Summary and Analysis
Alone in his boat, in the dark of early morning, Santiago rows out to sea. He hears the other fishermen leaving in their boats but cannot see them in the dark. He passes the phosphorescence of some Gulf weed and one of the deep wells where many fish and other sea creatures congregate. He has fished such deep wells without success on previous days of this long stretch without a catch. So this day, he plans to row far out to sea, in search of a really big fish.
As he rows, Santiago hears the flying fish he regards as friends and feels sympathy for the delicate sea birds that must fish to survive and must cope with an ocean that can be beautiful yet cruel. He also thinks about the differences between himself and the younger fishermen who float their lines on buoys and use motorboats bought with money they earned selling shark livers. Whereas Santiago affectionately refers to the sea as la mar (using the Spanish feminine), they say el mar (using the Spanish masculine).
Santiago rows effortlessly, not disturbing the ocean's surface but working with the current, letting it do a third of the work. He sets his baits at precise depths and ties and sews them so that all the hook is concealed and sweet smelling and good tasting to a fish. He uses the albacores Manolin bought for him and a big blue runner and a yellow jack he had from before, using the sardines to give them scent and attractiveness. He loops each line onto a green-sapped stick, so that even a touch on the bait will make the stick dip, and connects the coils of line so that a fish can run out more than 300 fathoms if necessary.
As he fishes, Santiago takes pride in keeping his lines straighter than anyone, even though he knows that other fishermen sometimes let their lines drift with the current. For a moment, he reluctantly admits that, despite his precision, he has no luck anymore. But he quickly reminds himself that each day is a new day and that, while it is better to be lucky, he prefers to be exact so that he will be ready when the luck finally comes. Santiago briefly reflects that all his life the early morning sun has hurt his eyes, yet again catches himself, keeping in mind that his eyes are still good and in the evening he can look into the sun without getting the blackness.
Santiago sees a man-of-war bird circling in the sky ahead of him. Through his experience and his fisherman's skill, he recognizes that the bird is following a school of flying fish, themselves pursued by a school of big dolphin. Santiago works with nature, fishing where the bird leads, but neither he nor the bird have any luck. As the flying fish (which have little chance against the dolphin) move too fast for the bird, the school of dolphin move too fast and too far for Santiago. Santiago clings to the hope that perhaps he will catch a stray, but the dolphin get away.
Santiago studies a Portuguese man-of-war (agua mala he calls it in Spanish) floating in the water. He notices the tiny fish swimming in its filaments and notes that while these fish are immune to its poisons, men are not. While working on a fish, he has many times suffered welts and sores from the poisons. He considers the man-of-war's iridescent beauty the falsest thing in the sea, and he thinks how much he loves to watch sea turtles eat them or to step on them himself on the beach after a storm.
Santiago recalls his days turtling and thinks that "people are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered." He muses that his heart is like the turtle's, as are his hands and feet, and that he eats turtle eggs to be strong in the fall when the big fish come, the same reason he drinks the shark liver oil available in the shack where the fishermen store their equipment. Although the oil is there for anyone who wants it, most of the fishermen don't like it. But Santiago considers it no worse than the early hours fishermen keep, and he drinks it because it gives him strength, is good for the eyes, and protects against colds and grippes.
The second time Santiago sees the bird circling above him, he sees tuna jumping into the air. Santiago successfully catches a ten-pound albacore and hauls it into the boat, where it flops around until he kills it out of kindness. Santiago says aloud that the fish will make a good bait, which prompts him to begin thinking about his habit of talking aloud to himself at sea, a habit that he began after Manolin stopped fishing with him. He remembers that he and Manolin talked only when necessary or at night when bad weather had them storm-bound. Most fishermen consider talking only when necessary at sea a virtue, and Santiago has always respected that belief. Now, however, he grants himself this minor indiscretion because it bothers no one. He knows that if the others hear him, they will consider him crazy, but he decides that if he is crazy, this habit doesn't matter and that the rich take along their radios to listen to baseball games.
Santiago upbraids himself for thinking of baseball when he should be focusing his attention on what he describes as "[t]hat which I was born for." He shifts his thoughts to something he has observed this day — all the fish he has seen are moving fast, travelling to the northeast. Although he is not sure whether that is a sign of bad weather or something else, he has noticed. He also notices that he is now so far out into the ocean that he can barely see the tops of the tallest hills, which look white in the distance. With the sun hot on his back, Santiago briefly is tempted to nap, with a line around his toe to wake him if a fish bites. But he remembers that he has been trying to catch a fish for 85 days now and so "must fish the day well." At that moment, one of the green sticks take a sharp dip.
The novella's overall structure can be divided, according to setting, into three parts — the three phases of Santiago's cyclical journey from the land to the sea and then back to the land again. (This cyclical journey also suggests the cyclical quality of human life and the various cycles of the natural world, such as the change of season or the interdependency of all living creatures in the food chain.) The novella's middle part, which takes place at sea, actually comprises the bulk of the story, its central action, and its most dramatic moments. However, by considering first what takes place on Santiago's voyage out and then what takes place during his great sea battles, special attention can be focused on the first section's realistic description and other details that should not be glossed over lightly.
As Santiago, alone in his boat, rows out to sea, the third-person, omniscient narrative of the first part on land begins to shift a bit and continues to do so throughout the second part at sea. Here the perspective draws closer to Santiago, entering his mind with increasing regularity as Hemingway begins blending narrative modes (methods of telling the story). Sometimes this movement into Santiago's thoughts is signaled traditionally, with a tag such as he thought or with he said and the conventional quotation marks around what Santiago actually speaks aloud. (Attention is even paid to this handy literary device in Santiago's explanation that he permits himself to talk aloud while at sea without Manolin.) At other times, the narrative drifts almost imperceptibly into Santiago's thoughts (sometimes cast as first-person interior monologue) or the quotation marks around whatever Santiago speaks aloud to himself eventually disappear.
Although only about half the length of the novella's previous part on land, this first section of the much lengthier part at sea adds much more than a simple build up of suspense. Here Hemingway begins to demonstrate Santiago's considerable skill as a fisherman (gained through a lifetime of experience), his dedication to his vocation, and his capacity to cultivate and draw upon the inspiration and imaginative vision he needs to sustain himself in the face of hardship. Here we see that Santiago, even with his better days behind him, is still a man in charge, still an expert who knows what to do and knows the tricks of his fisherman's craft. He is also still a man whose imaginative vision remains strong despite a lifetime of hardships that have hurt him, as the morning sun has always hurt his eyes.
In this section, Hemingway also dramatizes Santiago's relationship to the natural world and his place in the natural order, a place all fishermen like Santiago assume. Hemingway also begins to demonstrate Santiago's philosophy in action and to distinguish for the reader Santiago's code of behavior from that of the fishermen who are not like him. In short, the descriptive details and other information Hemingway provides in this section resonate with the novella's ever-expanding meanings.
With every "thrust of the blades in the water," Santiago cuts himself off from the land and the human community ashore: "The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean." Putting the humiliation of his life ashore behind him, leaving behind the young man he loves, Santiago begins his solitary quest for the big fish that will once again affirm his identity as a great fisherman, restore the respect of his community, and solidify his relationship with Manolin in a way that will last beyond his death.
Setting out to sea, Santiago resembles something of Homer's Odysseus setting forth or Cervantes' Don Quixote commencing a noble quest (as many critics, including Angel Capellán and Sergio H. Bocaz, have mentioned). Yet Santiago, alone in the dark, is neither seeking adventure and material gain like Odysseus, nor is he self-deluded like Don Quixote. Santiago instead becomes a solitary human representative to the natural world, which is larger than human society, and a participant in the natural order of predator and prey that binds all life together in complete interdependency.
Amid such resonances, Hemingway the journalist immediately anchors the story in the realistic details of ocean life — the seaweed, the creatures that inhabit the deep wells, the flying fish. Hemingway actually even evokes the sound the flying fish make with the repeated sibilant s in his description of "the hissing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away in the darkness." With that sound of the flying fish, the narrative moves inside Santiago's thoughts. He recognizes that the flying fish are his friends. He also empathizes with the sea birds, who share so much of his own hardship in their "flying and looking and almost never finding," and he thinks that "the birds have a harder life than we do."
Out of these musings comes a philosophical question that echoes Job's question to God about why the good are made to suffer: "Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?" Like Job, Santiago receives no satisfactory answer that he can understand, simply an ongoing recognition that he and all of nature's creatures participate in the same pattern of necessity. He shares an affectionate kinship with all living creatures that must prey upon and be preyed upon in turn, for all share and are subject to the same conditions of life.
Presented here so concisely is something of the philosophical basis for the behavioral code of fishermen like Santiago, who respect nature and see themselves as part of it, relying upon their skill and dedication to their craft to participate in nature's eternal pattern. By extension of this philosophy, Santiago affectionately refers to the sea, which is so beautiful, as la mar (the Spanish feminine) and loves her even as he recognizes that she is part of nature and so cannot help her occasional cruelty.
Hemingway demonstrates this philosophy in action by conveying the details of Santiago's considerable skill as a fisherman and of the precision with which he performs each task, as though it were religious ritual. For example, by rowing steadily, keeping within his speed, not disturbing the ocean's surface, and "letting the current do a third of the work," Santiago discovers at first light that "he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour." Twice he follows a circling bird, recognizing it as a clear sign of where to fish. Exercising great care in the way he baits his hooks, he ensures that there is "no part of the hook that a great fish could feel which was not sweet smelling and good tasting." Santiago also keeps his lines "straighter than anyone did."
In direct contrast, and presented just as concisely, is something of the philosophical basis for the behavior of the mechanized fishermen who "used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money." These pragmatic, practical materialists refer to the sea as el mar (the Spanish masculine) and speak of the sea as "a contestant or a place or even an enemy." As they play out their philosophical position, they sow the seeds of their own economic destruction in the future ravages of long-line fishing, powerful motorboats, and other environmental disregard (as critics such as Bickford Sylvester have observed).
As Santiago muses about his precision in keeping his lines straight while others "let them drift with the current," he is also forced to admit that he has no luck. This recognition that sometimes the unworthy prosper expands upon his earlier Job-like question. Yet Santiago quickly reestablishes his faith in his own skill, its philosophical basis, and the hope of each new day. Here again Hemingway yokes religious conviction and a belief in luck through the possibility that both confer. Santiago's faith sustains him and offers him hope so that he can endure and remain strong even in the face of 84 days without a catch, old age, poverty, loneliness, social separateness, mortality, and so on.
Indeed, embedded within Santiago's hope that if one is exact one will be ready when the luck comes is the echo of an old aphorism about God helping those who help themselves. While Benjamin Franklin said it of God, Aesop earlier said it of the gods. In both cases, the aphorism recognizes that in the face of unknowable and uncontrollable forces, one must rely on one's own abilities while keeping faith and hope alive. Almost immediately, Santiago also recognizes that despite the early sun that has hurt his eyes all his life, his eyes are still good. Here again, the realistic detail about his eyes becomes a metaphor for the inspiration and imaginative vision that sustain him and permit him to endure life's hardships.
So when Santiago first follows the bird, which is following the flying fish, he comes to realize that, as the bird "has no chance" because the flying fish "are too big for him," the dolphin also have "gotten away from me" because they are "moving out too fast and too far." Still, Santiago clings to the hope that perhaps he will yet catch his big fish. He thinks, "My big fish must be somewhere."
As Santiago must constantly struggle with external hardships, he also must constantly renew his own faith in himself. When he must admit that his efforts this time have failed, his musings turn a bit bleak. His closeness to, and identification with, nature do not blind him to nature's cruelty or falseness. In fact, much of what Santiago understands about morality is closely bound to nature, for he sees the two coexist. For example, Santiago sees both cruelty and falseness in the beautiful iridescence of the Portuguese men-of-war, which sting the arms and hands of fishermen working their lines and cause sores much like poison ivy. For that reason, Santiago enjoys watching the turtles eat them or stepping on them when he walks on the beach. He also thinks about how most people "are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered." Santiago identifies with the turtles and, by extension, feels this same heartlessness directed toward himself, for he thinks, "I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs."
Yet Santiago's imaginative vision also enables him to find inspiration in this identification with the turtle and, by extension, all of nature, something ennobling that strengthens his faith in himself, his belief in possibility, and his will to endure. His thoughts turn to the white turtle eggs he always eats in the spring to give himself the strength to fish for the truly big fish in the fall. And he thinks of the foul-tasting shark liver oil that he drinks from a big drum in the fishermen's equipment shack, because the oil protects him from colds and grippes and is "good for the eyes."
Once again, Santiago affirms his place in the natural order and his kinship with all other living creatures as he reveals more of his tricks, not the least of which is his unfailing ability to endure. Once again, his "good eyes" represent the inspiration and imaginative vision that make possible his will to endure. As a result, the second time Santiago follows the circling bird, his skill, persistence, and faith yield a small reward in the ten-pound albacore he catches, a fish that will "make a beautiful bait."
la mar, el mar sea (Spanish feminine noun, Spanish masculine noun).
bonito any of a genus of marine game and food scombroid fishes.
albacore a tuna with unusually long pectoral fins, important as a game and food fish in all warm seas.
flying fish a warm-sea fish with winglike pectoral fins that enable it to glide through the air.
big blue runner any of various edible jack fishes of warm seas, as a bluish species and a striped bluish species.
yellow jack an edible, gold-and-silver marine jack fish found near Florida and the West Indies.
dolphin a game fish with colors that brighten and change when the fish is taken out of the water.
man-of-war bird a large, tropical bird with extremely long wings and tail and a hooked beak.
plankton the usually microscopic animal and plant life found floating or drifting in the ocean or in bodies of fresh water, used as food by nearly all aquatic animals.
Sargasso weed floating brown algae found in tropical seas and having a main stem with flattened outgrowths like leaves, and branches with berry-like air sacs.
gelatinous like gelatin or jelly; having the consistency of gelatin or jelly; viscous.
Portuguese man-of-war a large, warm-sea jellyfish that floats on the water and has long, dangling tentacles with powerful stinging cells.
agua mala (Spanish) jellyfish; Portuguese man-of-war.
carapace the horny, protective covering over all or part of the back of certain animals, as the upper shell of the turtle, armadillo, crab, etc.
green turtle, hawk-bill, loggerhead turtles.