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Compared to most novels, The Old Man and the Sea is unusual in many ways. The time span is very short; most of the action occurs during three days and three nights on the sea. There are also a "day before" and part of a "day after." Consider the demands this makes on the writer. Three days in the life of one person-with no other people around. Normally that would make a very boring story. But most readers agree that The Old Man and the Sea is not boring. How did Hemingway make this tiny time span in the life of only one person interesting?


Santiago, the "old man," has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. He's a widower and there's no mention of any children of his own. He has only "the boy," Manolin, as companion and genuine friend. Manolin had been Santiago's apprentice, but the boy's parents have made him work on another fishing boat because Santiago has "bad luck." But he's still loyal to Santiago and helps the old man prepare for an attempt to catch "the big one."


Santiago rows his skiff out from the Havana harbor far beyond normal fishing waters, hoping to end his string of bad luck with a really huge catch. He sets his lines and reads the signs of the sea, finding them favorable.

His deepest line shows signs of a fish nibbling at the bait, and he can tell it's a very large fish. After a final strike, he sets the hook-and the fish begins to tow the boat with ease! Santiago realizes this is not an ordinary fish.


The fish continues to pull Santiago's skiff out to sea like a child pulling a toy wagon. Still, the fish is a prisoner and Santiago begins to feel pity for this great catch. But this does not soften his resolve to "stay with you until I am dead."


Santiago increases tension on the line to the breaking point, attempting to make the fish jump. The line has been stretched over his back for hours now. He begins to feel intense pain. At an unexpected lurch from the great fish, the line cuts his right hand. And to make matters even worse, his left hand has become cramped like "the gripped claws of an eagle."

The fish surfaces for the first time. Santiago sees he has hooked a marlin "longer than the skiff." By noon his left hand uncramps, and he repeats prayers for success as the fish continues towing the skiff. They are now far beyond sight of the shore.

Baseball, an intense interest he shares with Manolin, occupies his thoughts, particularly his idolization of "the great DiMaggio." Santiago recalls a time in his youth when he too was "the champion" in a daylong arm-wrestling match with a mighty opponent.


Santiago eats a small fish he has caught on one of his other lines, and he sleeps for the first time. Then a furious jerk of the lines wakes him, and his hands get badly cut. The great marlin is jumping. This is good because its air sacs will fill and the fish won't sink to the bottom and die, unable to be pulled back up.


The marlin begins to circle the boat rather than tow it. This is a major breakthrough in the struggle to bring in the fish. Santiago puts as much tension on the line as possible to make the circles shorter. On the third turn the fish is close enough for Santiago to see him well. The fish is enormous beyond belief.

After several more circles, Santiago gets the marlin close enough to kill it with his harpoon. Since the fish is much longer than the skiff, it must be lashed to the side rather than towed behind. Santiago puts up the mast and sets sail to the southwest, back toward Havana.

But a mako shark strikes the marlin and tears off at least forty pounds of flesh before Santiago can kill it. In the killing, he loses his harpoon. Now there is a massive trail of blood and scent in the water, which will inevitably attract other sharks.

And they come. They're shovel-nosed, scavenger sharks-galanos. Santiago kills one with his knife that is lashed to an oar; then he kills another, with greater difficulty. But a quarter of the prize marlin meat is now gone. Later, a third galano destroys even more of the marlin before Santiago can kill him, and the knife blade breaks in the process. At sunset come still two more. He is unable to kill them but injures them with a club made from an old broken oar.


Santiago begins to see the reflected glare of Havana lights. But the galanos now come in a pack. He fights them with a club and even with the skiff's tiller, but they strip the remaining flesh from the marlin.

So now he pilots his small craft home, bringing only a skeleton. He arrives in the middle of the night, beaches his skiff, carries the mast to his shack, and falls into an exhausted sleep.


Manolin finds him sleeping. There has been a big stir among the village fishermen over the incredible size of the skeleton still lashed to Santiago's skiff. Manolin tends to the spent, pain-ridden old man and vows to fish with him again.

Tourists look with detached amusement at the skeletal remains of Santiago's three-day battle. They do not understand the nature or significance of Santiago's experiences. Is Santiago a triumphant figure or a tragic figure, or a strange combination of both? You'll have to decide that for yourself.

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