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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

THE CATCH

The next pages describe the catch itself, from the first signal that something is after the bait to the actual setting of the hook. Take special notice of how Hemingway relates it. This section has been both praised and criticized.

It's the very beginning of an epic struggle. Is Hemingway too low-key here? Or is his style perfectly delicate? Santiago sees "one of the projecting green sticks dip sharply." "Sharply" isn't overwhelming, but it's enough to alert us to something nonroutine. "'Yes,' he said. 'Yes,' and slipped his oars without bumping the boat."

If we're reading too quickly, we could run right past that double "Yes." But it's not an ordinary "Yes." Not from a man who has one sole purpose out on the sea this particular day: to catch his "fish of all time."

He must know something. And according to Hemingway, he does: "...and he knew exactly what it was. One hundred fathoms down a marlin was eating the sardines...."

You might check your reaction to see if you're a bit bothered by all this exact knowledge. Some critics are, even to the point of calling it "fakery." How, they ask, could Santiago know that much this soon? It seems to stretch even Santiago's veteran knowledge of the sea beyond the point of believability.

If you have the time for a diversion, you could check with a person familiar with deep-sea fishing (perhaps through the sports editor of your newspaper) to see if he/she thinks it's possible.

There are some reasons for Santiago to logically guess that he must have interested a very large fish, probably a marlin. It is early fall, the time of the big fish, and he is fishing very far out and very deep.


The "catch" scene is drawn out but not too much so. Notice that it has a structure to it, a rise and fall of both Santiago's emotions and ours. Typically stripped-down sentences like "Then it came again" and "Then there was nothing" mark high and low points. Santiago begins to talk to the fish, a one-way conversation which will resume several times during the story. His nearly childish terms ("Just smell them. Aren't they lovely? Eat them good now....") somehow reinforce how deep is his hope, his almost
desperate need, to hook this particular fish.

That isn't so strange, of course. In our very deepest, most hopeful or desperate moments, aren't we usually reduced to the simplest, most childlike language?

Hemingway leads us through several peaks and valleys in this scene; it's a literary mini-roller coaster. The actual "formal notice" of what a fish we have here comes almost by-the-way, as the second half of an apparently interim sentence: "He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy."

"What a fish," Santiago says, and it's interesting that at this point we the readers are completely convinced that it is a huge fish. By now we've begun to see and feel things through Santiago's expertise, and we trust his evaluation completely.

A bit of Santiago's superstition shows up when he thinks that the fish will turn and swallow the bait completely, but he does not say it aloud "because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen."

We can smile a bit at this superstitious simplicity, but perhaps we shouldn't smile too much without checking for some bits and pieces of superstition we ourselves may hold to "just in case."

Here comes the decisive, crucial moment. "'Now!' he said aloud and struck hard with both hands...." The rest of this paragraph continues with a graphic picture of these few
seconds. And when it's finished, Hemingway jolts us again in a reverse sort of fashion with the sentence, "Nothing happened." Actually, a great deal has happened. The fish has swallowed the bait, the hook has been set; it's no longer a "maybe," no longer a "must be somewhere." It's here!

But the reality sinks in slowly. We realize it almost in a double take when we're told that the boat begins to move slowly off toward the northwest.

The boat begins to move? Toward the northwest? In the gulf above Havana, that's against the current! Slowly, indirectly, through the back door, so to speak, we're given a hint of the great force on the other end of Santiago's line.

Santiago knows what's happening, though. He's a "towing bitt" (see the Glossary in this guide), but he has to be more than just a bitt. He has to be a bitt with a brain, to be flexible and to react to the different movements of the fish.

It's a delicate matter of keeping the line as taut as possible under a variety of conditions. If the fish begins to pull the line beyond the breaking point, he must let the line out but never so much or so fast that the line goes slack. If the fish slows, he must try to pull the line back in if possible, but again without putting tension on it beyond its breaking point.

It's like walking a high narrow plank where a fall to either side is equally disastrous. A too taut, broken line or a slack line (giving the fish a chance to "throw" the hook) will mean a lost fish.

This is quite similar to situations all of us are in from time to time, though usually in a psychological rather than a physical way. For example, when we're persuading or negotiating, it's often crucial to keep a balance between being too flexible and being too hardlined (the word itself mirrors Santiago's situation). Talk too sweetly and the other side takes over; talk to tough and the other side breaks off communication. Or when we'd like to attract someone we find interesting: playing hard-to-get and coming on too strong can bring failure equally well.

For the first of several times, Santiago wishes out loud that Manolin were with him. It's a futile wish, of course, but somehow we don't blame him for expressing it. We all "wish" things that aren't and can't be; sometimes it seems necessary simply to get it said and out. And somehow we realize that Santiago isn't going to wallow in self-pity. He just needs to say it.

Remember that through all of this Santiago is "still braced solidly with the line across his back. Try to picture him. It's not the image of today's deep-sea fisherman, sitting on a cushioned swivel chair, manipulating rather sophisticated gadgetry.

And he's still there hours later. The fish is breaking even Santiago's expectations: "This will kill him." But it doesn't. How does Santiago keep up the strain? The nourishment he received from the food-the gifts-Manolin brought is certainly a factor. There's also his pride and the confidence he himself spoke of having. Perhaps the best answer is the words Manolin spoke earlier this morning, words he learned at least in spirit from Santiago: "It is what a man must do."

As evening approaches, he tries "not to think but only to endure." Few of us have been in a circumstance like this. We can perhaps remember demanding athletic contests, but they're not the same as Santiago's situation. It's not only physically draining; it's the same, minute to minute, hour to hour. There's no variety of tactics at this stage of Santiago's battle. There's only a demand for the same, nonstop, tense-muscled resistance.

Acute awareness of it can make it worse. Here a human being's highest power and blessing, the ability to think, becomes a curse. Turning the mind off, if possible, helps... somewhat.

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