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Free Study Guide-The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
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SECTION 12 - Santiago and Sin


The old man’s thoughts turn to the concept of sin. To kill a living being is sin, but he has killed the fish to keep himself alive and feed many people. He accepts that he is born to be a fisherman and the fish are born to be fish; his role is to kill them in order to sustain life. Even fish kill other fish to feed themselves and stay alive. A nagging doubt, however, enters his mind as he wonders if he has killed the fish merely out of pride. And yet he knows that he loved the fish when it was alive and also after it was dead.

By contrast, Santiago has enjoyed killing the shark, which he sees as an enemy of man and the sea. He resents that the sharks have eaten the meat of his noble fish, which he thought was even too good for humans. Ironically, now that the sharks have mutilated the marlin’s beauty, Santiago pulls a little meat from the fish, where the shark had cut it open and chews it. He notices its firm, juicy texture and good taste. It is worth defending at any cost.

For the next two hours, the old man sails uneventfully. Then he notices two sharks trailing behind him and lets out a painful cry. As the sharks gain steadily on him, he curses them as hateful, bad smelling, scavengers, who kill mindlessly. He takes his makeshift weapon and waits for the sharks to come near enough to be knifed to death. The old man drives the knife into the brain of the first shark and then into its eyes. The shark grabs a large chunk of fish meat and goes down into the sea to die. Another shark is already gnawing away at the fish. Santiago strikes at it, but misses. He continues punching the shark and finally hits its brain. It too sinks down dead into the sea. The old man sadly realizes that, together, the sharks have taken away a quarter of the best meat of the fish. He apologizes to the fish for having brought it to this end and chastises himself for coming out so far into the sea.

Santiago recovers from he strain of fighting the sharks and prepares himself for the next round. He wishes he had a stone to sharpen his knife and realizes that there are many things he should have brought with him on the trip. He reminds himself that this is no time to think of what he does not have. He must use all of his resources to stay alive.

It is painful for Santiago to think about the sharks taking so much meat. The giant fish would have been large enough to keep a man all winter. He dismisses these disconcerting thoughts from his mind and washes the blood from his bleeding hands. He minimizes the loss of his own blood, comparing himself to the giant fish that bleeds all over.

It is only a matter of minutes now for other sharks to be attracted by the blood. When a shovel nosed shark hits the giant fish, the old man drives the knife into its brain; however, the shark jerks back, and the knife blade is snapped. Now Santiago has only his gaff, two oars, the tiller, and a short club to use as weapons, but he still refuses to give up fighting. Santiago, both physically and emotionally exhausted, can only hope that he soon finds land.

Just before sunset, two galano sharks attack the fish. Santiago holds the oar high up in his right hand and aims to hit the shark on the point of its nose or straight across the head. With all his might, he whacks one shark and hears a bone break with a snap. He also hits the second shark, who is hurt badly enough to turn and leave. The old man feels bad that he is no longer strong enough to kill a shark by clubbing it to death; but he knows he has done his best and has succeeded in driving away two more enemies, preventing them from eating any more of his prize. Santiago, however, refuses to look at the fish, knowing it is now only half of its original size. Instead, he searches the horizon, hoping to see a glow from the lights of Havana to guide him back to his village.

Knowing he has been gone for three days, Santiago hopes that nobody is worrying about him; however, he fears that Manolin is very concerned and apologizes to the boy. He also apologizes to the giant creature that he tows, calling him "half-fish." Santiago regrets that both of them seem destined to ruin, but he feels proud that they both have put up a brave fight with the sharks. The old man, however, is worried about how he can continue to defend the two of them without a weapon; but with characteristic grit, he assures himself that he will fight the sharks until he dies and hopes that he will arrive with half of the fish in tact.

As the night grows darker, he tells himself to stay awake, look for lights on the shore, and steer. He also wishes for some good luck; he feels that a lost harpoon, a broken knife, and two bad hands are enough bad luck for the day. At about ten o’clock, Santiago sees a distant glare of lights. As he moves toward it, he wonders if more sharks will attack him before he lands. He hopes that he will not be forced to fight again. Unfortunately, a pack of sharks arrive and he has to fight them until midnight. He clubs at them desperately, but one of the sharks seizes the club. When he uses the tiller to fight them off, it breaks. He tries to use the sharp edge of the broken tiller as a spear, but it is a losing battle. The sharks eat the giant fish in entirety. When only the skeleton is left, the sharks disappear.

The old man feels totally exhausted as the cold of the night seeps into his limbs. He questions why he has been beaten and decides it is simply because he went out too far. When he feels a strange, coppery taste in his mouth, he spits into the ocean and challenges the sharks to eat his blood too. He then goes into the stern of the boat and concentrates on steering towards home. He is thankful that his skiff has not been damaged, except for the tiller, which can be easily replaced.


In this section of the novel, Santiago thinks about sin and tries to decide if killing the giant fish is sinful. He justifies his act by saying he did not kill the fish out of sport, but to feed himself and others. He further justifies it by saying he loved and respected the giant fish. Additionally, he acknowledges that, like the old man, the big fish has killed smaller fish in order to survive. But Santiago cannot escape the fact that he has also been proud to fight and conquer the fish, and he fears that pride is a sin; but at the same time, he knows the giant fish has humbled him in some ways; the sharks will humble him further.

The first shark that attacks comes quickly and directly, with a dignity that the old man can respect, for he believes in the motto, "play fair." The other sharks, however, attack in a sly, treacherous manner; to Santiago they are the symbol of evil as they bite big hunks out of his fish. He kills them without empathy or pity, like he had for the giant marlin; he fact, he is elated each time a shark dies.

Like his outward journey away from the shore, the old man’s journey home also has three stages. The first is his successful battle with the Mako Shark that attacks directly. The second one is his gradually losing battle with the galanos and bottlenoses, which steal large sections of his fish as well as his weapons. The third and the final phase of the battle comes after he has sighted the lights on shore; a final pack of sharks attack and pick the skeleton clean of all meat. The proud and confident Santiago now feels the pain of defeat and humiliation; he has lost the battle to save his fish. Amazingly, Santiago is not bitter; he accepts his loss and blames it on his lack of strength and the fact that he went out too far. With continuing optimism, the old man still believes that nature can be his friend.

This section of the novel is filled with action, as Santiago fights one shark after another. The pace of the narrative is correspondingly fast and furious, almost leaving the reader breathless along with the old man. In additional to developing the plot, Hemingway also develops the symbolism. Santiago continues to be shown as a Christ figure, his bloody hands a reflection of Jesus’ hands nailed to the cross. The old man’s wordless cry upon seeing the sharks is also a reflection of Christ’s last cry. Both are asking God why they have been forsaken.

Finally, this section perfectly depicts the essence of Hemingway’s philosophy of manhood; Santiago acts with full grace under ultimate pressure. In his fight with the sharks, Santiago loses his weapons one by one; yet he never gets rattled. He calmly and wisely fashions a new kind of defense after every loss, using his human intelligence over their evil powers. Never once in the battle does the old man accept defeat or lose hope. Even when he is physically battered and feels he is dying from exhaustion, he continues to fight, never crying out in pain or blaming others for his ill fortune. Like the bullfighter in the ring, who faces and masters the constant fear of death in the form of a bull, Santiago looks the sharks squarely in the eye and dares them to defeat him. Although they do destroy his fish, they cannot destroy the heart of the old man, for he is too filled with grace, dignity, and determination.

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


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