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The actual mechanics of setting-the time and place-are easy to identify from a small amount of research. We know the story takes place on the ocean off the coast of Havana, Cuba. An atlas will enable you to locate Cuba and see its close relationship to the southern tip of Florida.
Note the position of Havana on the northern coast of Cuba. By checking indicators of the direction of the Gulf Stream, you can plot the course of Santiago's skiff as it was towed by the marlin, which began swimming against the stream but was finally carried by it.
The time aspect of the setting is equally interesting to track down, although there are few clues. In many ways, Santiago fishes with the same method and equipment as generations before him did. The story would be believable if it were set in the eighteenth century. But some definite references to a more recent time are Santiago's mention of beer in cans and the airplanes which fly over him on their way to Miami. Most obvious of all, however, are the references to Joe DiMaggio. His career lasted from 1936 to 1951, and checking with a more complete biography may enable you to pinpoint the time more precisely by means of DiMaggio's bone spur.
Often the setting of a story contributes greatly to the conflict of the plot itself. The sea is perfectly suited for this and has been the source of conflict (man vs. nature) in countless stories. But not here. It isn't the sea itself that Santiago battles. Here the sea is simply the perfect place for a single man's battle because it powerfully emphasizes-actually creates-Santiago's aloneness. Santiago "on the sea" is a great vehicle for talking about Santiago ("Everyman") "everywhere."
As often happens in a great piece of literature, there is more than one possible theme. There are many, and people do not always agree on which are central. Hemingway himself said he tried very hard to make the man, the boy, the sea, the fish, and the shark true enough to life. Consequently, they might mean many things to different people. And these different things that people see in his story won't always fit together like pieces in a puzzle. Some of them are contradictory. Here are some possibilities.
1. MAN THE SINNER
Even Santiago accuses himself of treachery. He deliberately went out far beyond the usual fishing waters, violating the sanctuary of the marlin. In other words, he sinned. Just as the flood waters of Genesis brought destruction upon the earth as the result of sin, so the sin of Santiago is followed by destruction.
2. MAN THE SAINT
Santiago is filled with a simple, honest goodness. he loved his wife; he loves Manolin; he loves many things on the earth. Following the example of Christ, he suffers unjustly and undergoes defeat. He experiences his own type of crucifixion. But his acceptance of suffering, again following the model of Christ, inspires and frees Manolin, who will follow after him and continue his work.
Greek "Stoic" philosophers taught that the glory of a human being is to accept suffering and misfortune without complaint, even without resistance. Santiago certainly exemplifies this. "Suffering does not matter to a man," he says. He endures the sustained pain of the line across his back and the cuts on his face and hands. Although he expresses rage at the scavenger sharks, he does not complain to heaven or to anyone over the destruction of his incredible catch.
4. THE "CODE HERO"
Closely related to the concept of stoicism is the "Code Hero," a phrase used to describe the main character in many of Hemingway's novels. Some critics regard Santiago as the finest, most developed example of these code heroes.
In this phrase, "code" means a set of rules or guidelines for conduct. In Hemingway's code, the principal ideals are honor, courage, and endurance in a life of stress, misfortune, and pain. Often in Hemingway's stories, the hero's world is violent and disorderly; moreover, the violence and disorder seem to win.
The "code" dictates that the hero act honorably in the midst of what will be a losing battle. In doing so he finds fulfillment: he becomes a man or proves his manhood and his worth. The phrase "grace under pressure" is often used to describe the conduct of the code hero.
Although Santiago's great adventure takes place while he is completely alone, he feels the need to return to the company of others. He is supported by Manolin both before and after the three-day ordeal. In many ways he is dependent on him. Others in the community support him too-Martin, the owner of the Terrace, for example. Santiago knows they will be worried about him. "I live in a good town," he says. Santiago's loneliness highlights the value/necessity of community.
6. MAN DEFEATED
In spite of being good, in spite of being skilled and dedicated, in spite of putting forth noble and heroic efforts, Santiago does not enjoy success. Even his prayers go unanswered. He ends up weaponless and helpless, a complete victim of forces beyond his control.
7. MAN TRIUMPHANT
Santiago comes ashore with only the skeleton of his fish, but he has not truly been defeated. He has achieved a spiritual victory, something far more meaningful than having fifteen hundred pounds of marlin meat to bring to market. Against great odds and in spite of intense personal suffering, he conquered the fish itself and survived the grueling three days on the sea. There may be nothing to sell; at market, but the massive skeleton itself stands as proof of his heroic accomplishment.
Suffering is both common and unavoidable throughout the story. Santiago suffers from hunger and general poverty. His hands bear the scars of old wounds and they receive new ones. The pain in his back is relentless. He nearly passes out from exhaustion several times. All of it is unavoidable because it results from his being what he was born to be: a fisherman. The conclusion is that being true to yourself and your destiny will bring inevitable suffering.
9. GOOD AND EVIL
As noted before, Santiago can be seen both as saint-even a Christ figure-and as sinner. The destructive forces of evil are readily symbolized by the sharks. If you see Santiago's losing the fish as losing the entire battle, then evil has triumphed. If you see Santiago's endurance and survival as the true victory, then evil has brought tragedy but has not actually conquered.