Positive Note of Heroism in The Old Man And The Sea

Also Read

The Positive Note

      Hemingway strikes a positive note in The Old Man and The Sea, as opposed to the negative and skepticism as is seen in his earlier novels. Here, he portrays what a man can do and what a man endures in support of his theory that a man can be destroyed but not defeated. He lays great stress therefore on the heroic impulse in man that drives him, achieve and fight for great goals in life with stoic courage, endurance and determination, and suffer without complain great pain, trials and tribulations. The world is still a battlefield as was in his earlier works right from the beginning of his Nick Adams stories, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls etc. and everywhere he sees nihilism, death, despair and destruction as seen in his works too such as To Have and Have Not, Across the River and into the Trees etc. Here, Hemingway still deals with a man fighting, facing death and despair but here his protagonist emerges victorious, he may be destroyed but as Santiago proves he shall not be defeated.

The Old Man and the Marlin

      Hemingway portrays a world, a universe which is ever constant where nature follows the same pattern for eternity. It is a universe where man is the deciding force though there exists a supreme being—a God overlooking things. It is a universe where everything, every created element has a place, a fixed position and a defined and definite role to play in the scheme of things. Santiago is not religious as he himself says, yet he prays to God, asking for divine intervention during his struggle in his favor. This implies that though he doesn’t follow a rigid religion, he believes in a supreme being. But then his being religious or not does not play any role in his fight against the marlin, nor in his fight against the sharks. He was born to be a fisherman. Therefore, it is his job to fish, it is his destined role in the world and his belief in this is what makes him fight tooth and nail drawing on strength and will from whatever sources he can muster against the marlin. On the other hand, the marlin was born to live in the deep seas and yet to be hunted for food. He therefore has to avoid the pursuit of men in order to live. The marlin’s role is to escape pursuit and that of the Old Man is to pursue the marlin. This is why they are locked against one another, fighting to the best of their ability till the very end. The old man is not after the marlin because he dislikes or abhors its existence but because he has to. In fact he calls the fish his friend and brother and has a deep love and respect for the fish. He deeply admires the fish for its manner of valiantly fighting back, “it pulls like a male” he says and he respects the fish’s nobility and he feels sorry that marlin is going to die, that he couldn’t eat with the hook in his mouth, but his determination to kill the fish never relaxes. He says, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you before this day ends. “He further says, “I’ll kill him though in all his greatness and his glory.” Even though it was unjust because he has to show what a man can do and what a man endures. He therefore endures the pain and he determinedly holds against the fish for three days and two nights. His left hand is cramped and useless, right is injured and bleeding, his back is sore and his muscles are tense and sore too. He has neither slept nor eaten properly, he is tired than he has ever been but he will not give up. He was so tired that he saw black spots before his eyes and twice he felt faint and dizzy and as the fish began to circle he attempted to harpoon him but couldn’t. At this point Hemingway writes. “You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater or more beautiful or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.” The old man therefore shows his confirmed aim. He also then finally establishes why he had to kill the marlin. He had to kill to feed himself and others and because of his pride, his pride in being a born fisherman and the best fisherman at that.

The Order in the World

      Hemingway’s world is a world where everything kills everything else. But Hemingway does not portray death, despair or any kind of negativism. Rather there is a bond of love, a feeling of brotherhood and affinity that binds the creatures of the world. Though they are divided into the hunter and the victim, the pressure and the pressured, and are bounded by nature into this destructive pattern they are also bounded by love and. this enables them to transcend beyond enmity. The natural universe is based and built on a natural harmony and symmetry and each living being has to follow its own natural harmony in order to exist in tune with the rest of the universe. Therefore, Santiago, the marlin and the sharks carry out their destined patterns and act in correspondence with the universe and thus respond to pursuit, escape, violence, attack, death, defense and destruction. Hemingway’s world therefore shows a basic unity with the above concept. But his elements somehow transcend the natural order. Thus, the Old Man is the hunter and he has to hunt the marlin but the marlin himself is a hunter as he hunts smaller fish for his food as Santiago hunts him for food. But there is another aspect, in Santiago becoming the hunted in relation to the sharks. The sharks are scavengers and it is natural that they attack the marlin for the food. But in correspondence to the theory of harmony, they are again hunted by men. As evident from the book, the sharks are also caught, their flesh, hide, and their liver oil are used by men for various purposes. And last but not least the sharks too have elements of grandeur in them, though they are described as scavengers and “a moving appetite”, there is the large Mako shark who is described as “beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything.” He lived on the fish Santiago himself did. Thus, everything has a fixed place in the universe and this shows the natural symmetry between the elements of the world. Apart from this harmony and symmetry there also exist in the universe degrees and levels in the value system. There exist a variety of men, Santiago is the greater man for attempting to go beyond all men and far out into the sea as opposed to the other fishermen who prefer to stay within sight of land. Then there is the Mako shark who is “beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything” and the other sharks who are more scavengers and “just a moving appetite.”

Santiago as Hero and his Heroism

      Santiago is a true hero in many ways. He is the exemplification of the Hemingway code hero. He exposes himself to great dangers and faces death, despair and defeat and destruction. He does so in going far out, beyond all people and this brings him to his adventure with the marlin. His going far out is also the reason why he is attacked by the sharks and is unable to escape, losing the whole marlin to them. The Old Man is there given an opportunity by nature in order to prove himself. He is thrown into the arena, the vast sea and is challenged by a more than worthy adversary, the marlin. The only thing that Santiago has to do is to accept the challenge and fight to the best of his ability. Nature provides endless such opportunities. The important thing is how man takes the opportunity and fights back. Therefore, we have Santiago, going, meeting the challenge, fighting with heroism, grit and determination, though he ultimately loses his prize to the sharks, but he is not defeated. He has had his chance and he has proved himself. Losing the marlin is the prize he has to pay for having had the opportunity of the experience. Losing the marlin after all the hard work that he put in is tragic but then he has his moment of glory. He has proved that he was the best fisherman and then the mere skeleton is enough proof to inspire the awe and admiration of the other fishermen. He is also more than compensated with the knowledge that now the boy shall accompany him in his future trips no matter what his father says, as his love and concern as well as his reverence for the Old Man is magnified by his knowledge of the Old Man’s achievement. Santiago’s heroic experience and achievement affect everyone in a positive way, his fellow fishermen, the boy and even the tourist. A sense of awe and wonder envelops them.

      Santiago’s world is a world where this sense of heroism and the opportunities is to prove this heroism is in a continuous process. This can be seen in how Santiago leaves his legacy to the boy Manolin, in leaving him the spare of the marlin. Santiago is an old man and after his adventure and his fight with the sharks, the feeling that he may not be survived is strong but stronger than this is the feeling that Manolin the boy whom he had trained in fishing since he was five years old is more than ready as well as worthy to carry on his mantle. Moreover, the master-pupil relationship therefore suggests that the heroic impulse shall move from one generation to another. Thus the world that Hemingway portrays is a world which is based on affirmation and an ongoing affirmation is emphasized rather than any kind of relation.

Santiago the Code Hero at his Best

      Santiago is given heroic proportions in his representation. He is the embodiment of the Hemingway code hero and for the first and last time Hemingway presents the hero and the code hero combined, in him. He is the hero of the novel, but unlike Hemingway’s earlier heroes, he is neither disillusioned and though he has scars he is not wounded like his heroes Jack Barnes, Frederic Henry etc, who suffer from the wounds they received during the war. Santiago from the very beginning is a man of courage and endurance. Even after eighty-four days without catching a fish he is full of hope and confidence. He has not lost his belief, rather he knows that the next day was going to be his lucky day. He is also full of humility, a humility without loss of pride. When he fights against the marlin he shows his determination and his indomitable spirit and his indefatigable nature. There are other examples which throw more light on his qualities such as the time when he had been locked with a huge Negro for a day and a night at hand wrestling and how he had summoned all his strength and defeated him. He had been called ‘El Champion’ after that and he had also realized that he would defeat anyone if he wanted badly enough. Now, Manolin calls him the ‘best fisherman’ and he proves this in his fight with the marlin and the manner in which he endures, pain and suffering without complain and suffering great strain, never gives up the fight, the heroic quality is brought out. Again in his battle against the sharks, his admirable qualities are again illuminated. Even when he is tired and exhausted to his bones, injured and knows he is beaten, when he is weaponless and out-numbered he keeps fighting and even in his defeat scores a moral victory. Even the lions the king of beasts, and DiMaggio the baseball star and the fact of their relaxing and inspiring him adds to his heroic stature.

Images of Nature adds to the Picture of Heroism

      Hemingway paints extraordinarily beautiful and realistic pictures of nature. These images of nature adds to the picture portrayed of Santiago’s heroism. The great sea coming to life as Santiago rows out and the vastness, the beauty of it while calm and the cruelty it can show, how alone one man in a skiff can be no matter how much the creatures of the sea give him company, emphasizes the greatness of Santiago’s adventure. Hemingway paints the background with great case rendering small realistic touches by focussing on details like his description of the flying fish, the clouds, the currents and the turtles, porpoises and birds of the sea. The sea is portrayed as this vast expanse where anything may happen, the marlin is described beautifully too bringing all his nobility, dignity and his huge size and thus adds to Santiago’s heroic impulse, that he is fighting against a fish two feet longer than his skiff. This image is sharpest when it rises out of the water after Santiago harpoons it. “Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the Old Man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the Old Man and over all of the skiff”

Santiago: A Skilled Professional

      Santiago is a skilled professional and in the world he inhabits this is an attribute of the utmost necessity. Apart from the courage, grit and determination to do it, he must also have the skill and the technique required to perform the trade he belonged to, in Santiago’s case, to be a fisherman. In this respect, Santiago utilizing his skills to perfection can be seen in the way he lays his baits and now he tells the boy that he knew many tricks that would help him even though he may not have the strength. He lays his baits with great care. The hooks are thoroughly covered so that any fish nibbling at it may not find any part of the hook uncovered and he keeps them straightway than anyone did. Others allured them to drift with the current but he kept them with precision at exact depths because though he would be happy to be lucky he would prefer to be exact, for when one was exact then one could be ready for whenever luck smiled on him. Thus, Hemingway shows through Santiago how in this world both will power as well as skill are required in order to succeed and achieve one’s ambitions. Only will power or. only skill will not do, both are! needed in a complimentary equation.

Santiago’s Individualism

      In order that the true nature of Santiago’s heroism can be seen, he has to be seen in his solitary splendor. Therefore, he has to fight alone and at the moment of greatest trial too one has to be solitary because the pain and suffering cannot be shared. He had to face all the problems and all the pressure by himself. From this point of view than Santiago is seen in fighting alone, though he constantly wishes for the presence of the boy, he is basically alone. He is hungry and tired after being towed for three days and two nights, due to lack of food and sleep his left hand is cramped and useless, his right hand has cut and bleeding. He feels faint and dizzy and he sees black spots in front of his eyes and in this condition he fights and conquers the marlin. Again, he is alone and finally weaponless when one shark after another attack, and he is utterly exhausted when a pack of sharks attacks and he knows defeat is inevitable, but he fights on and though destroyed, nothing remains of the marlin but the skeleton, he is not beaten. Thus, for a man to rise to the highest level possible he needs to show his individual caliber and fight the forces of nature single-handedly.

A Tragedy Yet Marred by Victory

      Hemingway in his portrayal of the world has moved a long way from the earlier world as in the short stories, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises etc. Here, it was a world full of despair, a world suffering from the tremendous negative effects of the two world wars. It is a cruel world that wounds Jack Barnes and renders him impotent, that destroys everything of Harry Morgan, a world where even after struggling one only stands to lose. Nothing ever is gained. It is a bleak and unhappy world, full of destruction and despair where man is doomed to suffer. But the world as seen in The Old Man and The Sea is no longer a bleak and sad place. It is a world where Santiago can be hopeful even after eighty-four days without catching a fish, a world where he can achieve a moral victory even in physical defeat, a world where even after losing his hard won prize he can still retain his confidence. Santiago’s world is a world that is whole and meaningful, a world that may deprive as the tragedy of losing the fish and yet compensate that deprivation with rich emotional and sentimental dividends. Thus, the world has now been depicted as a meaningful place, a place where everything has a purpose, where the strong, courageous man who dares and boldly challenges it can win a victory even in tragic circumstances.


      Thus, The Old Man and The Sea is the culmination of his long career, and marks the point where the note of affirmation earlier subdued comes into full force. It also marks the point where instead of total alienation, Hemingway moves towards an entry into the natural world without a complete reverence of social ties. This was an emerging major theme in Hemingway’s works which found its watermark in the novel under discussion. Hemingway as a man was moving away from the disillusionment and social alienation and desperation he faced as a result of the two world wars, and the economic depression plus other wars he had witnessed towards a better social awareness and this gets reflected in his works. In his earliest novels for example The Sun Also Rises Jack Barnes the protagonist is war wounded and disillusioned and he is happy only when he is isolated and far away from post-war Europe in the remote countryside. In A Farewell to Arms Frederic Henry is aimless and rootless, he comes to love and then to realize the brutal reality of war and strives to make a “separate peace” and deserting the army and the war, runs off to the mountains of Switzerland with Catherine and enjoys his moment of idealistic peace and joy in his idle only to have everything taken away in one sweep with Catherine’s death. The earlier Hemingway’s desire to get away from society and its confines, its pseudo attractions was a result not of the desire to escape but the desire to liberate oneself of all artificiality. His aim and objective was not to be far from responsibility but to be free from his moral and emotional self. To be bound by the constraints of society is, a man’s bravery and courage lies in breaking away from all and any kind of shackles that bind him. However, man is not an island. No man can ever be alone. His base is the society. He is free and yet he has ties of love and responsibility that stops him from being an isolated individual. In this lies Santiago’s heroism and he is the only figure in Hemingway's canon to throw out this positive message.

University Questions

Discuss Hemingway’s treatment of heroism with close reference to The Old Man and The Sea,
A positive note of affirmation is conveyed even though Santiago is beaten. Skepticism is evident in his earlier fiction, now negation, finds place in the Old Man and The Sea.

Previous Post Next Post