For 84 days, the old fisherman Santiago has caught nothing, returning empty-handed in his skiff to the small Cuban fishing village where he lives. After 40 days without a catch, Manolin's father has insisted that Manolin, the young man Santiago taught to fish from the age of five, fish in another boat.
This evening, as every evening, Manolin meets the old man to help carry the coiled line, gaff, harpoon, and sail back to his shack. Along the way, Manolin tries to cheer Santiago by reminding him of the time, when they were fishing together, that the old man went 87 days without a fish and then they caught big fish for three weeks.
On their way home, Manolin buys Santiago a beer at the Terrace. Some of the other fishermen make fun of Santiago; others look at him and are sad, speaking politely about the current and the depths at which they had fished and what they had seen at sea. The fishermen who were successful this day have taken their marlin to the fish house or their sharks to the shark factory. Manolin asks if he can get sardines for Santiago tomorrow. Santiago at first tells him to go play baseball but eventually relents. They reminisce a while, talk of Santiago's plans for going out the next day, and then go to Santiago's shack. Because Santiago has nothing to eat, Manolin fetches Santiago the dinner that the Terrace owner, Martin, sends for free, as he has many times before. As Santiago eats, he and the boy talk of baseball, the great Joe DiMaggio, and other topics of mutual interest.
The next morning, Santiago picks up the boy at his house. They have coffee (which is all that Santiago will have all day) at an early morning spot that serves fishermen. The boy fetches sardines and fresh bait and helps the old man ease his skiff into the water. They wish each other good luck, and the old man rows away.
The first quarter of this novella takes place on land, in a small Cuban fishing village on Tuesday evening, September 12, and Wednesday morning, September 13, 1950. The novella's point-of view in this section is that of an omniscient narrator (in the sense of knowing more than any one character and having access to the perspectives of multiple characters). With the exception of minor shifting to Manolin's thoughts, this third-person narrative is limited to and concentrates on Santiago and his actions. What readers know of Santiago's thoughts in this section of the novella comes from the narrator's statement of them, although this perspective later shifts when the story shifts to the sea. Most of this section's activities represent the characters' preparations for Santiago's setting out to sea on Wednesday morning for what will become the story's great struggle. Yet almost immediately those activities become surface realism, details that are mentioned but mostly glossed over and seen as the routine Santiago usually follows. On the other hand, Hemingway's preparations here not only set the stage but predict the plot of this deceptively simple tale, touch on the story's multiple themes, and begin to reveal in the story and its characters layers of meaning and larger and larger significances.
From its first paragraphs, the novella is replete with religious images and allusions. After 40 days without a catch in Santiago's boat, Manolin's parents have sent him out with another fisherman because they believe that Santiago is unlucky. The number 40 here suggests the stories of Noah (who also had to endure social separateness and ridicule and endure great hardship on a boat at sea) and of Moses (who was able to see the Promised Land and lead the children of Israel to it but never dwell there himself). Likewise, Manolin's catch of three fish his first day out with the other fisherman suggests the three days the people of Israel went without water before Moses struck the rock, the Trinity, and the story of the loaves and fishes that fed the multitude of Christ's followers. Santiago's name is Spanish for St. James, an apostle and fisherman. Men who are kind to Santiago are named Perico and Pedrico (both forms for Saint Peter) and Martin (for Saint Martin), suggesting disciples, spiritual followers, or men of faith. On the wall of Santiago's shack hangs a portrait of the Virgin of Cobre, the patroness of Cuba. Even Manolin's name (the diminutive of Manuel) is Spanish for Emmanuel, the Redeemer, although the full significance of his name becomes clear only at the story's end.
While entirely appropriate to Cuba's pervasively Catholic culture, these images and allusions suggest far more than any sectarian or even broadly religious dogma (as many critics, including Arvin Wells and Philip Young, have mentioned). These images and allusions run parallel to other images and allusions just as appropriate to Cuba's culture — such as a passion for baseball (its heroics and statistics) and an enthusiasm for games of chance (such as the lottery). These images and allusions span the secular to the profane and yoke religious conviction to a palpable belief in luck, which is also mentioned in the first paragraph.
For example, one of the places in which Hemingway yokes religion and baseball occurs when Santiago tells Manolin that the Yankees must have won their game, and Manolin expresses his fear that the Yankees will be beaten by another team. Their discussion follows the formal ritual of religious instruction, and indeed Santiago uses the discussion to remind Manolin to have faith and resist fear: "Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago." Because the Reds play in the National League, not the American League in which the Yankees play, Santiago's chiding is a reminder of the irrationality of fear, which can rob one of the power faith confers.
This yoking is neither derogatory nor blasphemous. Like religion, baseball and games of chance rely on ritual and have the power to engender hope, dreams, faith, absorption, and resolution (so integral to this story) — ultimately taking people beyond themselves. Together, these images and allusions suggest a theme of transformation and a larger spiritual dimension possible in the human condition: Human beings can summon imaginative vision, as well as physical endurance, creating the capacity to withstand and even transcend hardships.
That central theme radiates beyond the surface realism in this very human tale of an impoverished old man, his love for a young man who also loves him, and his trials in bringing in a big fish. Certainly that story is central, and Hemingway the journalist would have nothing less. Still, the theme's possibilities also push this tale toward allegory — a story with a surface meaning and one or more under-the-surface meanings; a narrative form so ancient and natural to the human mind as to be universal; a form used in pagan mythology, in both Testaments of the Bible, and in Classical to Post-Modern literature. In short, the novella invites, even demands, reading on multiple levels.
Hemingway's early descriptions of Santiago support the central theme and foreshadow (predict) the novella's ostensibly simple yet artfully designed plot. The old man's shirt, like his sail, is patched beyond all recognition. He is thin and gaunt, from a long life of hard work and times with little to eat. He has deep wrinkles on the back of his neck and blotches of skin cancer on his face and hands from a life spent in the sun's reflection on the tropical sea. His hands are scarred from handling heavy fish on cords, but the scars are "old as erosions in a fishless desert." Here is a poor man whose best days are behind him; who never had children; whose wife has died; who has known fishless stretches without the catch upon which his meager existence, the community's respect, and his sense of identity as an accomplished fisherman all depend. Job-like in his hardships, Santiago is a man who has endured many ordeals.
Clearly, Santiago is the next iteration in a long line of Hemingway's literary heroes: a man of action, tested by adversity, who lives by his own beliefs. When Manolin observes that Santiago's eyes (unlike those of the man whom Manolin now fishes with) are still good, Santiago describes himself as "a strange old man." He is strange in the sense that he is unconventional in his society. He remains dedicated to his principles (his own internal code of behavior) and to his passion for his profession above concerns for material gain or survival. Yet even for a Hemingway hero, Santiago is something special. After Manolin presses Santiago to accept some fresh baits, Santiago (who is also somewhat reminiscent of Don Quixote) proffers his customary protests to save face but eventually agrees: "?Thank you,' the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride."
Here, too, is a man who still has powerful shoulders, whose eyes are not old but the color of the sea and "cheerful and undefeated," who knows "many tricks" and has "resolution." Santiago's strength and his vision are not that of an old man. His eyes remain cheerful and undefeated because one of the many "tricks" he has learned — arguably more vital than his tricks of the fisherman's craft — is the transcendent power of imaginative vision. Whether drawing his inspiration and confidence from religion, baseball, games of chance, memories of his own youth, his love for Manolin, or something else, Santiago knows how to keep alive in himself and others the hope, dreams, faith, absorption, and resolution essential to withstand suffering, transcend it, and ultimately transform one's self.
Just as this realistic story tends toward allegory, Santiago and Manolin, as specific individuals, also can be seen as archetypal characters (universal representations inherited from the collective consciousness of our ancestors and the fundamental facts of human existence). Santiago is mentor, spiritual father, and the old man (viejo in Spanish) or old age; Manolin is pupil, son, and the boy (chico in Spanish) or youth. Many of their conversations have an element of ritual (such as the little fictions they engage in to preserve the old man's dignity — the food he says he has in his house, their talk of using the cast net they both know Santiago had to sell, their talk of borrowing some money for a lottery ticket, and so forth). Their conversations also have the rhythm and structure of a catechism or religious instruction. Manolin is Santiago's last and deepest human relationship; his replacement in the natural order; the one to whom he wishes to entrust his skill as a fisherman, the transforming power of his vision, and his memory.
That is why, when he is asleep, Santiago no longer dreams "of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife." For the most part, life's challenges and adventures are no longer his. He never dreams about Manolin, because the boy is part of a future Santiago can never know. Instead, Santiago dreams of young lions on the beach in Africa, where he sailed as a young man about Manolin's current age. Santiago loves the young lions as he loves "the boy" — meaning both the young man Santiago himself was and the young man Manolin is now.
Conventionally regarded as kings of the animal world, the young lions symbolize (represent) qualities such as courage, strength, grace, dignity — in short, all the qualities of a champion that Santiago holds dear in his own youthful memories and would bequeath to Manolin. Here is age bequeathing to youth whatever pieces of the species' collective knowledge age possesses. Here, too, is age recalling its own youth and reliving that youth vicariously in the vigor of the young. In this commingling of Santiago's youthful reminiscences with his hopes for Manolin, the lions also suggest Santiago's immortality. Confronted with life's natural cycle from youth to old age, the only immortality is in whatever one leaves the young.
While the writing in the novella is a tour-de-force, Hemingway's effort to pare down language and convey as much as possible in as few words as possible, the meanings here resonate on a larger and larger scale, as if ripples in water after a fish jump. For example, Hemingway conveys the novella's central theme in more ways than in the yoking of religious conviction with a belief in luck. Relying on a technique also used by T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, Hemingway the journalist enriches the story and advances its themes with resonances from historical, factual references. Having read yesterday's newspaper, the old man tells the boy about "the baseball" (el beisbol in Spanish):
"In the American League it is the Yankees as I said," the old man said happily.
"They lost today," the boy told him.
"That means nothing. The great DiMaggio is himself again."
Not only does the reference to DiMaggio reflect Santiago's deep faith and predict his upcoming battle at sea in the "month when the great fish come," but critics (including C. Harold Hurley and Bickford Sylvester) also have researched such references to determine the exact dates in September when the story takes place. From these dates can be inferred a great deal about Cuba's cultural, economic, and social circumstances in this story.
Critics also have established Manolin's exact age as 22, based on his reference to the baseball player Dick Sisler. "The great Sisler's father was never poor and he, the father, was playing in the Big Leagues when he was my age." Clearly, Manolin is a young man, referred to as "the boy" in this story from the old man's affectionate perspective and the Hispanic custom of referring to an unmarried man this way. Manolin is no child, but an apprentice, disciple, or initiate preparing to carry on, in Santiago's place, his most precious skills and beliefs. At the same time, both Manolin and Santiago recognize that Manolin is subject to the authority of his parents. Santiago tells Manolin, "If you were my boy I'd take you out and gamble …. But you are your father's and your mother's and you are in a lucky boat."
Early on, Hemingway expands the central theme by introducing supporting themes such as those suggested in a brief mention of the fish house and the shark factory:
The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana. Those who had caught sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out and their flesh cut into strips for salting.
When the wind was in the east a smell came across the harbour from the shark factory; but today there was only the faint edge of the odour because the wind had backed into the north and then dropped off ….
Not only does the description of what becomes of the marlin and the sharks foreshadow Santiago's battles, but it also suggests another variation on the theme of the natural order and man's role in it. As Santiago's relationship with Manolin suggests the natural cycle of life from youth to old age, this description suggests that all living beings can be viewed as both predator and prey. In that view, fishermen like Santiago, dedicated to their vocation and relying on their skill for their living, are part of the natural order.
Set against that view, the description of the fish house and the shark factory also suggests Cuba's changing socioeconomic circumstances (a smell coming from the north) and a village fishing culture converting to an exploitive fishing industry, as many critics, including Bickford Sylvester, have mentioned. This situation creates conflict between the new and the old economies, between the mechanical fishermen motivated by money and the passionate, skill-conscious fishermen dedicated to a vocation they see as a part of nature's cycle and a more spiritual way of life.
Viewed in this light, Manolin's father (who "hasn't much faith" and so insists Manolin fish in a more productive boat), the "almost blind" man Manolin now fishes with, and the young fishermen who ridicule Santiago at the Terrace are all pragmatic, practical men devoted to what they see as progress in this new materialism. On the other hand, Santiago, Manolin, the old fishermen who treat Santiago with respect, and the village shopkeepers who give him food or a newspaper or other small tokens of support are all idealists devoted to something enlarging in the old ways, something that nourishes the human spirit, something beyond material gain.
gaff a large, strong hook on a pole, or a barbed spear, used in landing large fish.
marlin any of several large, slender, deep-sea billfishes.
Dick Sisler famous baseball player and coach on numerous baseball teams, including the Cardinals, the Reds, and the Yankees.
Joe DiMaggio famous baseball player who played for the Yankees and is widely regarded as the best all-around player in baseball history.
John J. McGraw manager of the Giants from 1902 to 1932.
Leo Durocher manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1939 to 1946 and 1948.
Adolpho Luque pitcher for the Reds and Giants and a native of Havana, Cuba.
Mike Gonzalez catcher for the Cardinals (1916-1918, 1924) and a native of Cuba.
Que va (Spanish) No way.
oakum loose, stringy hemp fiber gotten by taking apart old ropes and treated with tar, used as a caulking material.
Mosquito Coast region on the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.
Canary Islands group of islands in the Atlantic, off northwest Africa, forming a region of Spain.
Virgin of Cobre reference to the statue of Our Lady of La Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity at Cobre), the most venerated in all of Cuba.