Manolin, who is now a young man, feels when his parents tell him he can no longer fish with Santiago because of the older fisherman’s lack of success.
Thoughts about the boy help to sustain the old man at critical moments in his struggle. The theme of friendship is extended to the battle with the marlin, expressed in the old man’s feelings about the fish. Despite the bad luck the old man is facing, and despite the fact that his father has forbidden him from going out with him Manolin believes Santiago can teach him more about being a successful fisherman than anyone else can. The years the two have spent fishing together have led to a strong friendship that is very important to both.
Although the old man has not caught a fish for eighty-four days, he doesn’t blame anyone or give up. Instead, he defies the bad luck and keeps going out, even redoubling his efforts and going our further than anyone else into the open sea.
The marlin also perseveres. It does not surrender but uses its size and strength to pull the old man’s skiff even farther out to sea, making it an even more formidable adversary.
The battle between the old man and the fish is more than a trial of strength – it is also a battle of wills. Both are determined to win and we see what the old man is willing to endure to defeat the fish. They are separated from the rest of the world on a wide sea and their battle is now central to their existence. The old man is physically small and weak compared with the marlin but he defeats the fish because of his willpower: he is willing to endure exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and pain. When the sharks attack and eat the marlin the old man kills or fights them off one by one, despite losing a weapon with each confrontation until he has nothing left but his bare fists.
Returning home with nothing but the skeleton to bear witness to the greatest catch of his life and his skiff badly damaged, Santiago is not defeated, nor is his spirit broken. He will carry his mast to and from his skiff day in and day out, doing what fishermen are meant to do: fish.
This is one of Hemingway’s predominant themes throughout his works – the technicalities of such things as fishing, hunting, bullfighting are always included in his stories about those things. The old man is a skilled fisherman. He is not as strong as he was in his youth, but he has achieved a level of skilfulness and knowledge that makes up for the decline in his physical strength. He knows how to read nature, and how to handle the line to gauge the movement of the fish. He knows how to interpret every movement of the fish. He also knows his own limits. He knows how far he can push himself. He knows when the moments to eat and to rest come. He uses all that knowledge to overcome his limitations. When he loses his weapons he knows how to use the resources he has to create the makeshift weapons that save his life. The only thing he can’t do is defeat the spell of bad luck that has hit him.
For some critics there is a religious meaning. They find religious overtones that suggest that in this book he takes his macho philosophy to a religious level. They cite the odd Christian image like: “Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” When he arrives home the old man carries his mast across his shoulders, stumbling up the hill as he goes, which convinces some critics that it is an image of Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.
However, Santiago states he is not a religious man, although Hemingway seems to impose the image of Christ on the cross on him. Santiago himself dismisses the Christian notion of sin as irrelevant, however. In Christian terms, killing is a sin, but to Santiago what happens out on the ocean has nothing to do with moral or religious values. It is just a story, as Hemingway points out, of an old fisherman who goes out too far into the sea. He kills the marlin because he is a fisherman: it’s as simple as that. And he kills the sharks to survive. Notions of right or wrong do not apply. The marlin is just a fish, the sharks are just sharks, and Santiago is just a fisherman. They all have their assigned places in the battle that is life.
Destruction and defeat
Hemingway’s famous philosophy about the human spirit was that a man can be destroyed but not defeated. It is a recurrent theme in all his works. Here again, the old man, after the struggle of his life, is destroyed by the sharks eating the fish he has caught in that struggle, and when he gets back he won’t make any money out of it. However, he goes to bed and wakes up fresh and determined to go out fishing again. In spite of his suffering and loss, he is not defeated.
That’s our guide to The Old Man And The Sea themes. Make sense? Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below!