Man of Action as Hemingway's Hero in The Old Man And The Sea

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Charge of Passivity

      To say that all Hemingway’s heroes are passive men who do not go out and do things but on whom “things befall” would be a generalization not very true. Hemingway’s earlier protagonists such as Nick Adams who may be considered a person on whom things befall. Similarly, earlier heroes such as Jack Barnes, Frederic Henry are men, wounded and disillusioned who are alienated from society and are deprived of any sense of identification. But then this is not completely true though it may be correct to a certain extent. For example, lieutenant Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms, in the beginning, is a passive character but he doesn’t remain passive throughout the novel. He starts out as an aimless young man who has left all social ties behind to join the war as a lieutenant in the ambulance unit of the Italian army. He is a rootless, desperate man but as the war progresses he is wounded and the period of his convalescences leads to his falling deeply in love with Catherine Barkley. After this he becomes an actively passionate man. He conscientiously performs his duties, during the retreat specially his attitude is clearly seen and finally his greatest action-jumping into the Tagliamento river impulsively in an attempt to escape death by execution. He thus, making a “separate peace” and escaping finally with Catherine to Switzerland shows that he has by now evolve Clinton a man capable of quick and effective action. Hemingway's characters develop action. Hemingway's characters cannot be called passive because his subject matter itself bullfighting, war, deep sea fishing, hunting game. However, it is a fact that Hemingway does depict characters who are cruelly treated by fate, characters who are tied and unable to protest or who cannot resist the dictates of fate. For example, the physically and psychologically wounded man, who constantly appears in his works is a man who cannot help being wounded and suffering from its after-effects. Further, these are men who almost usually meet inevitable tragedy in the form of death or some indescribable loss. But from all these characters, Santiago is distinct. He is an all-out active character and, therefore, to call all Hemingway heroes passive is a sweeping generation.

Santiago as a Man who Does Things

      Santiago, the protagonist of The Old Man and The Sect is certainly not a man who can be accused of passivity. Santiago, the Old Man is the exemplification of the code hero. The code hero is a man who cannot be a helpless figure. He is the exemplification of certain principles. He is an ideal man of rules and discipline who is strong no matter how pathetic and overwhelming the circumstances may be. Santiago is a true hero and a man of action. He has been going fishless for eighty-four days. One doesn’t know how and if he has even been properly feeding himself. But his belief and confidence never waves and on the eighty-fifth day, he goes out far into the sea to catch a big fish. Once there he hooks a huge fish and fights a prolonged and exhaustive fight against the marlin and then against the sharks. He is alone in a skiff and without proper food and drink for three days and three nights he struggles, without even for a moment considering the possibility of giving up. He wins over the marlin but the sharks are too many and he loses but even then Santiago does not lose hope and continues to fight till the marlin is reduced completely to skeleton. Santiago wins a war of strength, skill, technique and endurance over the marlin and over the sharks and hence, he scores a moral victory. His dynamism and his ability to act and perform his duty cannot be questioned.

The Things that Befall and the Things He does in his Fight against the Marlin

      Santiago’s heroic stature is evident from the moment we are told of his firm confidence and Manolin calls him the best fisherman. Santiago also humbly accepts and says that though he may not be strong but he defiantly knows many tricks and he has resolution. He is from this moment portrayed as a strong determined man and this image grows and develops as the novel progresses. He goes far out into the Gulf Stream and lays’ his baits with great precision. He covers the hooks carefully and drops the baits at certain carefully chosen depths keeping them “straighter than anyone did”. So that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there. Others let them drift but....he kept them with precision. He kept them so because while others preferred to be lucky, he preferred to be exact so as to be ready for luck. A huge marlin is hooked. But instead of being able |o draw the marlin in, he ends up being towed by the marlin for two days and two nights and the Old Man hangs on the marlin bearing great pain and suffering. He wishes the boy were with him to help him and to give him companionship. He bears the ordeal thinking of the lions frolicking on the beaches of Africa, the baseball star DiMaggio, the hand wrestling match he won, Manolin etc. and draws inspiration from these thoughts and strengthens his will and resolve. He prays to God mechanically, his right hand is injured, his left hand is cramped and his back and muscles are sore. He hasn’t slept or eaten properly and he is exhausted and very tired but his resolve doesn’t weaken. He shall stay with the marlin till he die. He is determined to prove that he was the best fisherman and to show what sort of man he was. He loves and respects the marlin but he shall also kill it for all his glory and greatness. As the marlin shows no signs of tiring and keeps towing him Santiago has lost almost all of his physical strength and his head is not very clear. But still he is determined to show what a man can do and what a man endures and he challenges the fish. “You are killing me fish” He says, “Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.” Finally as the fish circles, Santiago pulls him near enough to be able to harpoon him seven times he tries without succeeding. Finally, “he looks all his pain and what was left of his strength....he drove the harpoon down with all his just summoned, into the fish side” He has won over the marlin. The Old Man's Victory is huge because the marlin turns out to be two feet longer than is skiff and fifteen hundred pounds in weight. If such an act of supreme endurance, strength and stamina is not enough to declare Santiago as a man of action then nobody can be. He is definitely a man who does things. Things may befall on him like his being. unlucky but he is man enough to fight and resist and act against that which befalls him. Here, he is more a man who does things.

The Same Theory as in this Fight Against the Sharks

      Santiago’s fanatic struggle against the sharks shows the same dynamic heroism and acting process. As he heads homewards with the marlin lashed to his side, sharks attracted by the marlin’s blood begin to attack. A big Mako shark attacks first. Santiago harpoons him and kills him but the shark had already bitten off a huge chunk of the fish and the Old Man loses the harpoon, too. He had hit the shark without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy. He knew more sharks would attack so, prepares a sort of weapon by lashing his knife to the butt of one of the oars and he prepares himself and tells himself that it was silly not to hope. It was a sin not to hope. A psychological debate follows wherein he tells himself that he had killed the marlin for pride but he had also loved him before and after killing him so, it was not a sin. The Old Man is prepared but when the next attack comes in the form of two galanos, he says, “Ay” and on this Hemingway writes, “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” The implication being that Santiago was suffering as much as the crucified Christ and yet he doesn’t’ give up, rather he challenges “Galanos, come on. galanos” and using his improvised weapon strikes at them again and again until he kills them. Now he regrets having gone so far out and he feels sorry but he has killed as determined. “I must think of nothing and wait for the next’ ones” he tells himself. His knife was blunt but he consoles himself that he had his gaff, bars, tiller and a short club. And as sharks attack him repeatedly, he goes after them with the same resolute determination. He hits them with the club. “I will fight them untill I die”, he says and he does so. He fights even when defeat stares him in the face. He fights till the marlin is reduced to skeleton, he fights even when he cannot see, only hear the sharks, when there is nothing left to fight for. He could hardly breathe due to over-exertions and felt a strange taste in his mouth. He knew he was beaten now. But then he realized that nothing had beaten him. He had only gone too far out. Thus, his spirit remains unconquered. Even in defeat he has scored a moral victory later as Manolin says, “he didn’t beat you. Not the fish.” And the two make plans for the future, to go fishing together early, the Old Man is indomitable again showing that no matter what befalls him he is a man of action ready to act against it. He had not asked for the sharks. They had befallen on him, inevitably. But in the manner he battles them shows himself to be a man who truly acts and goes out to do things.

The Tragedy and The Triumph

      The Old Man and The Sea is greatly reminiscent of the ancient Greek tragedies where man battled against great odds. Where a lone human was forced to fight and yet he defeated, the tragedy of the lone man who falls from a great height through no fault of his but because he has been fated so, in the process revealing his greatness and his status as a man. Similarly, the Old Man is a lone individual battling against huge odds in the form of an adversary as daunting as the marlin and later the sharks. He shows us what a man can do and what a man can endure and what sort of man he is, in his heroic struggle against the forces of nature - the marlin and the sharks. Though he is victorious over the marlin, he is beaten by the sharks in that he loses all of the marlin and is left only with its skeleton. However, his being beaten doesn’t imply that he is defeated. In fact, by the manner of his fight and his indomitable spirit raging on, he achieves a moral victory. He doesn’t fail and die as the Greek tragic heroes die. His story is tragic but it doesn’t end in tragedy. Rather he achieves a moral triumph and in the end, he is happy and confident. Unlike the other Hemingway heroes who either die or are left desolate and inconsolable due to their tragic loss, Santiago in the end is shown preparing for the future. He is ready for more things. He sleeps on dreaming of the lions of Africa.


      The Old Man is, therefore, a dynamic and heroic character and his story stresses how man can do and achieve things. In this universe every man has something as the other destined for him. Man’s greatness lies in his going out and acting in such as manner as to conquer that which is destined for him and more. In Santiago’s case, he was born to be a fisherman, and he was destined to go out and fight the marlin and the sharks. Santiago is meant to be a hero and that imp ies o e more than a man to face great dangers, to take greater risk and to face death, despair and defeat with more courage and daring other men. Santiago, in all respect, is a great hero. Things do befall him but he doesn’t merely accept them and go along rather he goes and does things himself. Santiago remained unable to catch fish for eighty-four days. That has befallen him. He may. have been dejected and given up hope because of this. But he doesn’t. Rather he goes far out and relies on his skill and technique. He then hooks a huge marlin against whom he battles for two days and two nights before he is able to catch and harpoon him. This again is a great act on his part. He performs another heroic act in his indefatigable struggle against the sharks that attack the marlin. He is shown valiantly struggling till the end and till nothing but the skeleton of the marlin is left. He then says that he had been beaten but not by the sharks. He had been beaten because he had gone too far out and in a sense thus, invited the sharks or invited fate to play upon him. Finally, again Santiago does not go into a state of slackness, rather the novel ends with the notion that he is ready for the future, ready and waiting for any other adventure to come on his way. Thus, the novel shows clearly that though on Santiago things may befall, he is the kind of man to go and do things. The two notions are inter-linked, but Santiago definitely is not a man who does little.

University Questions

Discuss how the Hemingway hero is a man on whom action befalls rather than he goes out to act. Give reasons with reference to The Old Man and The Sea

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