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Themes in The Old Man and the Sea

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

Prepping for a class discussion? Or just want to impress that cute girl in your English class? As you'll learn in this study guide, The Old Man and the Sea is all about being a man.

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    Manhood & Maculinity

    Exploring the themes in The Old Man and the Sea shows Hemingway's philosophy of life as exemplified by manhood, and Santiago's (and the marlin's) willingness to struggle against an undefeatable opponent.

    Santiago proves his manhood by refusing to be defeated, notwithstanding the incredible odds against him. From the beginning of the novel, we learn of Santiago's hopeless struggle:

    1. He has gone fishless for 84 days, something, which if you're a fisherman, is detrimental to your existence. Imagine owning a business and not selling one item for 84 days. You have no other options for earning income, for buying the necessities of life. Would you quit? Would you ask for a government bailout (Santiago did not have this option.)? Would you give up on life? Or would you be a man and keep fighting. Santiago keeps fighting, a characteristic admired by Hemingway.
    2. He has been abandoned by all, even by Manolin, his young friend, although this abandonment is forced by Manolin's father. Santiago is left in isolation, and according to Hemingway, it is not until a man is isolated that he can prove himself honorable and worthy. Manhood in The Old Man and the Sea, as demonstrated by Santiago, is done in isolation, far out beyond other fishermen, where the big fish dwell.
    3. Even after Santiago catches the marlin, the struggle remains hopeless as sharks attack his catch. Santiago still fights. Injured and beaten, but never defeated, Santiago reaches deep to resist inevitable defeat.

    When looking at prominent themes in The Old Man and the Sea, it is important to remember Hemingway's philosophy on struggle and death. According to Hemingway, It is the inevitability of death and struggle that allow humans to prove their worth.

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    Pride

    Another theme is Santiago's pride and its influence on his behavior.

    Santiago acknowledges he had gone too far out. He resembles other literary over-reachers, those who attempt to do more than they are capable and pay a heavy price--Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein, Odysseus, Dr. Faustus, and Lucifer for example. His prideful error causes him to lose his prize catch. Hemingway, however, does not condemn Santiago, for it is Santiago's pride that motivates him to:

    1. Keep fishing after 84 fishless days
    2. Keep fighting the marlin despite intense suffering
    3. Keep fighting the sharks without hope of victory

    It is these three things that make Santiago a man, according to Hemingway, regardless of the end result.

The Old Man and the Sea Study Guide

If you haven't gotten an 'A' in 84 days, you need to look at this study guide. Be careful. Sharks will devour it after one whiff.
  1. A Summary of The Old Man and the Sea
  2. Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea
  3. Themes in The Old Man and the Sea
  4. Important Quotes from The Old Man and the Sea
  5. The Old Man and the Sea Analysis: Characters in The Old Man and the Sea