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

The theme of The Old Man and the Sea is the nobility of human endeavor in the face of extreme odds, or in Hemingway’s words - "grace under pressure." Santiago faces every conceivable hurdle: he is aged, unlucky, and ill fed as the novel opens. In addition, he must fish by himself, for no one will lend him a helping hand because of his ill luck. When he catches the giant fish, Santiago holds on to the line for dear life, in spite of the fact that his right hand is cut, his left hand is cramping, and his shoulders burn with pain. He stays with the fish for three long days in spite of his total mental and physical fatigue. When he finally masters and kills the giant fish, he tries to fight off the sharks, which are attracted by the blood. Despite all of these hardships, the old man never gives up. It is Santiago’s nobility, whether he is trying to master the giant fish or fighting the sharks, that wins admiration for him.

Minor Theme

A minor theme in the book is that the best prize in life is to be proud of oneself. Although Santiago literally loses the giant fish to the hungry sharks, nothing can take away his victory. He knows that he has stayed with the shark and mastered it. Although he has only a skeleton to show for his work, his real trophy is the pride he feels in his accomplishment.


The mood of the book is largely monotonous, brooding, and depressing. The canvas of the novel remains unchanged throughout. The plot is mainly set in a frail little boat, which carries an equally frail-looking old man named Santiago. The boat is adrift on a sea that changes little throughout the novel, creating a monotonous and somber mood. For three long days, the boat is alternately pushed and towed by the huge fish in an almost dream- like state. Only the killing of the fish and the attacking of the sharks interrupt the monotony. The monotony becomes one of the pressures that the old man must endure in order to maintain his grace. Because Santiago never gives in to the monotony or the depression, be becomes the hero in the story against innumerable odds. His tenacious determination lends a sense of hope amongst the monotony and depression.


Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois. His father was a doctor, and mother was musically trained. He inherited his passion for vigorous s, such as fishing, shooting, bullfighting, and hunting, from his father. He acquired a quick, observant eye and a sensitive mind from his mother. Even as a young boy, Hemingway believed in living life dangerously. He is supposed to have lied about his age in order to join the army during World War I. He was rejected because he had an injured eye. Concealing his disappointment, he went to Kansas City to work as a cub reporter for The Star. His stint as a journalist gave Hemingway the first guidelines to writing: short sentences, short paragraphs, vigorous language, and a positive attitude. All these qualities went into the making of a simple yet effective style, which was later to win the Nobel Prize for him.

After working for seven restless months on the newspaper, Hemingway left for Italy to be ambulance driver. He was severely wounded and sent home in 1919. In 1920, Hemingway covered the Greco-Turkish conflict as a reporter on The Toronto Star. His fame as a journalist grew, but his heart was in creative writing and not mere reporting. He went to Paris and began his literary life under the guidance of noted American writers, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.

Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, brought him widespread recognition and acceptance. In 1929, he published A Farewell to Arms, which reinforced his position as one of the finest writers of modern American fiction. Other novels, such as Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa, furthered his reputation. During the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway again served as a journalist to cover the fighting; his experiences in Spain form the subject of his masterpiece, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Hemingway also covered World War II as a war correspondent.

Personally Hemingway led a very colorful life. He was married four times. Twice in his life, he escaped near death. The first time was during World War I, and the second time was in 1954, when his plane crashed in Kenya. For awhile, he lived in Cuba, but left the country at the time of the Castro Revolution. When his health began to deteriorate, he was miserable, for he believed in an active and strenuous lifestyle. As a result, he shot himself in 1961.

Hemingway’s talent as a writer won for him several accolades. In 1953, he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Old Man and The Sea. In 1954, he won the Nobel Prize. As a writer, he became known for his predominant them of "grace under pressure." This theme was clearly developed in the old man who fought the giant fish and killed it against all odds; it is also seen in the bullfighters, who risk their lives each time they enter the ring. It also characterized Hemingway’s own life until the point in his life that he felt he was no longer able to demonstrate grace under pressure.


Hemingway was an expert at deep-sea fishing and had won several prizes in various competitions, sometimes catching giant marlin. When he lived in Cuba, he acquired a house, nine miles outside Havana, and often fished in the Gulf Stream, much like Santiago. The background in The Old Man and the Sea is derived from real- life Cuban fishing villages near the Gulf Stream. The subject of the luckless Old Man who caught a giant fish also came from personal experience. In an essay on deep-sea fishing published in 1936, Hemingway had written of an old man who had caught a huge Marlin weighing nearly eight hundred pounds. With the fish tied to his skiff, he had bravely tried to fight off the sharks and was picked up by some fisherman in a state of half craziness with the sharks still circling his boat. When Hemingway met this old man, he promised to write a book about his experiences. It was more than twenty years before he turned the story into a book called The Old man and the Sea; it was to be Hemingway’s final novel. Many critics see in it a comparison between Santiago, an old man fighting to master the fish and maintain his reputation, and Hemingway, an old man fighting to retain an active lifestyle. Even if the novel is not partially autobiographical, the novel proves Hemingway’s abilities as a novelist, for the book expertly blends facts and fiction to produce one of the most moving, poignant tales ever written.

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


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