The Old Man and the Sea

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Authors: Joyce Moss and George Wilson
Date: 1997
Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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A novel set in Cuba and off its coastline in the late 1940s or early 1950s; written and published in 1952.


Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, spends three days fighting a giant marlin before he catches it. Despite his noble victory, by the time Santiago drags the fish back to his village, sharks have eaten the entire fish, leaving only the skeleton.

Ernest Hemingway spent more than twenty years of his life living in Cuba. From his home in San Francisco de Paulo, Hemingway often visited Cojimar, the village featured in the novel The Old Man and the Sea. An avid fisherman, Hemingway spent a great deal of his time in Cuba fishing for shark and marlin. His respect for the tireless fishermen of Cuba and their daily struggle for survival upon the sea prompted him to write this novel, which extols the spirit of the individual as well as the virtues of determination and courage.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Marlin fishing in Cuba

The waters off the coast of Cuba support an abundance of game fish, most notably marlin, which is also known as spearfish or sailfish. The migratory habits of these fish carry them with the currents, bringing them to the north coast of the island nation in October and November and most commonly to its south coast in February. The blue marlin arrive from April to May, with the biggest of these fish appearing in September. These, according to Hemingway, were “the heavyweights” (Hemingway in Fuentes, p. 118).

A wide variety of bait is used to catch marlin, but best results are achieved with balao (a silver fish) and with needlefish. The balao is hooked so that the barb emerges from its side, near the tail, which best facilitates hooking the marlin when it attacks the bait. Needlefish are cut into slices and hooked so that several inches of fish dangle behind, resembling the motion and appearance of a swimming fish’s tail. For the big September marlin, fishermen use larger bait such as whole mackerel, bonefish, and bonitos.

While marlin fishing was considered great sport for tourists in Cuba, it was much more important to Cuban fishermen who relied on the giant fish to make their living. The meat of the marlin is highly prized and has enormous commercial value. In the novel, Santiago knows that he will make a fortune if he can get his monstrous fish back to the Cojimar market intact. Similarly, the boy Manolin substantially improves his financial condition after catching just three fish in two days.

Cuban religion

In the 1950s, 85 percent of the Cuban people were nominally members of the Page 275  |  Top of ArticleRoman Catholic Church. Catholic clergy estimated, however, that only 10 percent of the population were active and informed members and that at least 25 percent were agnostic in practice. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, church and state have been constitutionally separate in Cuba, and the Catholic Church has never had the influence in Cuba that it has enjoyed in other Latin American countries. Nevertheless, since most of Cuba’s population have at least some Spanish ancestry, and because the Spanish Catholic cultural influences have dominated much of Cuban life since the sixteenth century, Cuban attitudes and values are those of a Catholic country. The disparity created by the existence of a Catholic culture in which many members are devoid of serious religious conviction appears countless times in The Old Man and the Sea in the character of Santiago. As Santiago fights with the marlin he says, “I am not religious, but I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if 1 catch him. That is a promise” (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, p. 65). The novel again alludes to this lack of religious feeling when the old man, Santiago, starts to say his prayers, “He commenced to say his prayers mechanically. Sometimes he would be so tired that he could not remember the prayer and then he would say them fast so that they would come automatically” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 64). The lack of devotion to Catholicism also becomes apparent when Santiago thinks about sin. He wonders if it is a sin to kill the beautiful fish or if it is a sin to hope that he will make it to shore before the sharks eat all of the marlin. Stopping himself from brooding about it any further, Santiago dismisses the entire issue: “‘Do not think about sin,’ he thought. There are enough problems now without sin. Also I have no understanding of it”’ (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 105). Such sentiments again suggest a relationship to religion based more on custom and culture than any true devotion, as was true for many others among Catholics in Cuba.

Personalismo in Cuban society

Integral to the novel is personalismo, the code of personal dignity under which much of Cuban society is organized. The code defines success more in terms of the fulfillment of personal destiny or spiritual potential than by occupational or financial status. In keeping with this code, Cubans, like other Latin Americans, customarily place high value on the dignity of the person and appreciate the innate worth and distinct character of each individual. This individuality is associated more with personal qualities than with individual rights. A person is interesting and valuable because he is unlike anyone else, not because his qualities themselves are ideal.

In The Old Man and the Sea, this system of personalismo manifests itself among the villagers of Cojimar. Though Santiago is a poor old man who hasn’t caught a fish in almost three months, he is still regarded as a worthy member of the community. The workers at the Terrace, a local restaurant, respect his ability as a fisherman and furnish him with meals when he has no money; the boy Manolin provides him with bait for fishing, and other fishermen give him newspapers so that he can check the American baseball scores. Even after he has several successful fishing ventures, Manolin wants to fish with Santiago because he sees him as a unique individual from whom he can learn a great deal, regardless of the failure they may experience together. Santiago, despite being a poor fisherman, is portrayed as a noble individual with heroic qualities. In a sense, the entire novel is a celebration of personalismo.

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In the novel the old man, Santiago, fishes with a hand-line, a primitive fishing technique used by most Cuban fishermen that only requires a few hundred feet of heavy cord, bait, a hook, and two strong hands. When Santiago hooks the fish, his hands serve as the reel, letting out line as the fish struggles and pulls away, and pulling line back in when the fish is resting or lets the line go slack. The end of the line is fastened to the boat, so if the fish pulls out all the excess line, it will have to tow the boat, which rapidly tires out the fish. This method is incredibly rigorous; by the end of his ordeal with the marlin, Santiago’s hands are so badly torn that the boy, Manolin, cries when he sees them. Though difficult and, in some cases, painful, this simple but effective technique is still used by many fishermen today.

Luck in Cuban culture

Cubans believe strongly in destiny, in their view a combination of spiritual forces and luck. According to the Cuban mind, luck is not an external force, but rather evidence that someone has the personal spiritual qualities essential for success. Following this

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logic, anyone may discover that it is his or her destiny to be lucky—or in other words, to succeed through a combination of fortuitous events. It is this conception of luck that has historically prompted much of the Cuban population to buy lottery tickets every week rather than open savings accounts. Luck plays a major role in Santiago’s belief system and the belief systems of the other villagers in The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago gets a feeling that his eighty-fifth day of fishing will be good and immediately wants to buy the number 85 in the next day’s lottery drawing, even though he has to borrow money to do so. Manolin’s parents know that Santiago is a great fisherman, but forbid Manolin to fish with him: “The boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 9). Later in the novel, when his fish is attacked by the sharks, Santiago thinks about luck: “Luck is a thing that comes in many forms and who can recognize her? I would take some though in any form and pay what they asked” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 117).

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The Novel in Focus

The plot

As the novel opens, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. Manolin, a boy who learned to fish with the old man, has been forbidden by his parents from fishing with him any more because they consider him to be unlucky. Now with a luckier boat, Manolin has caught three fish. He shares his success with Santiago by buying him a beer at a local tavern. Santiago tells Manolin that he is planning on fishing far out at sea the next day. Manolin brings Santiago dinner from the tavern; he knows that Santiago has no money to buy food. He also gives him two sardines to use for bait.

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Throughout the novel, Santiago thinks about the great American baseball player Joe DiMaggio as a model of courage and determination. Santiago thinks, “I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 68). Santiago also asks himself, “Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one?... I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 68).

The next morning, Manolin and Santiago go together down to the beach. Manolin leaves for his boat, and Santiago sets out in his own small boat for the deep water far out. Santiago prepares his lines with pieces of the sardines and watches the birds and flying fish splashing in the water. At first he catches a small albacore and plans to use it for bait on some of his hooks. When Santiago gets another pull on his line, he realizes that it is a marlin. The intelligent marlin eats the small sardines off the hooks, and does not get hooked until it goes after the albacore. So strong is the marlin that when it moves off, it pulls the boat easily along. Santiago worries that the fish will dive and pull his small boat under the water or snap the line with a sudden movement. To keep a strong hold on the line, Santiago moves it across his back, putting a canvas sack between his skin and the line to spare himself some pain. Though Santiago desperately wants to catch the marlin, he also pities the creature and thinks of it as his brother out on the sea. When the marlin jerks suddenly, the line cuts into Santiago’s hand. Santiago moves the line to his other hand and rinses the injured hand in the ocean. As the hours go by and evening falls, Santiago eats a tuna fish that Manolin gave him. He eats the fish raw, knowing this is the only way to keep up his strength.

After fighting the marlin all night, Santiago is pleased to see it rise to the surface and leap out of the water, wrestling with the line. Santiago has been hoping for such a move; the marlin’s body is now too full of air for it to dive very deep. He marvels at the size of the fish, which is two feet longer than his boat. Still, the fish continues to struggle. Santiago is growing fatigued. His back has become numb from the pain of the line, and one of his hands has cramped up completely, but he continues to hold onto the line. After another full day of struggling, Santiago finally wears the fish down and begins to pull it, inch by inch. When he gets it close enough, Santiago harpoons the giant marlin, killing it instantly. Because the fish is too large to fit in his boat, Santiago lashes it to the side and heads for home.

Attracted by the blood from the great fish, sharks follow Santiago’s boat and eventually attack the fish. Santiago kills several sharks, but loses his harpoon and his knife and when night falls, he can do nothing to stop the predators from eating every piece of meat on the giant marlin. By the time he reaches Cojimar, only the skeleton of the marlin is left. Completely exhausted from his three-day effort, Santiago stumbles home and falls asleep. Manolin finds him in his bed the next morning and cries when he sees the deep cuts in his hands. Villagers gather around Santiago’s boat, amazed at the size of the marlin’s skeleton; it is measured at eighteen feet, a record fish.

Manolin has been lucky, catching three fish in two days. With his new luck and money he decides that he will fish with Santiago regardless of his parents’ wishes. Santiago continues to sleep and dreams about his days of fishing when he was young.

Machismo in the novel

The notion of machismo recurs throughout The Old Man and the Sea. In Cuba and other Latin American countries, success in competition and mastery of one’s environment may be demonstrated by a wide range of a man’s personal qualities; the most common and admired of these qualities is machismo, or maleness. Machismo can be developed by numerous means and should ideally consist of several elements. A man whose manly qualities are displayed only through sexual exploits, for example, Page 279  |  Top of Articleis disparaged, even though sexual prowess is one aspect of machismo. In addition to sexual prowess, military and athletic prowess are also major components of machismo. Though most men fail to live up to ideal athletic performances, they can become enthusiastic spectators and in this way identify themselves with the athlete in his achievement.

The physical or athletic element of machismo can also be demonstrated through hard work. A sugarcane cutter who exceeds his work quotas can be just as admired as a boxer or soldier. In the upper classes this emphasis on physical activity is not as pronounced; intellectual strengths receive greater admiration. A fine orator or scientist might, for instance, gain machismo through his accomplishments. Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who in 1959 replaced the dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar (who was in power during the time period of the novel), was considered macho (having machismo) in part for his five-hour television speeches. They were considered a feat of intellect, determination, and endurance.

In the novel Santiago, despite his old age, appears to be a strongly macho character. Not only does he display physical prowess in his efforts battling the marlin and the sharks, but he constantly shows himself to be clever through his vast knowledge of fishing and the tricks necessary to conserve his strength and to endure his three-day struggle. Throughout the standoff, Santiago bolsters himself by remembering past feats of strength and endurance and by encouraging himself to persevere. At one point, Santiago recalls winning an arm-wrestling match against another fisherman. The struggle lasted a full night and day, and his victory earned Santiago great respect. For feats such as this he has been called El Campeon, the Champion. This thought of past machismo helps Santiago to continue. At another point, when he realizes that the fish is fearless and confident, Santiago tells himself, “You better be fearless and confident yourself, old man” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 84). When the fish jerks the line, causing it to slice into Santiago’s hands, Santiago again encourages himself in macho terms, telling himself that “pain does not matter to a man” (The Old Man and the Sea, p. 84). Similarly, throughout his own life Hemingway also constantly challenged himself in an attempt to achieve his own personal heroism; he boxed, put himself in danger during several wars, hunted all over the world, played all types of sports, and associated with other macho figures such as soldiers, bullfighters, and prizefighters.


Most of the source material for The Old Man and the Sea comes from Hemingway’s own experiences fishing off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway spent more than two decades of his life living on the island, and fishing was one of his favorite activities.

In addition to basing The Old Man and the Sea on his own fishing experiences, Hemingway was also inspired by an anecdote he had heard in 1936. The story concerned an old fisherman who hooked a marlin far out at sea. After two full days of struggle, the old man brought in the fish, harpooned it, then lashed it to the side of his boat. By the time the old man was picked up by a larger fishing boat, sharks had eaten half his fish. The old man of this story was allegedly Carlos Gutierrez, an elderly fisherman whom Hemingway hired to captain his fishing boat, the Pilar.

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Hemingway was a master sports fisherman and spent considerable time fishing off the Cuban coast. He snared the biggest sailfish known to have been caught in the Atlantic Ocean, which weighed 119 pounds. Hemingway also caught a 786-pound shark in waters off Bimini (one of the Bahama Islands) in the Atlantic. In the summer of 1935 he won a host of sports fishing competitions, beating several skilled and famous fishermen of the time. Through his pursuit of big game fishing, Hemingway became a celebrity in Cojimar, the small fishing village from which he embarked on many of his fishing expeditions. After his death, the Cojimar villagers erected a statue in his honor; it was made with bronze from boat propellers donated by local fishermen since metal was a scarce resource in Cuba at this time.

Another episode in 1940 may have also served as a source for the novel. Hemingway witnessed a man and a boy in a small boat being dragged by a fish that the man had hooked. When Hemingway approached to try to help, the man had screamed at him to stay away. Hemingway watched the struggle for half the day, finally pulling his own boat close enough to throw some provisions into the boat of the embattled fisherman and boy. Beginning with the anecdote and perhaps this experience, Hemingway added Page 280  |  Top of Articledeeper elements from the environment to flesh out Santiago’s character and develop the action of the story.

Critical reception

As soon as Hemingway finished the manuscript of The Old Man and the Sea, he began receiving positive reactions from the few friends whom he allowed to read it. As word of the story spread, Cosmopolitan magazine offered Hemingway $10,000 to let it publish the complete story in one issue. Hemingway declined the offer. He wrote to publisher Charles Scribner, “This is the prose that I have been working for all my life that should read easily and simply and seem short and yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man’s spirit. It is as good prose as I can write as of now” (Hemingway in Brenner, p. 15).

In May 1952, Hemingway accepted a $40,000 offer from Life magazine to publish the story. In two days, Life magazine sold 5.3 million copies of its September 1st issue. The following year saw the story released in novel form with the first printing of the Book-of-the-Month Club edition selling 153,000 copies. The novel rose to the top of the bestseller lists and remained there for six months.

Early reviews of The Old Man and the Sea were favorable. Impressed by the novel’s humanistic tone, reviewer Philip Young wrote, “It is the knowledge that a simple man is capable of such decency, dignity and even heroism, and that his struggle can be seen in heroic terms, that largely distinguishes this book” (Young in Brenner, p. 18). Clinton S. Burhans, another critic, found in the character of Santiago “a noble and tragic individualism revealing what a man can do in an indifferent universe which defeats him, and the love he can feel for such a universe and his humility before it” (Burhans in Brenner, p. 18). Such acclaim was widespread. Recognized for its excellence, The Old Man and the Sea won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and contributed in 1954 to Hemingway’s receiving the Nobel Prize for literature.

For More Information

Brenner, Gerry. The Old Man and the Sea: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Fuentes, Norberto. Hemingway in Cuba. Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1984.

Hays, Peter L. Ernest Hemingway. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

MacGaffey, Wyatt, and Clifford R. Barnett. Cuba: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Hraf Press, 1962.

Pérez, Louis A., Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875100268