The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemmingway
Contributed by Harvey Landy
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Character Analysis
Santiago (The Old Man)

The novel’s central protagonist is an unlucky Cuban fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. A modest man with his strongest years behind him, he lives in a small shack on the coast and sleeps on a bed of newspaper. In his youth, Santiago had worked on large, open sea sailing vessels and traveled to Africa, where he saw lions lying on the white sand beach, an image that recurs frequently in his dreams. But these are not the only images of the past that Santiago draws strength from. During his battle with the great fish, the old man recalls an arm-wrestling match that he finally won after an entire day of ferocious battling. The sea also reminds him of numerous encounters with marlins, sharks, seabirds, turtles, and all other forms of life that make their home in the sea just like he does. These thoughts give him the strength to endure the vicious trials of his three-day confrontation with the great fish. Although some of the other fishermen pity, and sometimes even make fun of, his old age and lack of luck, Santiago is never resentful. 

He is a simple man who loves the sea for all it has given him and deeply respects the great fish, his worthy, noble, and beautiful adversary. Through his interactions with Manolin, the old man demonstrates his kind, compassionate side. Although he is victorious in his battle with the great fish, the wound that proves fatal leaks blood into the sea that attracts sharks, which eventually tear all of the meat off the prized catch. Despite the odds against him, Santiago refuses to give in to the predators, as he fights off the sharks with any weapon he can fashion on his boat until there is nothing left to the great fish except its skeleton. 

Manolin (The Boy)

Even though his parents have ordered him to work with fisherman with better luck, Manolin remains Santiago’s loyal caretaker. For the first few weeks of Santiago’s fishing drought, the boy was by his side on the skiff every day, helping him carry the mast, tie the line, hoist the sail, and push the boat off in the early morning. Now, when Manolin returns from his sailing duty on another vessel, he faithfully returns to the old man. The boy uses his own credit to get food, coffee, and bait for the old man, who could not survive without such generosity. Manolin also listens to all of the old man’s stories and learns all of his fishing techniques from him. Santiago is deeply grateful for the boy’s friendship. Throughout his three-day battle with the great fish, the old man evokes thoughts of the boy as motivation to help him endure. He often wishes that the boy was there, and when he feels that he may not have the strength to defeat the great fish, he is rejuvenated by thinking about the lesson his endurance would teach the boy. When Manolin discovers Santiago prostrate on his bed with his hands mutilated by the line, he breaks into tears several times. Although other members of the fishing community are supportive, Manolin is the only one that empathizes with the Santiago’s great ordeal. In the final scene, Manolin lovingly watches over the old man while he sleeps in recuperation from his days at sea. 

The Marlin (The Great Fish)

Sometime in the middle of his first day at sea, Santiago hooks this 18-foot, 1500-pound fish, which drags him out to sea in a battle of endurance and strength for another two more days. Although his drive to kill it never ceases, the old man’s honorable battle with the great fish creates an intimate bond between the two weary veterans of the sea. Santiago sees the marlin as a worthy, beautiful adversary that stubbornly refuses to give in without a vicious fight. Finally, Santiago manages to harpoon the marlin through the heart. The old man attaches the fish to the side of the boat, but the blood trail from the mortal wound attracts sharks, which tear away chunks of meat from its corpse until only a skeleton remains. 

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