The Old Man and the Sea was the result of Hemingway’s deep desire for disengagement from the social world and an entry into the natural. Hemingway’s heroes from Nick Adams onwards were caught in the bleak trap of society within which man was doomed to struggle, suffer and perish, but not Santiago who asserted his individualism in the jaws of Nature. This movement to get out of society and its artifices in Old Man and the Sea was not molded by escapism but by the desire for liberation. Hemingway had realized that since life in the society was invariably stunted and artificial, cowardice prevailed not in breaking out of it but by remaining in it. By resurrecting the trope of man’s eternal struggle against nature, Hemingway showed through Santiago what a man is made of and all the possibilities of heroism in him, shall he choose to free himself from the constraints of modern societal conventions.
The very first sentence of the novella, “He was an old man who fished in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish”, shows the protagonist Santiago in an incessant struggle with the forces of nature that kept denying him his catch of fish – the signifier of his identity as a fisherman. The other fishermen had started calling him salao – the worst form of unlucky and his sail was marked as a “flag of permanent defeat” but Santiago with his unperturbed fighting spirit was all set to claim from Nature what he thought was his right on the eighty-fifth day. On this marked day he sailed deep into the Sea, beyond the customary fishing grounds to catch the greater denizens of water that resided in the deepest parts. When he finally hooked a great marlin, what began was a battle of attrition against the forces of nature embodied by the marlin. Santiago’s role in the novel was to pursue the great marlin, “That which I was born for”, as he reflected and the marlin’s was to escape this pursuit, thus resulting in the eternal struggle between Nature and Man.
The marlin being larger than the old man’s skiff, he had no choice but to be towed by the fish into the Gulf Stream, all the while with a tight grip on the line shall the great fish break it and escape. This excruciating ordeal which lasted two long days put him in a world of pain. His hands were chaffed, his face was cut and his left hand kept cramping. Sapped of all his strength, Old man began to see black spots from exertion but he pulled himself up saying, “You cannot fail yourself by dying on a fish like this”.
What is worth noticing about this great battle is that it was not all blood and violence but a deep sense of brotherhood was felt by Santiago for the marlin; giving this struggle of Man against Nature, its distinct emotional grandeur. The old man felt a deep affection for the fish and an admiration for its great strength as it pulled his skiff out into the ocean. As nature and man grew closer and closer together in this interlude, in spirit as well as in space; Santiago became conscious of the marlin’s nobility. In his zenith of struggle against the marlin when his hands were bleeding and his body was wrecked with fatigue and pain, the old man reflected, “You are killing me fish…. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater or more beautiful fish, or a calmer or a more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.”
However, the old man with the fighting spirit of a hero did care. Though his hands were pulped and he was blind with the extraneous effort the fish demanded, “he took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony and the fish came over onto his side”. Then Santiago drove into the fish’s heart the harpoon and the fish leapt and died, giving Santiago his victory in his struggle against Nature.
However, this victory was short-lived as nature attacked the old man again with its galanos – the sharks that were bent upon devouring his prized catch. Though completely sapped of all his strength, Santiago did not give up his fighting code and lashed at the sharks with all he had. In spite of knowing that the struggle was pointless, Santiago kept going at the sharks because of the essential element of human striving that he embodied – the one that made it impossible for him to give up.
In the end, the sharks left him with just a long white skeleton to take home but the old man was destroyed but not defeated. The next morning forgetting all about his destruction at the hands of nature he began to make future plans with Manolin, “We must get a good killing lance and always have it board”. Santiago was all set to strike again. Thus it shown by Hemingway that Nature took from Man all he had but could not destroy his undaunted fighting spirit, his essential nobility of human striving because of which the battle between Man and Nature has been an eternal one. Hemingway proved that defeat is sometimes inevitable in this battle but what eventually makes Man always victorious in the end is his capacity to struggle to the fullest despite the end results.
Thus we see that the paring down of struggle in Old man to one between Man and Nature, gives us an insight into the true essence of Man’s heroism. In this movement from the confinement of society to the challenges of nature, Hemingway is closely linked to Conrad who thrust his Europeans into the pressures of Malayan archipelago and the darkest Africa. Both Hemingway and Conrad were convinced that only when removed from comfort and protective mechanisms of civilization and pitted against Nature could the real heroism of man be discovered and put to test. Perhaps this is why Old Man is all about Man’s archetypal battle with Nature.