The Old Man and the Sea Summary by Ernest Hemingway

The last novel to be published during Hemingway’s lifetime was The Old Man and the Sea, a work which Hemingway would identify as a new form. The precise generic classification of the work would be inconsequential although it is apparent that it is much more than just a wonderfully written narrative. Critics have discerned various allegorical meanings that have led to an explosion of significances. The novella has been regarded as a Christian allegory, the allegory of an artist’s struggle with his work and that of Everyman’s struggle with the female principle symbolized by the Sea, and so on. However, the novel is capable of a much wider interpretation, covering all of humanity and man’s life on Earth. From this point of view the story of the old man is a completely developed parable of individualism in form of a very short novel. In this parable, the old man then represents Everyman on Earth and his extraneous pursuit of the marlin symbolizes a man’s struggle to establish his worth, his individualism in eyes of himself and the whole world.

The thirst for individualism was unleashed by the Renaissance and ever since then this desire for self-assertion has never left humanity but increased by ginormous leaps. Every reader can connect to the old man in the novel because in him is present the wish to assert his identity, a desire common to all of mankind. The novel shows how in spite of being on one’s last dregs, the wish for self-fulfillment never retires. Santiago, with his wrinkles and vagaries of old age, still dreams of lions symbolizing power and has the anxiety to prove to the world that he isn’t a has-been. His identity as a great fisherman, the essence of his individualism, remains just as strong as it used to be during his prime days. In this he represents Everyman anxious to carve his niche in the world especially if the world refuses to see his worth.

After eighty-four fishless days, Santiago sets sail into the deepest parts of the Sea, beyond the customary fishing grounds to fish for bigger game – a denizen of the sea which would be commensurate with his mastered fishing skills. In spite of all his humility, this act proves that Santiago had the burning flame of ambition in him. He could have easily caught smaller fry and still proved to his associates and Manolin’s father that he can fish, but he went in for a big catch in order to develop his self-hood to the utmost. This shows how Everyman’s desire for individualism is laced with vaulting ambition since the two are complementary to each other. Santiago with his decision to go far out showed that if one wants to assert his individualism in the world he has to let his ambition drive him to rise above commonality and go the extra mile.

Through Santiago’s struggle of three days with the great Marlin which the signifier of the old man’s self-worth; Hemingway has tried to show to his readers that the path to self-fulfillment is none too savory. It’s almost like Santiago speaks to us, “If you want to assert your individualism then be prepared to have your hands cut and chaffed, your face cut and head dizzy with the excruciating effort”. The old man’s struggle with the Marlin and subsequent victory over the great fish shows to the reader that for asserting one’s individualism in his dominion, symbolized in the novel by Sea, one should practice perseverance just like the old man and be willing to sacrifice every drop of vitality like the old man.

The advent of the devouring sharks adds another dimension to what we learn from this parable. Through the sharks, Hemingway has shown that the world is a hostile place which would try to wrest one’s fruit of labors. The real test of individualism then is to protect one’s identity, symbolized the marlin, with a gallant battle. The sharks try to mutilate Santiago’s marlin but he stands true to his uttered axiom of “A man can be destroyed but not defeated”. It is true that the sharks devoured Santiago’s marlin and left him with only a long white skeleton to take home as the proof of his individualism but that skeleton adds a new layer of worth to the identity of fisherman – it signifies the brave battle he put up to protect his identity.

Here, Hemingway by making Santiago a code hero is telling us that real victory lies in the stretching of one’s power to the fullest despite the results. Sometimes in life defeat in inevitable. In such cases one’s individualism is reckoned with depending upon how brave a fight has been put up. This dictum is backed by Hemingway in the novel with the awe and admiration with which every man regarded the large skeleton of the devoured marlin. It was apparent that Santiago had lost his catch but his individualism as a great fisherman and a brave fighter was asserted in the eyes of everyone who called him a salao – the worst form of unlucky. His won back his pupil Manolin who was forced to leave him as a result of forty fishless days.

Old Man and the Sea can also be seen a personal parable of the author’s individualism in which the old man stood for Hemingway, the marlin for his art and the sharks symbolized the critics who kept trying to mutilate Hemingway’s genius as a writer. Santiago’s struggle with the marlin showed Hemingway’s struggle with his art in order to assert his individualism as a writer par excellence. Just like Santiago fought the sharks, even Hemingway had put up a brave battle with the critics. However, defeat was inevitable when it came to critics since some of them were bent upon digging out loopholes in his masterpiece. However, in the end Hemingway’s worth as a great writer was realized and he was awarded a Nobel Prize for the Old Man itself.

Thus we see that when viewed as a parable of individualism, Old Man and the Sea, gives us a valuable lesson on self-fulfillment at every turn of Santiago’s struggle. It has been rightly said, that in Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway celebrates the “Religion of Man”, with man at the center of the universe.

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