Santiago's Heroism in The Old Man And The Sea

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A Heroism Away from Death, War and Love

      The Old Man and The Sea comes at the end of Hemingway’s career. His earlier novels are such as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For whom the Bell Tolls etc. Hemingway has portrayed heroism in terms of war and love and death. The first novel mentioned above portrays all the glamour of Romero’s heroism in his fifteen-minute fight with the bull in the ring, the second Henry’s experiences in the war and the third Robert Jordan’s three day mission of bombing and destructing the means for the Fascist is his life compressed in an experience comprising war, death and love. The Old Man and The Sea is, however, a short devoid of all these facts. There is none of the glamour associated with war and love. But this is not to say that there are no similarities.

      Santiago, protagonist in the Novel The Old Man And The Sea is in many respects similar to the earlier Hemingway heroes. For example, in his discipline towards his work, his profession he is like Jordan totally committed and ready to do anything to achieve his goal. In his commitment and belief in doing well what he was born to do. In this he is comparable to Romero. The one with his style, technique and dedication in the bull-fighting ring and the other at deep sea fishing. But Santiago is a simple fisherman and he performs his heroic feat far away. Alone in the ocean, away from the applauding audience he is a humble man putting his life at risk but there isn’t any kind of glamour evident in his attempt.

Santiago: Extreme Conditions

      That the world of the Old Man is extremely unglamorous as he has removed any kind of trappings, is of no doubt but his heroism is made all the more visible by the extreme conditions that are imposed upon him. The Old Man is alone, earlier the boy used to accompany him, he goes far out while most fishermen remain in sight of land, it is September a month when the great fish comes and not an easy time for the ordinary fishermen thus the situation already is made a difficult one. Then as he comes across the marlin, it turns out to be the biggest fish that he has ever seen or heard of in his life. He battles this fish against great odds for three days and two nights and he endur, and suffers and ultimately musters all the strength he can m order to kill him. He has to put in all that he has in order to score a victory over the marlin. But his hard won victory, his triumph is short-lived. Almost immediately sharks, scavengers and killers attack the old man and the marlin. The Old Man had already fought the marlin and exhausted his strength and stamina but his courage, determination and endurance is left and he uses it to fight the sharks. His hands, earlier injured, the left hand cramped and useless, his right-hand bleeding are now mushy and yet he fights the sharks as they come. He loses his harpoon and. then his club is seized away by one of the sharks. Finally, he is left with the tiller and. the oars to fight the sharks but the tiller also breaks. But he continues to fight. His battle takes away all his strength. He is more fatigued than he has ever been before and at one point he had told the fish, “you are killing me.” And now his struggle deprives him of any rest and thus aggravates his fatigues and hunger. He is also an old man unlike the other young virile and muscular heroes in Hemingway’s earlier fiction. Santiago’s fight is made spectacular through the absence of any kinds of props and both Santiago and fish appear awesome on the bare stage.

Santiago’s Fishing Technique

      Santiago despite all the odds emerges victorious from his battle. He is beaten but he is undefeated and survives his long drawn ordeal against the marlin and the sharks. His survival rests on many of his better qualities such as his skill in fishing, his faith and his discipline. He, therefore, follows strict technical precision in fishing. He covers all the parts of the hook with his bait so that the fish shall feel no’ part which is not tempting. He also keeps his lines at the exact depth and does not allow it to drift like other fisherman. He says “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready” in context to his preference for precision. Luck is okay but exactness and preciseness is better and preferred over luck. Earlier the boy, had said that he hoped the Old Man was strong enough and the Old Man had replied “I may not be as strong as I think. But I know many tricks and I have resolution. The Old Man relies on his skill and that his skill is tremendous can be seen when holding the line softly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, he knows what is happening to each of his baits in the deep dark water: One hundred fathoms down, a marlin was eating the sardines that covered the point and the shark of the hook where the hand-forged hook projected from the head of the small Tuna. The Old Man held the line delicately and softly with his left hand, unleashed it from the stick. Now he could let it run through his fingers without the fish feeling any tension.” He is so precise in his fishing technique that when he knows that he has hooked a big marlin that he concentrates all his attention on him and when he hooks another one he quickly arts it away. He doesn’t know what it was but he cannot afford to let anything come between him and the fish now. He tries to do everything in the hook to catch the fish. He knows what the fish is going to do and how the fish is going to move and anticipating his moves, humors him. Then, later he remembers the great baseball star DiMaggio who always played his best in spite of the pain of a bone spur in his heel. He remembers him and hopes to be worthy of him. After he has succeeded in harpooning the fish having spent three days and two nights in pursuit, he says that was the way otherwise he couldn’t have killed the fish. His precision, skill, endurance and determination is what made him victorious and thus he is worthy of DiMaggio and more worthier than the other Hemingway heroes.

Skill and Determination over Strength

      The reason why Hemingway made Santiago, the hero and the Old Man can be seen in the fact that Hemingway himself was becoming old as he settled in Cuba from which experiences he extracted the novel. But this is not the case. The real reason may be that Hemingway intended that Santiago should be a skillful fisherman fighting his adversary through his knowledge and technique and not because of his muscular strength. This may be why Santiago is not a young, muscular, strong man but an old man, highly skilled and competent in his profession. As a professional fisherman, Santiago makes maximum use of his skill and utilizes all his tricks and techniques with wisdom and common sense. When he is tired and is on the point of extreme exhaustion he is prudent and eats the tuna, then the dolphin in order to sustain his strength and energy. He is not reckless like a young and strong man. Santiago is the kind of man to reserve all his strength until the right moment comes and then unleash it also drawing on all his inner strength. This is how he triumphs over the Negro. This is how he triumphs over the marlin. Hemingway wrote in reaction to bull fighting that “strength is of little use except at the actual moment of killing.” This is fully applicable to the Old Man. When he is faced with the task of killing the marlin he does not in any way rely on his physical strength. In order to his corner quarry he relies on his skill and wisdom and it is only at the moment when he raises the harpoon that he calls on all his available strength. Santiago draws on his inner youth which he remembers and calls up through his dreams of the lions playing on the beaches of Africa which he had seen in his youth and his thoughts of the boyhood.

Santiago: A Perfect Professional

      Santiago is the embodiment of a professional fisherman. And it is only because of his professionalism - his tricks and his “resolution” that he is able to tower above the marlin and defeat him. And it is his determination that wins him a victory over the sharks and why he is triumphant though beaten. By ‘tricks’ he means his skill and his techniques, the resources that he is able to rely on. His art of fishing and by his resolution he means his will and determination to do what it was that he was born for and he was born to be a fisherman. In such strict adherence to professionalism, Santiago has similarities with the earlier heroes, in Hemingway’s fiction. For instance, Robert Jordan, in For whom the Bell Tolls, is also a professional who knows exactly what is to be done and in what manner it is to be carried out. And in order to carry out the demands of the profession and in order to adhere strictly to the code of discipline that the profession imposes, Jordan is ready to do anything even at the risk of his own life, later sacrifices his life. His awareness of the code and discipline can be seen in his repeated use of the words such as ‘gift’, ‘talent’, ‘duty’, ‘work’ etc. But in Robert Jordan’s case the struggle lasts for the duration till he completes his mission within the war. Santiago on the other hand, has a life long mission, as a professional fisherman. This brings him closer and more similar to Romero, the professional bull fighter in The Sun also Rises, who like Santiago is a born fisherman is a born bullfighter. Thus it is that Santiago's heroism comes from his professionalism and his awareness that he has to adhere to its discipline. This is what sustains him for eighty-four fishless days. This is what keeps him going and inspires him to go far out on the eighty-fifth day to fish far out into the ocean with the conviction that his big fish was out there and he was going to catch him. This conviction is what makes him stick on for three days and two nights after the marlin even at personal peril and what makes him fight the sharks even when he is utterly exhausted and even at the point when having lost all his weapons he knows it to be useless. It is as though the word “quit” does not exist in his vocabulary. And even at the moment when all his hope seems to. be futile as he says to himself:

      It is silly not to hope. Besides, I believe it is a sin. Do not think about sin. There are enough problems now without sin. Also, I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps, it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep myself alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about it. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it. Let them think about it, you were born to be fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.


      It is a rare and privileged thing to identify the true master in any given field of human activity. And it is even rare to find one who accepts unconditionally his or her position in the human scheme. Santiago is such a man. His belief in this urges him to life accordingly, pursuing all and any kind of goal according to what he was meant to do. Thus, Santiago fights the marlin and then fights the sharks. He fights with all that he has got but ultimately he is beaten and is left only with the marlin’s carcass with which he returns home. But even in his defeat because of his dignity and heroism in fighting till there was nothing left to fight for, he is victorious. But the winner takes nothing. In the beginning of the novel, when the Old Man had been talking to the boy, Manolin had told him that the Yankees had lost the baseball match that day. And Santiago had answered: “That means nothing. The great DiMaggio is himself again. Thus, for Santiago, fighting the battle well is important and in this regard he himself, in the end of the novel, is left with nothing but he has fought and won so he is also “himself again.”

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