Themes of the Novel The Old Man And The Sea

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Iceberg Theory

      Hemingway once stated a theory based on the iceberg, in relation to his prose. He said: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a ruling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water." Hemingway preferred to apply this iceberg theory as far as his prose was concerned. He preferred to write in such a manner that its meaning instead of being obviously apparent manifested itself through implications that unfolded layer by layer.

      In the same way, the meaning is not clearly stated. The reader has to unravel the total meaning through various levels. The theme of interdependence is one such aspect of the novel that can be arrived at only through a close examination of the text.

Santiago and the Marlin

      Santiago is a "Strange Old, Man". He is portrayed as a man who is old, so old that everything about him was old. However, he is endowed with heroic qualities which are brought out in his battle against the marlin, a worthy adversary, in that the qualities he possesses are no less than that of the Old Man's. The Old Man is a professional fisherman and he knows many tricks when he hooks the huge marlin who begins to show his strength by towing him and the skiff and his stamina and endurance of pain by towing him continuously without tiring or showing pain for two days and two nights, the Old Man by sticking with him shows his strength and stamina and endurance of pain. Further, the Old Man's stoic endurance and indomitable spirit are brought out in his struggle with marlin. In one sense, it can be said that Santiago is an individualistic champion as he faces all the odds alone and yet emerges victorious even in defeat.

Individualism Versus Communalism

      Individualistic as Santiago is, there are several examples in the text which show that he is not completely so, but admits characteristics that show him as dependent and inseparable from society. He is an Old Man who fished alone in the gulf stream but it is evident that he depends and relies heavily on the boy Manolin and others such as the owner of 'The Terrace', marlins etc. Manolin 'keeps him alive', he reflects while on sea. And this is true physically as well as psychologically. Manolin brings him food and provides him with beer and coffee to drink. He arranges for his baits and other small things. Apart from this the Old Man sustains his strength during his ordeal by thinking about him. He drinks shark liver oil, good for his eyes from the community reserve. He loves baseball, a team game and admires DiMaggio the star among baseball players. In his admiration for DiMaggio Santiago understands that a strong individual can make a difference in the community as he says in answer to the boy's statement that there are other men on the team, "But he makes the difference". Later, towards the end of the novel, it is clearly brought out that Santiago was very much a well loved part of the community. During his three days ordeal, the villagers had searched for him all over the sea with the waste guard and with airplanes. Then after his return, we see how some are taking care of his skiff, the fish's skeleton and Manolin providing coffee. Santiago, therefore, is interdependent with his community though he is a bit loner.

The Marlin: Santiago’s Free Brother

      Santiago says that the birds and fishes of the sea are his principal friends. The marlin is also his friend. He says, "I love you and respect you fish", but he is also determined to kill him. The spiritual relationship between the fish and the Old Man is noteworthy. He begins to pity the fish as it had been so bravely fighting against him. Later he wishes he could somehow feed him even. He was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat.

Oneness With Nature and the Sea

      Santiago, alone in his skiff fishing is completely at ease with elements of the sea. As he rows far out, he lays his baits but he sails where on seeing the man-of-war bird circling over the sea, he feels there may be a big fish. He knows that the man-of-war bird had found fish and so he relies on the creatures of the sea. He follows the flying fish which sported out and saw a big school of dolphins. But they got away. Then he saw lots of plankton and he was happy because that meant fish. He loves the creatures of the sea. He says that the birds are his principal friends and the fish his brother. Later, a small warbler fish comes and rests on his line. He speaks to the bird-like a friend and invites him to stay at his house for as long as he likes. Then he says, "I am sorry, I cannot hoist the sail and take you in with the small breeze that is rising. But I am with a friend. This is reference to the marlin he had hooked. There seems to be a parallelism between the small bird exhausted, alone and looking for food in the wide sea with the Old Man alone struggling with the fish for his livelihood. As he tells the small bird" "go in and take your chance like any man or bird, or fish." As the small bird flew away, the Old Man looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But then he looked down at the sea and saw it surging with life and up ahead a flight of wild ducks against the sky and felt alone no more. He knew that no man was ever alone on the sea. Even the clouds take on a friendly looking shape. Santiago has a deep kinship with the sea and the creatures of the sea. He is completely at one with the sea.

Santiago Versus Hemingway’s Earlier Heroes

      Hemingway's earlier heroes were men who followed proindividualism. They were completely alienated from society and strove to find peace in an isolated existence. Their trajectory proceeded towards a separate peace but ultimately the realization that there is and there neither can be meaning in an isolated existence nor is it the answer to man's problems. They moved on to a relation as indicated by Robert Jordan (For whom the Bell Tolls) that, "No man is an island", Santiago is a older and more mature version of the earlier Hemingway heroes. He is still the strong, outdoorish and individualistic man but one who has realized that man is never alone. Man is not alone even in the vast seas. He has attained a higher level of maturity and a deeper awareness of the forces behind nature and a deeper understanding of the scheme of the universe. The earlier Hemingway heroes were believers in nihilism. They inhabited a world full of hostility and violence. Santiago also comes away from them though he knows that in this world violence is the law of nature, that everything killed everything else in their bid for survival. He, therefore, knows that he has to kill the marlin and kills him without malice, or bitterness or anger. He kills him but he pities, loves and respects him. He is forced to kill the marlin out of pride and he is full of charity and humility. Santiago means more towards a community life than an isolated existence. His isolation and individualism is rather forced on him. His wife had died. He was lonesome without him. The boy had been with him but he had been forced to leave too. And he constantly remembers the boy and Wishes for his presence as a companion, helper and friend. As he is coming back he wondered in anyone had been too worried about him. And he knows most everyone would have been. He affirms the belief in the inter-dependence of man by bequeathing the marlin's head to the proprietor of the Terrace, and the spear to Manolin. He also affirms the hope that man can survive in this universe only through interdependence rather than insulating oneself against the harsh realities and violence of the world. In affirming this, the Old Man exemplifies his code as presents himself as the true Hemingway code hero.

Santiago as Epitome of Individualism

      Some critics have brought out a different approach to the theme of interdependence. Critics such as Clinton S. Burhans is of the view that Hemingway's approach to the conventional view of human solidarity is an apologist point of view. According to him, Santiago has committed a sin by asserting his individualism in a world where such individualism is almost usually destroyed and annihilated. Brickford Sylvestea presents another view. He is of the opinion that Santiago’s breach of the mode of dependence is necessary in order to bring out the greatness of the man. His theory is that all that is great necessarily cater to a solitary and lonely life. This is true both of the Old Man and the marlin. Santiago fishes and fights alone, so does the marlin as opposed to the scavengers of the sea, the foul-smelling sharks who move about in packs and groups. Therefore, Sylvesta asserts that Hemingway seems to have favored individualism over inter-dependent community life, though the norm of the world leans significantly towards collective life. According to him, Santiago’s greatness shines most because his singlehanded valiant struggle is set in the backdrop of this collective life. The inter-dependence shown is not that of one man to another but that of many men upon one single man. The idea conveyed of a community passive and inactive depending upon one mighty and potent individual and "who is his dependence upon a principle basic to universal order, is independent of all men." In this respect, the image of Christ in Santiago, finds significance and meaning. In much the same way as Christ redeemed mankind and by his suffering brought man's freedom, Santiago has by his quest, his struggle against all odds taking all the pain and suffering he can endure and more he has also redeemed his fellow fishermen and given them the freedom and courage to go out far into the sea to take their chance. Santiago has been blessed with a superior vision and Very few are endowed with it. As Santiago fights so does the marlin. In fact, the marlin's response on being hooked is demonstrative of a fundamental law of life. The marlin is hooked but instead of submitting, fights back by swimming away towing the Old Man in his skiff. This implies that his life depends on his opposition to the natural order. Later, he gives in and his conformity leads to his death. The fundamental law of life, therefore, states that life exists in flowing against the current rather than in flowing with the current.

Ethics of Individualism Imparts Immortality

      Santiago is a 'strange old man'. He is an exceptional individual and, therefore, unique one. Such individuals usually move away and their behavioral pattern is in sharp contrast to that which is the norm and in the end, such men die. They meet death in confrontation with another unique individual from another species. For example Santiago is a champion among fishermen, similarly is the marlin among fishes. Hence both are extraordinary examples of their separate species. In his individual struggle against the marlin and is asserting his individuality and emerging triumphant he is rendered with immortality.

Santiago and the Forces Opposing Him

      Hemingway’s world order functions through a tension between opposing forces. These forces are usually evenly balanced. This tension allows man to live life to its fullest and fulfill his aims and goals. This is the reason why Santiago lives a life at its full in the twenty-four hours that he was engaged in struggling against the huge Negro from Cienfuegos. His life seems to gain more meanings from this struggle and then in his victory. Later, he struggles against the marlin for an even longer period of time and then is forced to fight with the sharks. These opposing forces bring out the best in Santiago. It is in tension against these forces that the greatness of Santiago is evident.


      It can be said that both individualism and interdependence are equally relevant and not contradictory as far as the text The Old Man And The Sea. Santiago depends upon his community as also on the natural creatures of the world for his existence. He may be isolated in his struggle but he does not stand as advocating an isolated existence. His community also depends on Santiago spiritually. They take strength and inspiration from men like Santiago. Both the individual and community, therefore, draw salvation from their interdependence. But they stand to lose without the other. The community would severely lose and without men like Santiago be destroyed without the community. He would come out an isolated existence.

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