The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway’s novellas for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature. In his novella, Ernest Hemingway tells us the story of an aging fisherman, Santiago, who fails to catch a fish. He had the company of a boy called Manolin. But the parents of the young boy forced him to leave the old man and to fish in a more prosperous boat because the old man failed to catch a fish for eighty-four-days.
Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in a language of “great simplicity and power” by using “short, declarative sentences” and a “tough, terse prose.” Hemingway was an expatriate in the 1920s. Also, he was a former journalist and an ambulance driver during the World War I. Ernest Hemingway was an “aficionado of bullfighting and big-game hunting, and his main protagonists were always men and women of courage and conviction, who suffered unseen scars, both physical and emotional.” (Scribner 2003)
In Santiago, the central character of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway has created the character of a Cuban fisherman who personifies courage, endurance, and faith.
The reader-response criticism “adheres to the belief that the act of reading is just as creative as the act of writing because the readers bring experiences and feelings to the work that influence the text’s meaning.”
We are going to evaluate and understand the themes of courage, endurance, and faith which are being personified by the old Cuban man, Santiago.
Courage is central to Hemingway’s world view and it is portrayed by the central character of the novella. Santiago shows great courage throughout the whole story. After “eighty-four-days now without taking a fish,” (Hemingway 2003, p.9) the old man is not being discouraged. He decides to go far out to sea in his skiff alone. He has the courage to persevere even though he is sitting in the sweltering heat of the sun for hours. Even though Santiago had not caught a fish in eighty-four-days, he never gives up. He was old but “his eyes…were cheerful and undefeated.” (Hemingway 2003, p.10) He had courage in the face of defeat; finally, on day eighty-five, he finally caught an enormous marlin. “Fish,” he said softly aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.” His struggle shows a great courage. Rama Rao, in his book called Ernest Hemingway’s the Old Man and the Sea, writes:
The old Santiago passes through various experiences until, in the end, he not only faces the sea but passes through the problems and obstacles it places in his way and catches the biggest ever fish of his life and defends it against the bloodthirsty sharks demonstrating the indefatigable and unconquerable spirit of” the man. (Rao 2007, p.44)
The novella, The Old Man and the Sea, is indeed a remarkable story of courage. It is Santiago’s ‘unconquerable spirit’ (Hemingway 2003) which gives him the ability to struggle and persevere against the hardship of life. “He took my harpoon too and all the rope” but “man is not made for defeat,” Santiago said, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” (Hemingway 2003, p.103) This epic struggle between the marlin and the old man is not surprising because he is the man who was able to defeat the “great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks.” (Hemingway 2003, p.69)
Ernest Hemingway’s novella is also about endurance. The old man endures hunger, poverty and the contempt of his fellow men but he never complains. He prefers to pretend that he owns “a pot of yellow rice with fish” (Hemingway 2003, p.16) instead of begging. He endures the elements and the pain with a great dignity and determination by remembering that “every day is a new day.” (Hemingway 2003, p.32) He has physical strength and endurance, both of which induce him to think that “pain does not matter to a man.” (Hemingway 2003, p.84) Santiago values so much the moral quality of endurance that he even admires the fish for his endurance. Furthermore, during his battle with the fish and the sharks, Santiago shows an interminable endurance and an incredible strength. All that the old man had in his boat for sustenance was a bottle of water and some strips of fish. Santiago is determined to endure the pain just like the American player Joe DiMaggio. According to Patricia Dunlavy Valenti, “Santiago thinks repeatedly about DiMaggio, not merely because the player was a legend in his own time, but because, as the son of a poor fisherman and a man who had come back to baseball after physical injury and a streak of bad luck, DiMaggio offers Santiago personal inspiration.” (135). She adds, “when Santiago’s confidence falters, he thinks of DiMaggio” and “Santiago is in pain- one hand cramping, the other cut, his back aching- he recalls DiMaggio’s bone spurs.” Just as DiMaggio was able to play baseball and endure the pain of a bone spur, Santiago wanted to be able to struggle through the pain of his hands and the hunger and the thirst. He declares on page 68 that he “must have confidence” and he “must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” (Valenti 2002, p.68)
In the character of Santiago, Ernest Hemingway has not only created a person who personifies courage and endurance but also faith. On the “brown walls” of Santiago’s room, “there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre.” Ishteyaque Shams remarks, “Santiago does not seem to have to do anything with Christianity; nevertheless, he leaves his wife’s relics undisturbed” (104). In addition, it is significant to see Santiago commencing to “say his prayers mechanically” and he “would say them fast so they would come automatically.” He says his prayers because he wants to catch the marlin.
Santiago’s faith is indeed strong because he remembers his prayers when he needed them the most. He spontaneously says, “God help me endure” (Hemingway 2003, p.87) when he needed all his strength in order to capture the huge marlin.
Moreover, “we get the first inkling of Crucifixion in Santiago’s uninhibited, spontaneous reaction to the arrival of sharks near the dead fish: “Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntary, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.”
It is indeed Santiago’s faith that helps him to endure all this suffering. In the same manner, it is his strong faith that enables Santiago to build up a brotherhood between him and his surrounding. It is only because of this brotherhood between him and the marlin that he is able to endure all what his happening to him. “I am a tired old man,” he says, “but I have killed this fish which is my brother and now I must do the slave work.”
Also it is faith that makes him feel guilty and it makes him think that “perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish.” Therefore, Santiago’s absolute faith in DiMaggio and God helps him find the necessary courage to endure a hard life and a terrible battle against the marlin and the sharks.
The Old Man and the Sea recasts the theme of courage, endurance and faith in the person of Santiago with an incredible force and beauty. Though living in poverty, with nothing to eat, Santiago is able to be optimistic and he is able to love his brothers who make fun of him. And most of all, he is able to love the sea creatures that test his strength until the end of the novella. Santiago is a man of incredible courage and endurance.
Hemingway, E. (2003). The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner