Theme of Interdependence in The Old Man and The Sea

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Solidarity Not Isolation

      The Old Man The Sea comes at the fag end of Hemingway’s career and at this point, he had already moved distinctly towards a concern for relationships and interdependence of men from the earlier isolated and alienated individual. Hemingway’s concern now was more towards the individual living a life of solidarity and oneness with nature. In The Old Man and The Sea this concern reaches its summit and the novel shows how human life is possible only in the midst or on the basis of an underlying social structure, and the individual has to have strong ties with this social base. Further, Hemingway also shows that an individual realizes the impossibility of isolated existence only after he has undergone immense isolated agony and despair, and the individual asserts his individuality in a world hostile towards such an attitude and tries to destroy such individualism.

Santiago's Oneness with Nature

      During Santiago’s voyage and his prolonged ordeal, various facts of his character are revealed. The nature of his relationship with nature and her elements is brought into focus. He sails far out into the sea in search of a big fish. The Old Man reflects on the sea. He thinks of her as feminine, who is kind and very beautiful but cruel also. The Old Man always thought of her as ‘La mar’ and as something that gives, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. Thus, for Santiago, the sea is a living, surging being with whom he is closely connected. He feels great love, compassion and friendship for the birds and other creatures of the sea. The birds are his principal friends especially since they led him to big fish. He pities the small delicate warbler who has to fight against the cruel sea and the predatory hawk’s and invites him to stay with him in his boat. His feeling of oneness can be seen most clearly when at a moment he feels lonely, he sees a flight of wild ducks etching the sky and he is immediately comforted. He says, “no man is ever alone at sea.” Santiago feels the same love and respect for his quarry the marlin. He says that the birds are his principal friends but the fish is his true brother. He has to kill this fish, but it is a daunting task. “It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.” Santiago has to kill and conquer the fish because it is his living and because of his pride in his profession that he is a great fisherman. The fish itself is a worthy adversary. It is bigger than any fish Santiago had ever seen or heard of and he fought like a male and pulled the skiff like a male. To catch such a fish would fulfill Santiago's spiritual as well as physical necessity. Santiago grows to deeply admiring the fish. “I love you and respect you fish”. He is moved to pity and compassion for the pain he must be suffering because of the hook in his mouth. Eventually, it becomes clearer that the marlin and Santiago are locked in a battle of equals. He loves the fish and says, “You are killing me fish” But then he adds “Come on and kill me. I don’t care who kills who.” The struggle has brought them to one level, made them equal and this has strengthened the Old Man’s love and regard for the fish whom he regards as his brother. The oneness between them is shared at another level. The Old Man had been the hunter till he conquered the marlin and emerged the victor from this struggle. The tables are turned on him as great scavenger sharks in large numbers attack him and he becomes the hunted and the victim. Both are, therefore, shown as living the same kind of life. The Old Man hunts the marlin for food, the marlin hunts smaller fish for his food. The Old Man himself is hunted by the sharks looking for their food. Both are hunters and victims according to the situation and, therefore, one in their struggle for life.

Santiago’s Relation to the Marlin and the Sharks

      Santiago is needed to battle and conquer the marlin. In this fight against marlin he shows love and gives respect towards him. He also feels pity and a certain rejection. Santiago displays great skill and professionalism in his battle against the marlin and the sharks prove that “A man can be destroyed, but not defeated.” His mental state and psychological condition also comes through. After being attacked by the sharks who tear and rip away the marlin, he begins to think whether he had committed a sin in killing the marlin. It is as though he is facing a realization of the truth that man in going far out, going far beyond people, and in crossing the limits and boundaries imposed on man, he commits a sin. After he has killed the marlin instead of feeling victorious or proud of his achievement he rather feels sorry and sad. He feels guilty after killing it and a sense of loneliness envelopes him. When he had seen the fish dead he saw there was some, strangers and he could not believe it. And while bringing him in he wonders if it was he who is bringing in the marlin or the marlin bringing him in. Considering who was the victor and the victim he thinks, “Let him bring me in if it pleases him. I am only better than him through trickery and he meant me no harm.” From this kind of reflection stems the idea that killing the marlin had been a sin, and similarly, the attack of the sharks was a direct punishment for his sin. It was not unexpected. “The shark was not an accident. He had come up from deep down in the water as the dark cloud of blood had settled and dispersed in the mile-deep sea.” These lines clearly indicate that the shark was a result of Santiago’s own action. His harpooning the marlin and killing it releases blood that desolves into the ocean and Smelling the blood, the sharks are Attracted towards the marlin. The Old Man himself unleashes the chain of events that lead to the ultimate loss he suffers.

Santiago Responsible for his Own Loss

      Santiago in his ordeal against the marlin is determined to kill him through the action involves immense hardship, so much that Santiago says, “But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars. Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought, the moon runs away...But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our brothers”. After he had killed the marlin and when he realizes that he is going to lose him to the sharks, he regrets that he had killed him in the first place. Though his resolve and his courage and determination to fight the sharks, till the very end never diminishes. Santiago is deeply sad that the fish was being mutilated and destroyed. “He did not like to look at the fish anymore since he had been mutilated. When the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit.” Later after the fish undergoes further mutilation, he says, “I wish it were a dream and that I had never hooked him. I’m sorry about it, fish. It makes everything wrong....’I shouldn’t have gone out so far, fish,’ he said. ‘Neither for you nor for me. I’m sorry fish.’ Finally after the fish had been ruined too badly, he says,

“Half-fish,’ he said, ‘Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.”

      Then he begins to feel a stronger sense of brotherhood, and solidarity can be seen in his thoughts. He wonders how easily he could have defeated the sharks if he and the marlin had been battling them together. This is the kind of solidarity that permeates through the novel.

Santiago’s Dependence on the Boy Manolin

      Santiago’s solidarity and interdependence is not restricted to the fish and the creatures of the sea. He has deep attachment towards Manolin and sharks, and a close interdependent relationship with him and others of his community. Santiago has tutored the boy from the age of five in fishing. They are more like father and son. And the boy loves him dearly too. He had been with the Old Man for the first forty days of the old man’s eighty-four fishless days. He did not want to leave the Old Man but the boy’s father had ordered him to go on another boat and being a boy he obeyed. However, he did not desert the Old Man. He came everyday and helped the Old Man to carry his fishing equipment to his shack. He spends time with the Old Man providing him companionship and apart from this, supports him, helping him to sustain his confidence and belief. He asserts that his faith in the Old Man was firm and unbroken. He tells Santiago, “the best fisherman is you,” no doubt though there may be many good fishermen and some great ones. Really there were none to compare with Santiago. The boy provides material support thereby knowing that the Old Man dependeds on him to a very large extent. The boy buys beer occasionally from the Terrace, brings him food and drink during his lean days, stating emphatically that he wouldn’t allow him to fish without eating. He also takes care of the Old Man in other ways. These thoughts running through his mind show his care and concern for him.!

      “Where did you wash? The boy thought. The village water supply was two streets down the road. I must have water here for him, the boy thought, and soap and a good towel. Why am I so thoughtless? I must get him another shirt and a jacket for the winter and some sort of shoes and other blanket.”

      The Old Man knows that he is taken care of and looked after by Manolin. He acknowledges this and is grateful. He says, “the boy keeps me alive...I must not deceive myself too much. Similarly, he is dependent upon others of his community such as the owner of the Terrace who sometimes provides him with food and beer and sometimes the newspaper to read etc. He drinks shark liver oil from the community tank to keep himself healthy, especially his eyes. Later, he thinks most fishermen would have been worried over his long absence and is comforted. The Old Man is dependent on the boy and the baseball star DiMaggio. While he is at sea he is shown constantly wishing for the boy’s presence to help him in catching the fish, to drive away his feeling of loneliness and to have someone to talk to. “I wish I had the boy” is his constant refrain and the wish comes at every significant point. He wishes he were there, to massage and uncramp his hands to tie or untie the coils, to wet it as it went out rushing through his hands, burning and injuring it as the fish made a jump and so on.

      The Old Man is in a way drawing strength and inspiration by thinking of the boy. He knew he had to prove to the boy that he was a strange old man and now when he was locked in battle against the marlin. Thoughts of the boy rejuvenate his stamina and strengthen his resolve and determination. Similarly, during his long, exhaustive order, he dreams inspiration from the baseball star DiMaggio who led his team to great victories inspite of the pain of a bone spur. At the moment when he is extremely exhausted, his hands are injured and his back is sore. Then he thinks how DiMaggio achieved victories and he affirms his determination to kill the fish. His reflections and his renewed spirit thereafter clearly indicate his acknowledgment that he depended closely on other people for his existences and for the achievement of his set aim and goal. He may earn his living as a professional fisherman but the life consisted of more than that. The love and care and interdependence on another greatly matter. As the sharks attack tearing and ripping of the marlin’s flesh and as the fish loses more and more of his flesh, the skiff gets closer and closer to the shore, Santiago's feeling of attachments deepens. Santiago had now been at sea for three days Sand three nights. He how begins to wonder if he had been missed or if anyone had been worried about him. He knows that Manolin would have been very worried and anxious about him. He wonders if he was the only one to worry about him. Then he reflects no. There were others. The boy had confidence in him and may not have been too worried, but older fishermen and many others would have been worried. And when he does come home we realize that yes, everybody had been worried. The boy had been coming into his shack regularly to check and they had even searched for him with the coast guards and airplanes over the sea. And again, the boy takes care of everything for him, running around, getting things arranged and getting him coffee, food, ointment for his injured hands etc, and most important is to keeping the Old Man’s spirit, hope and confidence alive, being a companion and making the Old Man happy by insisting that he would now come and fish with him and really join in the Old Man’s plans for the future.


      Thus, the main concern of the novel is to bring out the theme of solidarity and interdependence through the story of a lone man’s single-handed battle. Santiago is an old man who lives alone and fishers alone, and he goes far out away from all men, beyond all people to fight a battle against great odds. But throughout the novel, though on the surface there exists an isolation and Santiago’s alienation from society, on a deeper analysis it is clearly seen that he is never alone. Though, physically isolated he is never in isolation and through his story Hemingway says that man cannot live in isolation and, therefore, presents the theory that life is possible only in an interdependent state, a state where there is solidarity among all being human as well as the other creatures of nature. Santiago is lonely without his life. He is lonely without the boy though he doesn’t complain. Yet, he is happy when the boy is there and he thinks of the boy whom he cares for like a son during the voyage and deal. The victory that he achieves was greatly helped by the inspiration that he drew from the rejuvenating thoughts of the boy Manolin, the baseball star DiMaggio and others. Therefore, even during his ordeal his dependence on other is always emphasized. Throughout the novel he is presented as a single individual but Hemingway also clearly never allows the reader to forget that there is behind him a whole community with whom he shares a close relationship of interdependence. The emphasis on these social ties indicates that the novel stands for the concept of solidarity or isolation.

University Questions

Discuss the theme of interdependence in The Old Man and The Sea.
Critically comment how Hemingway finally in The Old Man and The Sea professes solidarity not isolation.
The Old Man and The Sea’s main theme is man’s oneness with nature. Examine the statement with close reference to the text.

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