Book Summary: The Old Man & the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Book Summary: The Old Man & the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Type of work: Symbolic drama

Setting: North Coast of Cuba; early 20th century

Principal characters
Santiago, an old, weathered fisherman
Manolin, a boy, Santiago’s young fishing companion
The Marlin, a gigantic fish

The Old Man & the Sea Book Summary

Eighty-four days had passed since Santiago, the old fisherman, had caught a fish, and he was forced to suffer not only the ridicule of younger fishermen, but near-starvation as well.

Moreover, Santiago had lost his young companion, a boy named Manolin, whose father had ordered him to leave Santiago in order to work with more successful seamen. Still, the devoted child loved Santiago, and each day brought food and bait to his shack, where they indulged in their favorite pastime: talking about the American baseball leagues.

The old man’s hero was the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. Santiago identified with the ballplayer’s skill and discipline, and declared that he would one day like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. After visiting one particular afternoon, the boy left Santiago, who fell asleep. Lions immediately filled his dreams. As a boy he had sailed to Africa and had seen lions on the beaches. Now, as an old man, he constantly dreamed of the great and noble beasts.

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. … He loved them as he loved the boy.

Before dawn of the next day, the fisherman, as usual, hauled his salt-encrusted skiff onto the beach and set out by himself. But today, in hopes of breaking his unlucky streak, he was determined to sail into deep waters, out much farther than the other anglers would go. He followed the sea birds and flying fish; they would tell him by their movements where the fish congregated. He watched the turtles swimming near his boat. He loved the turtles, “with their elegance and speed.”

Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. … The old man thought, I have such a heart too. …

Early on, Santiago managed to land a ten-pound tuna. Thinking this a good omen, he used the fresh meat to bait one of his lines. By now he was far from land, and much farther out than all the other fishermen. Resisting the temptation to sleep or to let his mind wander, Santiago concentrated on his lines reaching deep into the dark green waters.

At noon he felt a bite. Testing his line, he guessed that it must be a marlin nibbling at the tuna bait. “He must be huge,” the old man thought, and waited anxiously for a strike. Suddenly, the fish took the bait entirely and began to swim furiously out to sea, dragging the boat behind him.

The fish was so powerful that Santiago was helpless to stop him; he could only brace himself against the weight placed on the taut line that cut across his shoulders and hold on until the fish exhausted its strength. Darkness fell, and still the fish – boat and fisherman in tow – swam steadily out to sea.

The seaman spent a grueling night with the line looped painfully round his back. Though he was weak, old and all alone, Santiago knew many tricks, and possessed skills the young men yet lacked. Besides, he loved the sea with a passion and had faith that she would handle him with reverent, though bitter, kindness. Once, when the fish gave a sudden tug, the line slashed Santiago’s cheek. “Fish,” the old man vowed softly, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. … Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. …

His choice had been to stay in the deep dark water far out beyond all snares and traps and treacheries. My choice was to go there to find him beyond all people. … Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either of us.

By morning of the second day the fish was still heading northward; vigorous, seemingly tireless strokes of its tail guided it forward. There was no land in sight. A stiffening cramp in Santiago’s left hand, a wicked slice in his right, and his shivering from cold was hampering his work. “I wish I had the boy,” he said aloud. All at once the fish surfaced and leaped into the air. Santiago marveled at the enormous, lavender marlin, two feet longer than the boat itself – the biggest fish the old man had ever laid eyes on. Once more the fish set out, relentlessly towing the boat. Santiago could do nothing but hold on and wait.

Crouching in the hot afternoon sun, Santiago cut strips from the tuna and chewed them slowly. He drank sparingly. Throughout his ordeal, he spoke to his only friends: the birds that came to rest on the sides of the skiff. He spoke to his brother, the great fish. He also addressed his cramped hands and arms, as though they, like himself and the fish, were engaged in their own, detached struggles for survival.

His mind constantly returned to baseball, the lions – and Manolin. Over and over he longed for the boy to be with him, to help him land the fish and to take his mind from his cut hand and aching back. He wondered how the Yankees were doing, envying the younger fishermen who could afford radios in their boats to listen to the games. He thought of DiMaggio, wondering if the “Yankee Clipper” would stay with a fish as long as Santiago had stayed with this one. “I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong,” he thought. “Also his father was a fisherman.”

At one point, Santiago fell into a daydream about an arm-wrestling match he’d engaged in as a young man. The contest with “the great negro … who was the strongest man on the docks” had lasted a full 24 hours, but Santiago had held out – and won.

Amid these reveries, night fell again. Santiago allowed himself a moment’s sleep, and dreamed of the lions. All night he instinctively played the line.

At sunrise of the third day, the marlin began to circle; and after hours of struggling, the drained and dizzy fisherman finally managed to bring the creature close to the surface. Then, on one of its many passes by the side of the boat, the old man took aim and drove the harpoon with all his strength into its side. The fish “came alive, with death in him”; it shook violently, rose high out of the water, hung in the air, then fell in a great mist of salt spray. Its struggle over, now it floated, motionless. “… I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today,” gasped the old man.

After resting his sore muscles and sipping some water, Santiago examined his catch. Far too big to be brought into the boat, the fish had to be lashed alongside it. Santiago soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. He mused on his great prize, which seemingly sailed next to his boat. “Is he bringing me in or am I bringing him in?” the old man thought. “Let him bring me in if it pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm.” Still, the fish would bring him fame and fortune when he arrived in Havana Harbor.

But Santiago’s problems were far from over; he was still a day’s journey from land, and he knew that the fish’s blood would attract sharks. And after a short time, the swift, hungry makos and hammerheads did come. Without fear, they began tearing hunks of flesh from the marlin.

Despite Santiago’s all-day resolute efforts to kill and beat them off, the savages continued to close in, hitting the carcass again and again. His hands and arms bleeding and raw, the weary sailor was beaten – the sharks would leave him nothing but a huge skeleton. He bowed his head: “I’m sorry, fish.”

Not until deep into the night did Santiago steer his skiff into the quiet village harbor. Dutifully, he beached his craft, dragged his mast and sails – stumbling under their weight – into their shed, and finally crawled off to his shack, to welcome slumber. The next morning, the boy came to Santiago’s shack and found his elderly friend. “The boy saw that the old man was breathing and then he saw the old man’s hands and he started to cry.”

All the way down the road, as he retrieved some coffee for Santiago, he cried. When Santiago woke, the boy told him that he’d been presumed lost at sea, and that search planes had been dispatched to find him. The other fishermen had seen the marlin’s skeleton and were astonished at its size – 18 feet from nose to tail. Manolin brought the old man food, nursed his wounds, and firmly told the fisherman, “Now we fish together again.” Then he left Santiago, to sleep. And the old man dreamed about the lions.

The Old Man & the Sea Reviews

Everything about The Old Man and the Sea is classically simple. The style is pure Hemingway: short, straightforward sentences with single-syllable words. The storyline is linear – easy enough for a child to follow – and the themes are clear and basic, touting manly courage, endurance, and noble suffering.

In fact, the novel would be little more than an adventure story were it not for Santiago’s dialogues with himself – his repetitive and symbolic musings, daydreams and plottings. Unlike other fishermen, who see the ocean merely in terms of economic gain, Santiago looks on the sea and its inhabitants with love and respect.

Notably, he prefers to call the sea “la mar,” its feminine form, rather than the harsher, masculine “el mar.” Religious references and symbolism dot the book’s pages.

Together with the multi-layered plot and the cumulative effect of these references, Hemingway is able to impart his redemptive message: Only by enduring agony and defeat is Santiago redeemed; so will mankind’s ultimate redemption be won by sacrifice and the head-on meeting of trials. The old man is raised to heroic stature in the eyes of the boy.

Truly, Santiago personifies the grandeur of which man is capable. But the giant fish – representing the hopes and dreams of mankind – and the old man’s relationship with it, is what creates the extraordinary pathos of the novel. And, in the end, even Santiago’s (humankind’s) modest expectations are snatched from his grasp.

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