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Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea: Connection between Santiago and the Marlin

Updated on December 5, 2015

In Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea,” Santiago is an old fisherman struggling for a catch after an eighty-four day dry spell. The old man’s “sail was patched with flour sacks, and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat[1].” But the old man wasn’t concerned—he had gone eighty-seven days before without a catch, and to him, this was a new challenge and not a matter of luck as the other fishermen taunted. It is this attitude that defines Santiago as something other than an old man in a fishing boat, trolling the sea. In this, Santiago’s struggle with nature, his struggle for survival, show that how, like the prey he seeks, the old man represents something much greater.

In the beginning, Santiago is just an old man at sea with nothing to show for his efforts. Once he comes across the mythical marlin, both begin to define man’s struggle within nature. Santiago’s struggle with the marlin becomes epic, transcending all the other major moments in Santiago’s life as Santiago speaks aloud to the marlin: “fish…I’ll stay with you until I am dead[2].” He knows there is something unique about this catch, something that has to do with his commitment to the fish itself, and, he knows, the fish to him. Every move he makes is to befriend the marlin, to keep him on the line just long enough for Santiago to make the final move. In this, though, Santiago knows his place. He cannot catch the marlin without the marlin letting it be so. While man can fight and conquer nature, this aspect of Santiago and the marlin demonstrate that both must work together, even to the end.

Moreover, both Santiago and the marlin are in an epic struggle for survival. Santiago because he has caught nothing for more than eighty days, and the marlin purely for instinctual reasons; however, as Santiago thinks, “he took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male, and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am[3].” The marlin, in this instant, becomes more than just a fish in the sea. The marlin is now a character within the tale, a character to be invested in, and as the marlin fights, the question of who will win begins to loom. Truly, who has more to lose? As the battle plays out, it becomes clear that while the marlin is defeated, so too is Santiago—by an enemy more insidious than the sea itself. And it is through this losing struggle that Santiago and the marlin can be fully compared—as both were defeated by the same enemy.

In the end, Santiago loses his battle with the great marlin to the sharks. Both fought bravely and struggled hard, but ultimately, both Santiago and the marlin lost. Many critics make note that both Santiago and the marlin can be viewed as symbolic Christian figures. Santiago because he battles against evil (the sharks) and yet, when he returns home, feeling beaten and destroyed by his long battle and even longer time at sea, Santiago reflects on life as it is—and comes to the conclusion that though he was beaten, there was no more noble attempt made than his. The marlin, too, can be viewed as a Christian symbol in that it is as brave as Santiago, battling Santiago with a sense of teaching, patience, and instruction. Moreover, the marlin was literally eaten by the evil that beat Santiago. However, the marlin’s head remains as a symbol of the great struggle—and even the evil sharks could not take that away.

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is a tale of immense struggle, both between man and nature, and man and his place within nature. Santiago is like the marlin that he attempts to catch in that both are battling for the same purpose—survival, and both seem to teach the other during the epic moments. Santiago knows that he is just an instant away from losing his prize catch, knowing too, that he must allow the marlin to be caught in its own time. But, despite the struggle and the patience of both Santiago and the marlin, both are destroyed by an even greater evil. Yet, by the end of the story, with Santiago reflecting and the marlin’s head as the remaining catch, both survive.

[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (London: Hueber Verlag, 1975), 5.

[2] Hemingway, 18.

[3] Hemingway, 17.


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