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Free Study Guide-The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
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FREE LESSON PLAN - THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA - HEMINGWAY

SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS

The novel is rich in symbolism that enhances both the plot and the Themes. The major symbol is the sea, which stands for all of life on which man must sail. In both the sea and in life, there are a number of possibilities that lie hidden from the common eye; some are gifts to be treasured and some are problems to be defeated. Neither will be found unless man embarks upon the journey. If man is lucky enough to discover a treasure (be it love or family or education), he must fight until death to retain it; if man is unlucky enough to discover an evil lurking underneath the surface of the sea (any one of lifeís varied problems), he must fight it bravely and nobly until the end. In either case, it is the struggle that is all- important, and a man obtains the status of hero if he battles the sea (life) with grace under pressure. In the novel, Santiago embarks on a sea journey (life) and encounters a giant marlin (treasure). He battles nobly to earn the treasure and then fights the sharks (problems) to save it. The struggle defines him as a hero. Even though he loses the treasure (the marlin) to the sharks (the problems), he has won the sea battle (life).

In addition, Santiago serves as a metaphor for the creative artist, someone like Hemingway himself. He is capable in his profession, has proved his talent several times before, but that is not sufficient. He has to prove it every day, for every day is a new day. Santiagoís suffering is akin to artistic creation, which is never an easy task. Even if and when a masterpiece is achieved, there is no guarantee that critics, who are no less than the killer sharks, will not tear it to pieces.

In addition, the novel abounds in the symbols of the lions, about which Santiago frequently dreams. Most of the time, the lions appear to be mere cubs, playing like young cats in the dusk, and Santiago loves them as he loves Manolin; the cubs are symbols of youthful possibility, a foreshadowing of great things to come. The image of them always makes him happy; they are good company, just like Manolin. When the lions appear in their adult majesty, they suggest and signify great strength and nobility and provide Santiago with inspiration, a nobility of purpose, and a sense of vitality that goads him toward fulfilling his ambition. More often than not, the old man dreams of the boy and the lions almost simultaneously. Whenever the boy rises in the old manís thoughts, he is required to exert himself and prove his worth; whenever he thinks of the lions, he relaxes, for they seem to be in control and inspire him to confidence. Because the lions in his dreams always appear out of their natural environment and on the beach, they suggest that there is a harmony in all of life.

Another recurring symbol in the novel is that of DiMaggio, the partially handicapped baseball player, who often figures in the old manís waking thoughts, as well as in his dreams. DiMaggio inspires him with leadership qualities and the determination to win, in spite of handicaps. When his left hand cramps and he feels drained of his strength, the old man reminds himself of the painful bone spur that handicaps the great DiMaggio. The image of the baseball hero playing in pain gives Santiago renewed vigor and stamina to bear his own pain.


In the beginning, the giant marlin becomes a symbol of the mysterious world of the unknown that challenges everyone. For a large portion of the book, Santiago is pulled by this giant, mysterious creature, and yet he does not know what it is or even what it looks like. The old man can only imagine its strength, size, power, and determination; yet he still identifies with it, knowing it is part of the natural order of existence. When the old man actually sees the fish, he is even more amazed at its grandeur and size. With the mystery solved, Santiago is determined to show "what a man can do and what a man endures."

The fish is also a symbol of Christianity, and Hemingway imbues the giant fish with several Christian virtues: kindness, patience, and determination. Although hooked by Santiago, the fish does not panic or dive to the depths. Instead, it tries to guide its follower, to win him over. The fish is also described as being a source of food for others, a sacrifice so that others may live. Unfortunately, the sharks, symbols of evil, eat away at the meat of the giant fish. Although they devour the flesh, they cannot eat the skeleton or Santiagoís victory, which will both serve as inspirations for Manolin and other fishermen.

The numeric symbolism in the novel also seems to be religious. Three, seven, and forty are numbers that have special significance in the Bible. As the story opens, the old man has unsuccessfully fished with the boy for forty days, followed by another forty-four days alone. His ordeal with the great fish lasts for three days, and there are three distinct stages in the struggle. Santiago finally manages to kill the fish on its seventh turn. Then he must battle seven sharks. His struggle with them is also divided into three sections. The sharks themselves are portrayed as malevolent creatures and symbolize the deadly forces of evil that reign in nature and life. The sharks seize the old manís prize from him and leave him shattered and shamed, just like sin can do in the world.

Finally, Santiago becomes a Christ symbol. Like Christ, he is filled with goodness, patience, and humility. The forces of evil, however, are against Santiago, as seen when he battles the sharks; similarly, Christ had to fight the evil in Jerusalem. Both menís struggles end with shame and humiliation. Christ is betrayed, beaten, forced to carry his own cross, and is crucified, with arms outstretched and bleeding hands. Santiago is betrayed by the sharks and feels beaten. Arriving home a dejected man, he carries his cross across his back, much like Christ carrying the cross. When he finally lies down in his bed, his arms are stretched straight out with palms up, and his hands are bleeding. It is an obvious reflection of Christ on the cross.

All of the symbols employed by Hemingway add to the basic theme that life is an endless struggle with illusory rewards. In order to gain nobility in life, a person must show bravery, confidence, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence during the struggle. Then, even if the prize is lost, the person has won the battle, proving himself capable of retaining grace under pressure, the ultimate test of mankind.

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Free Study Guide-The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
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