Santiago's Struggle with The Marlin & The Sharks

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Santiago and His Adversary

      Hemingway was greatly attracted by the adventurous life and he was fascinated by the spirit of gallantry. This was the reason, behind his restless wanderings all over the world. The years he spent as a roving war correspondent, and his various adventures of big game hunting in Africa, bull fighting in Spain, deep-sea fishing in Cuba, and his active participation in both the world wars and others such as the Spanish Civil war are all elements instrumental in forming his various texts. This same spirit of gallantry can be seen in Santiago, the hero of the novel. However, within the structure of the novel, Santiago’s spirit is better etched compared and contrasted with that of the marlin. His adversary, Santiago’s spirit of bravery, nobleness and splendid courage, his stoic endurance, and his unflinching acceptance of suffering are revealed only through his ordeal resulting from his hooking a huge marlin who tows him for three days and two nights. Similarly, the Marlin’s endurance, courage and power is also emphasized which develops and can be seen in three stages.

The Beginning of the Fight

      Santiago has gone far out on the eighty-fifth day in his belief that after eighty-four fishless days, the day was going to be his lucky day. Towards noon, he feels a slight tentative nibbling on one of his lines. He himself gets the tentative feeling of something about to happen. He knew that, six hundred feet in the cold water and in the dark a huge fish was nibbling at the bait and he implores it to eat the bait properly so that the fish gets hooked. Santiago felt the delicate pulling touch and was happy when he felt the gentle pulling and something hard and unbelievably heavy. However, the fish after taking the bait begins to move away and even as Santiago was preparing to take it in, finds himself and his boat being towed away towards the north-east. After four hours the fish was still swimming on Readily. The Old Man cannot believe but he is a towing butt and he thinks that it will kill the fish. But the fish never changed his direction nor his course all that night and the Old Man found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he could tolerate the strain but he was also braced for anything. The Old Man is fiercely attempting now to endure and not to think. Santiago wishes that he could see the fish at least once so that he could know his adversary but the fish and he had been joined together through the line since noon and neither can help the other. It is midnight and both ever fighting an unseen adversary.

The Middle Part of the Fight

      The Old Man had hooked the fish around noon and the fish had been towing him and his skiff for the day and night. The sun had risen for the second day but the fish showed no signs of being tired. The sun had risen quite high when the fish gave a lurch that hawked the Old Man. He then began to slow and later there was a change in the slant of the line and he began to rise. The middle part of the fight begins with the fish coming up and showing itself for the first time to the Old Man. “He is coming up, he said.....The line rose slowly and steadily and then the surface of the ocean bulged ahead of the boat and the fish came out. He came out unendingly and water showered from his sides. He was bright in the sun and his head and back were dark purple and in the sun the stripes on his sides showed wide and a light lavender. His sword was as long as a baseball bat and tapered like a rapier and he rose his full length from the water and then re-entered it, smoothly, like a diver and the Old Man saw the great say the blade of his tail go under and the line commenced to race out.” This is how Hemingway describes the fish and as he appears, Santiago looks at him with awe and surprise. His reaction is “He is two feet longer than the skiff.” The fish as it rose began to aim at greater speed and the line went out fast but the fish had not panicked. Santiago knows he must somehow control the fish or else the line will break. The Old Man thinks “He is a great fish, and I must convince him, he thought. I must never let him learn his strength nor what he could do if he made his run. If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them, although they are more noble and more able.” Earlier the Old Man had also expressed that though he loved and respected the fish very much, he would kill him by the end of the day. Thus, the Old Man acknowledges the marlin’s courage and strength and admires him for his endurance. He has a feeling of brotherhood for the marlin and even wishes he could somehow feed the marlin. But the very fact that Santiago is able to eat and keep his strength and on the other hand is the marlin who is unable to eat and therefore he can be worn down and defeated. This knowledge also arouses an awareness in Santiago of how he can kill the marlin. The Old Man desires like any other man to prove his worth against an adversary who is worthy and befitting. The marlin is more than worthy and both the knowledge and the wish sustain the Old Man in his struggle and also propel him forward. The Old Man knew that he was against a huge fish from the beginning. The sight of the huge fish is an added spur and the Old Man remarks “He jumped almost as though to show me how big he was.” But the size, strength and power of the adversary the marlin, enlarge that which is in the Old Man. He says to himself “I wish I could show him what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so.” By afternoon the line had risen a bit but the fish only continued to swim. It was the same as the sunset and night came on. But as the fish seems on and so does the Old Man who continues to endure on and knows that he will continue to do so.

The Third and Final Stage of the Fight

      The Old Man’s battle with the marlin reaches its climax in this third and final stage beginning in the early morning of the third day to the harpooning and lashing of the marlin. The Old Man had been resting and he woke with a start as the fish gave a sudden jerk and then he began to jump. The Old Man is hung on as the marlin jumped again and again. He was pleased that the marlin’s air sacks were filled and he would no longer go deep down to die and disable the Old Man in bringing him up. And he tells himself to be fearless and confident. The fish begins to circle and as he makes smaller circles, jumping to take in air, the Old Man struggles, he sweats and strains in his attempt to get him close enough to the skiff so that he can harpoon him. The Old Man was feeling faint then but he held on with the strain that he could. But he couldn’t win for the moment, “You are killing me, fish,” the Old Man thinks. Then he thinks “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.” But his head was confused. He has to keep his head clear because he has to kill him. “I’ll try it again” the Old Man promised. Therefore, though his hands were sore and he could only see well in flashes he tried again and again. And at last, “He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long-gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony and the fish came over on to his side and swam gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff, and started to pass the boat, long, deep, wide silver and barred with purple and interminable in the water. And at this moment, “The Old Man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side.” The Old Man after struggling for three days and two nights is eventually victorious over the marlin.

Santiago’s Battle with the Sharks

      Santiago’s struggle with the Marlin forms the first movement and now with his battle against the sharks starts the second movement of the novel. The Old Man’s struggle with the sharks is a more intense and desperate struggle than that with the marlin though it is shorter in duration. The Old Man has been completely worn out by his fight with the marlin. He felt faint and sick even as he had harpooned the fish and his hands were stiff and cramped, his back muscles were sore and he was fatigued than ever before. At this point the sharks began to attack. But the Old Man had anticipated it. Santiago had just settled down to rest, sailing homeward with the marlin lashed to the side of the skiff as he had been too big for to bring on the skiff. He had been pondering over who was bringing whom is as both his skiff and the marlin’s head were moving together side by side. It is as though they are now joined together towards a common foe. Santiago had earlier remarked. “If sharks come, God pity him and me.” And indeed, the Old Man’s plight and the loss he suffers against the shark is pitiable. A series of attacks wherein every shark bites off a sizeable chunk of the marlin ultimately leaving only the carcass of the eighteen-foot, fifteen hundred-pound fish, is indeed a piteous tragedy.

The First and Second Attack and Santiago’s Wounds

      The first shark to attack is a huge Mako shark. He comes up fast and completely without caution as he bites into the marlin, the Old Man who had his harpoon ready “hit it with his blood-pushed hands driving a good harpoon with all his strength. He hit it without hope but with resolution and complete malignancy. The shark dies but takes forty pounds of the better meat and the harpoon and all the rope and leaving the fish bleeding and thereby, ensuring the appearance of other sharks. The worse part is that now the marlin is badly mutilated and the Old Man cannot even bear to look at it.

      He feels as though he himself had been hit wherever the fish had been hit. Two hours later, two great Galanos attack. He was now using his knife. And at this point the image of the crucification of Christ is superimposed on the Old Man and his suffering. On seeing the first of the two Galanos he utters the sound ‘Ay’ and Hemingway writes that for this word there is no translation. 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 parallelism of the Old Man’s suffering with that of Christ has been going on for sometime now. His hands have been wounded, and the wounds shown as equivalent to that of a Saint. His right hand cuts first and bleeds. His left hand is cramped and useless. Later both hands are so badly hurt that they are mushy. In Christian mythology, Jesus was crucified along with two other men, the man on the left insults Jesus while that on the right defends and to him Jesus says that “thou shall be with me m Paradise.” Therefore, in Christian gospel, the right hand is associated with goodness and the left with treachery. Similarly in the text, Santiago, speaks to his hand as his fellow sufferers. He says in all his life his left hand has betrayed him. It is cramped and useless. He says maybe he should have trained it better. He cannot trust his left hand and he relies on the right all the time but he hopes the left hand will be uncramped to help the right hand.

The Third, Fourth and Final Attack

      When the third shark attacked, the old man was able to kill him but his knife blade was snapped. He can now use his gaff but that was useless. He shall have to use the oars, tiller and short club. He feels beaten and tired but he shall try for as long as he can. When the sharks hit him for the fourth time before sunset, he clubs them again and again in the fish and he wished it had been a dream and he had never hooked him. Now after the fourth attack the fish is reduced to half. “Half fish, he said, Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. Trained us both. But we have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many other.” The old man by this time is too tired to even say his prayers. He was stiff and his wounds and all the strained parts of his body hurt with the cold of the night. And he wishes that he wouldn’t have to fight again.

The Final Struggle

      He had earlier resolved to fight the sharks until he died. But he was in great pain and he was pondering what anyone could do weaponless and in the dark. But by midnight more sharks attack and he knew it was useless to fight. But he keeps clubbing and clubbed desperately at what he could only feel and bear and suddenly something seized the club and it too was gone. Then he beat and chopped with the tiller but the sharks kept tearing off the pieces of meat relentlessly. The tiller broke in his struggle and ultimately the sharks stopped coming as there was nothing left but the carcass of the marlin. The Old Man could hardly breathe now and he felt something strange in his mouth and felt something break inside him. He knew he was beaten but not by the fish. He had gone out too far. Now he longs for his bed. But he is not defeated.


      There is a symmetry between Santiago’s fight with the marlin his prize and then his fight with the sharks and his loss. This symmetry renders an aesthetic quality to the novel. Hemingway has brought out the theme of winner take nothing as portrayed in earlier novels as The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls etc. However, Santiago’s story has an added dimension. In his struggle where his strength, courage and endurance is emphasized by that of his adversary and the manner of his fight a desperate struggle till the end with a spirit uncrushed, defeated but indomitable, Santiago achieves a martyrdom that none of Hemingway’s heroes have ever achieved.

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