Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Old Man and the Sea

Go To

"Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

A 1952 novella by Ernest Hemingway that tells the story of a poor Cuban fisherman of Spanish origins named Santiago who has not caught a fish in several months. He goes out to sea where he hooks a giant marlin, which he fights day and night, eventually catching it. He lashes it to the side of his boat and tries to take it home to sell. Unfortunately, it is eaten by sharks, despite the old man's valiant effort to fight them off. Defeated, the old man walks home and collapses in bed (although it can still be a moral victory, since he's proved that he can still catch fish).

Due to the symbolism, relatively easy prose and short length, The Old Man and the Sea is a mainstay of high school English courses, and is perhaps one of the most widely-read books in the United States (at least for people under thirty). It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and pretty much sealed the deal on Hemingway's 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was adapted into a 1958 film starring Spencer Tracy, an Academy Award-winning 1999 Russian cartoon by Aleksandr Petrov, and a 1990 miniseries with Anthony Quinn.

The Old Man and the Sea provides examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Santiago still caught his fish, and he promises his apprentice that they will be able to work together again, however he lost his catch to the sharks and it's left ambiguous as to how truthful he is; he may well soon be dead.
  • Broken Ace: The last book Hemingway ever saw published himself was also fittingly his last bittersweet reconstruction of his philosophy of manhood. Santiago catches the fish, but it gets eaten by sharks and it's implied he dies at the end. Nevertheless, he still passes his lessons on to the boy, and most importantly, the fish never beat him. His Doomed Moral Victor status is even cemented by a literary Crucified Hero Shot.
  • Cool Old Guy: Santiago, of course. A lot of his interaction with his apprentice emphasises how much respect they have for each other because of this (contrasting with the apprentice's new employer).
  • Crucified Hero Shot: When Santiago gets home from the epic battle with the enormous fish, he trudges up the hill carrying the mast of his sailboat. He then collapses on his bed on his back with his arms outstretched, and his hands mangled by the fishing line. There's also this line when he sees the first sharks coming:
    "Ay", he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: The marlin earns Santiago's respect due to its strength and will.
  • Determinator: Santiago continuously combated the marlin over the course of two days and two nights without rest, all the while feeling the effects it and age had on his body, including hunger, cramps, and even minor injuries. Even after the fish is caught, Santiago remains determined to protect his catch from sharks, and only stops when he runs out of ways to fight off the sharks (after using a harpoon, and improvised spear made from a knife tied to an oar, a club, and finally the tiller of his boat) and all but the head of the fish has been taken. Keep in mind that this is AFTER going roughly 96 hours without sleep and only a few morsels of fish as sustenance.
    • The marlin as well. That's one badass fish to drag the old man that far out to sea.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Santiago wins his fight against the marlin, and in doing so he has made an unforgettable act of fishing, but the effects of being stranded at sea for days exposed to the elements, with very little food, water and sleep, and having exhausted himself beyond belief with all of the constant struggling, he's so exhausted that the feverish dreaming he's having at the end may or may not be his Dying Dream.
  • Duel to the Death: Santiago comes to realize that this is essentially what his situation with the marlin has become when it starts to circle. He muses why it has to be this way, in one of the biggest moments between he and the fish.
  • Fictional Fan, Real Celebrity: Santiago is a big fan of the baseball player Joe DiMaggio.
  • Improvised Weapon: After Santiago loses his harpoon, he makes a new one by strapping his knife to the end of an oar. When the knife breaks, he fights the sharks with a club, until he loses that too. Then, he takes out the tiller of the boat, and beats the last shark to death with it.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Santiago muses about how he used to be an extremely strong and muscular sailor.
  • Manly Tears: The boy cries when he sees the old man's injured hands.
  • The Mentor: The old man to the boy. Fittingly.
  • Minimalist Cast: There are only two important (human) characters, the old man and the boy. For most of the story, it's just Santiago out alone at the sea. A few other people briefly appear at the end.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Of a sort. Santiago for the most part is the standard Hemingway protagonist, i.e. a competent, utterly determined paragon of manliness. But he's also an old man. Hemingway was starting to age around the time he wrote Old Man, and it came right after he wrote Across the River and into the Trees, a book which got significant bad press. In a way, Santiago is probably something of a reflection upon the way Hemingway felt about himself.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Santiago spends the better part of the book fighting the great fish; he finally catches it, and then it's eaten by sharks.
  • Taxonomic Term Confusion: The old man catches a fish known as "Dolphin Fish"(more commonly known today as Mahi-Mahi), and calls it only "dolphin" throughout the book.
  • Thank Your Prey: Santiago remembers when he and his apprentice did this. Although it was more along the lines of an apology.
  • The Joy of X: Many future works have used "The Old Man And The X" as a title as a Shout-Out.
  • Threatening Shark: Many of these end up devouring the Marlin after Santiago finally catches it, leaving only the head and the skeleton.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Santiago got into the habit of talking to himself while out fishing alone.
    "If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy," he said aloud. "But since I am not crazy, I do not care. "
  • Worthy Opponent: Santiago feels that way about the marlin. At one point, he says: "Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."

Alternative Title(s): The Old Man And The Sea