The Old Man And The Sea as A Tragedy - Discuss

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      The Old Man and The Sea is the story of Santiago, an old fisherman, who is unlucky in fishing but without hope goes on fishing and hooks a huge marlin and battles against him and later against the sharks, but unfortunately loses the marlin to the sharks and returns home with his skeleton. Whether to counter the novel as a tragedy or not is a matter of debate. Different critics have expressed different opinions on the question. In order to establish the statement, it is necessary to examine the definition of tragedy, according to established ancient rules, a tragedy is defined as a tale of serious and important action which turns out disastrously for the chief character. According to Aristotle, who based his theory on the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripedes, tragedy is the representation of an action that is serious in action, with magnitude and complete in itself which is presented in a dramatic manner in a language embellished, and incorporating incidents which arouse pity and fear to affect the catharsis of the same. Further, the tragic hero is a man, who though evoking pity and fear is a man who is neither good nor bad but a combination of both, of higher moral worth than ordinary man who falls from a height as a result of a mistaken act to which he is led by his hamartia, his tragic flaw or his error of judgment. The tragic hero is also a man with whom everyone can identify with. In order to see whether The Old Man and The Sea, falls under the above classification, let us examine the text in detail.

Answering the Criteria

      The novel fulfils most of the criteria listed above, however, there exist an important anomaly. Hemingway in his earlier novels too, wrote of men and women who were desperate and disillusioned men who were alienated from society, who attempted to set up an isolated existence due to the intense pain and suffering in the midst of community, who strove to find and establish “a separate peace” and yet failed and thus ended yet in further disillusionment and sadness. For example, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, in A Farewell to Arms, is a nihilist, a man who believes in Nada. He is a rootless, aimless man who has drifted into the war. He has no commitment anywhere. But after falling in love with Catherine Barkley he begins to be more committed both to his duties as an army personel and as a lover. He begins to find some meaning in life. When the harsh realities of the war jolt him into an awakening, he deserts making “a separate peace” and escapes from the war with Catherine running off to Switzerland. But their isolated blissful existence is short-lived. Catherine dies in childbirth leaving him alone and disconsolate. The Old Man and The Sea and its protagonist, Santiago is different in the sense that Santiago is not a disillusioned man carrying old wounds. He is not desperate though he has reason to be. He is brave and courageous against all the odds and finally, even with his enormous loss he is not defeated but still confident and makes plans for a better future.


      Santiago as a character who can be seen to have many similarities to the other tragic hero. He is neither an exceptionally good nor a horribly bad man. He is a good old man, unlucky and ordinary enough that most men can universally identify with him and his suffering. He is also a man who is endowed with heroic qualities and who battles enormous odds losing because of an error of judgment “he had gone too far out”. He arouses both pity and fear, and is thus a clear representation of the tragic hero.

His Heroic Endurance

      Santiago is established as a heroic man from the very beginning. He has spent eighty-four days without catching any fish and yet he hasn’t lost hope. Manolin calls him “the best fisherman”. “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.” Santiago humbly accepts the compliment saying he knew many tricks and he had resolution too. He goes out on the eighty-fifth day, confident with the aim to catch a big fish. His confidence and professionalism can be seen in the way he lays his baits with precision the hooks carefully covered. Then his endurance, pain and suffering can be seen in his struggle with the marlin. His battle is of tragic proportions. He knows he has hooked a huge fish, but he even before he can see the fish, who is towing him away. The fisherman and the skiff become the towing bitt The quarry turns the tables on the hunter. The huge marlin tows the old man far out into the sea for two days and two nights. And the old man endures as much as the fish endures the struggle. Both the marlin and the Old Man arouse our deepest pity and respect for the heroic fight they put up against each other. Santiago shows his heroism and his determination and resolution like a true hero. “Fish,” he says, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead”. Then, he says, “Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.” He resolves and he sticks his resolve. Once the fish made a surge that pulled him down on his face and made a cut below his eye. His back is stiff and sore. Then a bit later the fish made a lurch again and the Old Man hurt his right hand. It bleeds but he keeps holding the line and then tells himself “I must eat the tuna so that I will not have a failure of strength.” His left hand becomes cramped and useless and as the marlin comes up, he saw that it was bigger than any fish he had ever seen or heard of. But he is resolute and firm inspite of all his handicaps and he is determined to catch the marlin at any cost. “I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures” is the challenge he throws at the marlin. He also says that “pain does not matter to a man” and though he is very tired and exhausted, tired deep into his bones, he keeps up the fight. On the third morning, the fish comes up and begins to circle, a sure sign that he was tiring. Santiago takes his chance and puts in everything he had. He tries to pull in the fish but he can’t. He can only slightly move the fish. He, however, tries his utmost. Seven times he tries, though he had been seeing black spots before his eyes and he felt faint and dizzy. As the fish clouded him again and again, he is rapidly losing his strength. “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.” This shows his firm determination to fight until he died and he never stops trying. On the seventh try he tells himself, “I will try it once again.” Then, “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....The Old man “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 fish is tough and obstinate but Santiago killed him at last through his own grit, will and enduring confidence. This draws our deepest admiration.

His Endurance Against the Sharks

      Having won his prize the hard way he lashes it alongside and commences sailing homeward. But then sharks attack soon after. Santiago hardly had the time nor the stamina to enjoy his triumph. He had just settled down when the first shark appeared. Santiago harpooned the Mako but not before the Mako had taken about forty pounds of the fish as well as the harpoon. The old man is terribly saddened by, the loss. He felt as though he himself have been hit and doesn’t want to look at the mutilated fish. But he knows that other sharks will attack since the fish was bleeding and his determination and courage shows through in his following words. “But man is not made for defeat.” He said, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated” At this moment Santiago feels light headed. He is about to reach the limit of his endurance. But he strengthens resolve and keeps his strength alive by thinking of baseball, and wonders “how the great DiMaggio would have liked the way I hit him in the brain?” Get compared himself and his victory with him and draws hope. However, when two galanos sharks attack after two hours, it is as though he has been crucified. He utters the word ‘Ay’ which is ulltranslateable, it can ably be the sort of noise that a man makes involuntarily upon feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. But even despite this and after losing his knife in killing the two galanos and being weaponless, he is still determined, saying he will try fighting and protecting the fish for as long as he had his oars and short club and tiller. Then he actually goes about clubbing the attacking sharks to death and even at the point when half the fish has been eaten away by the sharks and he had no weapon to fight with, he says, “I’ll fight them until I die,” and he does so. He was stiff and sore and all his wounds and all of his strained body parts hurt with the cold of the night. But more sharks attack and he realizes that it was now hopeless case. But he keeps on fighting. He could not see the sharks as it was midnight and dark but he relentlessly fights at what he can only feel and hear. He felt something seizing the club and it was gone. Then using the tiller he chopped it with until it broke even then he urged at the shark with the splintered butt. Ultimately, the sharks rolled away for there was nothing more to eat. He could hardly breathe now and he felt a strange taste in his mouth. He knew he was beaten and lay down. But he doesn’t admit that he had been defeated. His loss is tragic but his loss is not a tragedy.

Tragic Loss but Moral Triumph

      The Old Man suffers a tragic loss in losing his hard-earned marlin in the most heart-wrenching manner to the sharks. But he has not suffered a defeat. By the manner of his struggle and by proving what manner of man he was he has achieved a moral triumph. This notion is further strengthened by the evidence revealed in the last section, the concluding part of the novel.

      He returns to the shore with the long, white skeleton. He then climbed up to his shark bearing his mast cross-like on his shoulders. Again, the image of the crucifixion is super-imposed on his journey back home and in the manner in which he falls into an exhausted sleep on his bed face down with his injured bleeding hands stretched out and the palms facing upwards. He tells the boy that he had been beaten, truly beaten but Manolin refutes him saying, he hadn’t been beaten: at least not by the fish and Santiago agrees, that yes, he had been beaten afterward. Then as the boy lifts his mood, they make plans excitedly for the future to fish together and reassured and confident as always he falls asleep and dreams of the lions. This implies that he was happy.

      Santiago, in the face of His tremendously awesome ordeal never loses his resolve and his heroic qualities of taking his suffering as it came, uncomplaining fortitude and his grim, grit and determination. The marlin shows the same qualities. Like him the marlin is also strong and determined and not without skill either. This makes the Old Man’s fight and his loss of the marlin to the sharks full of pathos. Thus, Santiago fulfills all the conditions required for a tragic hero, and his adventure also adheres to the requirements for a tragedy. He suffers and undergoes enormous pain and suffering while fighting great odds and yet he falls after having achieved his goal, because of his tragic fault of having gone too far out. His fall arouses pity and fear, the proper catharsis of the same but Santiago’s story does not end in complete tragedy. He may be beaten, he may have suffered a loss but he doesn’t die neither is left disconsolate. Rather he achieves a victory-moral and psychological, and the novel ends with hope and the belief that Santiago shall go on fishing again and emerges triumphant again.

Other Admirable Qualities in Santiago

      Santiago also possesses many other qualities that draw admiration. He is old and everything about him is old. He has not been able to catch any fish for eighty-four days. He has been declared salao the worst form of unlucky. Manolin has been ordered to go away to another man’s boat. Yet, his eyes are still cheerful and he is still confident of his skills and professionalism. He had attained humility and he was too simple to wonder when he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride. Apart from these, his love, compassion and feeling of oneness with the creatures of the sea birds, fishes, turtles, porpoises etc. win admiration. In this sense then again he is a true hero, a man who capable of arousing and receiving respect and reverence and at the same time identifiable with.

Inner Conflict

      Another aspect that raises Santiago to the level of tragic hero is the inner, psychological killing of the marlin. Having killed the marlin and then being attacked by sharks who attack at his prize mercilessly, he thinks about hope, thinking it is silly not to hope, besides, it was a sin, then he wonders if it had been a sin to kill the fish even though he had killed it in order to keep himself alive and feed many people. Then he rationalizes. “But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin. It is much too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it.” “You did not kill the fish only to keep have and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more. This kind of inner conflict adds to his stature.

Santiago’s Tragic Flaw

      All tragic heroes suffer a tragic fall due to his hamartia “error of judgment” or his tragic flaw. Hemingway’s Santiago also suffers from a tragic flaw. Santiago understands his flaw and accepts it. His moral flaw, his transgression of the human boundaries, his going beyond all the limits, all the people in the world. Santiago’s flaw is his going beyond due to his pride and his need, and this brings him violence and destruction. After the fish has been mutilated he regrets it and is saddened. He tells the fish how sorry he was by going out too far and thereby brought ruin on both of them. He says, “No, You violated your luck when you went too far outside”. Finally, after he has completely lost the marlin and he admits he had been beaten. But then he asks what had beaten him and he answers himself “Nothing”. He said aloud, ‘I went out too far’. The tragic flaw that brings about Santiago’s fall is also responsible for bringing Santiago’s greatest qualities too. His qualities of grim resolution, endurance, courage and his indomitable spirit, Santiago’s pride, nobility and dignity also comes through. It is as though Hemingway is saying that the stoic individual in his isolation and pride may be driven beyond human units, and may be driven to forget his place in the world and in his life and in this way meets the tragic fate. This also allows the individual some space to develop wisdom which teaches him about sin in pride and individualism and allows him to understand himself better. In this respect again it may be concluded that Santiago’s tragic flaw leads to tragic consequences but - it is not without positive aspects.

Comparison with Greek Tragedies

      The Old Man and The Sea stands up to a close comparison with ancient Greek tragedies. It is classical in spirit and there are many similarities between it and the Greek tragedies. In technique and style some aspects such as the Old Man’s humility and pride, his stoic courage indefatigable endurance etc. and his other admirable qualities bring him very close to heroes such as Oedipus, Hamlet etc. It is especially in the picture of his fall, a fall due to a hamartia, his error of judgment - going too far out, losing everything he had gained and in the process showing off his exquisite qualities that the novel resembles classical tragedies.


      Hemingway’s earlier world was a frightening world, a world full of wounds due to the wars and the economic depression which resulted in mass scale displacement and a kind of desperation and disorientation in men. The Old Man and The Sea makes a distinctly long move away from this world towards another which had made progress in terms of peace and order and was no longer a chaotic, depressing world. Hemingway’s earlier world was basically a cruel world wherein, a people like Jack Barnes is cruelly rendered impotent, lieutenant Frederic Henry loses the only meaning in his life in losing Catherine, Harry Morgan Achieves nothing but degenerates into a more and more terrible world, Robert Jordan is cruelly robbed of his idealism and finally loses everything. The balance earlier missing is brought to a certain semblance by normalcy in this novel. The world that the old mah inhabits is no longer a bleak desolate world. Hemingway has here portrayed a better world where man is no longer doomed, nor destined to suffer, lose and die. It is a beautiful place that throws challenges at men. And rewards man rich dividends whenever man dares and defies the pain and suffering it inflicts on him. Therefore, the world of The Old Man and The, Sea is a positive, rewarding world and therefore, the old man’s tale though tragic is not a true tragedy. This loss is a bleak tragedy but its end is hopeful and, therefore, purposeful. Hence, Hemingway’s last major work is a move away from his earlier tragedies, being a tragedy in many senses and yet portraying a sense of purpose, a sense of hopefulness in a world cruel at times but mostly beneficial.

University Questions

Examine the statement that The Old Man and The Sea is a tragedy.
“But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Examine this statement with reference to the text.
Discuss critically how Santiago is beaten but wins a moral victory.

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