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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
THE FIRST NIGHT
Being completely out of sight of land didn't frighten Santiago shortly before sunset. "I can always come in on the glow from Havana." But he doesn't get the opportunity. Not this night. Incredibly the fish just keeps towing the boat steadily further out to sea.
By now Santiago has changed his position a bit. He's found a way of leaning against the bow of his skiff and he's been able to work an old sack between the taut, almost cutting line and his shoulders. "The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable," Hemingway observes to us.
It brings to mind the saying, "All things are relative." As philosophy goes, that's a very big, sweeping statement. All things? If you get into philosophy, you can decide for or against that statement.
But some things certainly are relative, and you can use Santiago's relative "comfort" to think about them. A child born into a poverty-stricken family might look on a single-dip, vanilla ice cream cone as the thrill of the month. Another child the same age but born to wealthy parents might "need" a personal, high-tech, stereo sound system in order to feel that something unusually great has happened.
Wherever any of us is on this "philosophy of relativity," we can at least learn a practical lesson from Santiago. He can't at this point change the situation he's in, so he appreciates what "little" comfort there is in it.
You may or may not see something significant in the mention of Santiago's urinating over the side of the skiff and looking up at the stars to check his course at the same time. It's a good example of a passage where you'd love to bring the author back to life in a totally honest moment and ask him or her, "When you wrote this, did you really mean...?"
At least one critic sees this as symbolic representation of a human being's physical/spiritual nature. At one and the same moment, the old man does something very physical or "lowly" and something very spiritual, at least in a symbolic sense. Looking at the stars and checking the course can easily represent taking a look at the direction of one's life, particularly since in fiction a sea journey often represents a life journey.
It's an unusual contrast of simultaneous activities, and the possibility for symbolism is certainly there. Whether or not it really is significant is something you can decide.
When Santiago wishes for the boy a second time, he mentions two reasons for wanting him there: "To help me and to see this." The first is obvious. The boy could perform the many other tasks besides simply holding the line. But being alone, the old man will have to perform them all himself using his feet and one free hand. This will make rather simple things, like joining coils of additional line, strangely and immensely difficult.
But the second reason is perhaps the greater. For most people, an intense experience cries out to be shared, and a shared experience becomes more intense. A comedy, for example, will seldom bring loud, lasting laughter from one person sitting alone in front of a television set or a movie screen. But the same lines or situations on the screen will bring gales of laughter from a group of people sitting in a living room or from an audience in a theater.
Try to remember experiences in which you thought or perhaps said out loud, "I wish __ were here to see this." Who were your Manolins who weren't there?
A fish is a fish is a fish. They're all out there only to be caught and used. Do you agree? That's certainly some people's position. And some would say the same about all animals: they exist only to be caught and used for whatever purpose human beings can find for them.
What about animals' feelings, especially when hunted and caught? Do they have feelings? Do they matter? The next pages contain Santiago's reflections on the subject. By contrast, you might be reminded of the character Rainsford in Richard Connell's famous short story "The Most Dangerous Game." In the opening scene Rainsford puts down the idea that an animal can have feelings (in this case it's a jaguar) and says that it doesn't matter anyway. "Who cares how a jaguar feels?" he asks his friend Whitney.
But Santiago is not Rainsford. He begins to feel sorry for the huge fish he has hooked. Would you? Santiago gives reasons. "He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is." Are those valid reasons or do we have mere sentimentality here?
And has the fish earned the right to die a natural death, rather than a death by human hands, simply because it has already lived so long? (The old man, Norman Thayer, in the film On Golden Pond released the huge fish he'd been trying to catch for years after he finally did catch it.)
Santiago respects the fact that the fish is behaving "strangely." The fish seems to have a battle plan, although the old man also wonders if the fish is as desperate as he is.
Then for a second the practical side of the old man surfaces, and he looks at the fish in terms of money. That has to be a thrill; remember the man hasn't caught one in eighty-four days and he has no money for either food or bait. Yes, if the fish isn't desperate, Santiago certainly is. They're both fighting to stay alive.
You might try to think of some contemporary parallels. How about a real estate agent who hasn't made a sale in three months, but now is showing an incredibly expensive, twenty-room mansion to a very interested potential buyer? The commission will be fabulous-if the sale is made. And so the tension is terrific to do and to say exactly the right things at the right time.
See if you can come up with some other comparisons. But Santiago returns to feeling sorry for the fish. The word for his situation is "ambivalence." It describes having conflicting feelings about something. And Santiago's occupation certainly isn't the only one where a person could have strong, ambivalent feelings about succeeding in his or her work.