The old man is alone on the sea. The boy Manolin has been taken away from him and he has no radio to bring him baseball or music. Quite naturally, he takes to self-communing. His deliberations sometimes become his reveries or a vocal stream of the subconscious. Although talking during fishing is injudicious yet he cannot help doing so.
He talks to the bird that alights upon his line to take rest, to the hand as it cramps. His conversation on these occasions is amusing and witty and at the same time thought provoking. Most instructive and penetrating are, however, his jibes at himself. It is here that he takes stock of things, thrashes and analyses. He gets at the truth at one leap that is enlightening not only to himself but also the reader. Some times his thinking aloud becomes so realistic a sort of vocal current in the stream of subconscious. It is inclusive of all his experience, his desires, his ambitions, his pride, his disappointments and his courage. It is through these communing that we get at the real man in him. These are most revealing in nature and perhaps the most important part of the novel.
The old man feels truly elated after he had killed the biggest marlin hunted by any fisherman in that area. He is sure that even great Di Magio would be proud of him that day. He lashes the fish alongside his boat and sail southwest, unaware of the blackest tragedy that awaits him.
Hardly an hour passes when, attracted by the scent, the first shark, a Mako, hits him. It is armed with teeth sharper than the edge of the sword; it is the worst enemy that could be imagined on the sea. The unconquerable man runs the harpoon into the head of the shark. He hits it “with resolution and complete malignancy.” It turns over and sinks in water. The old man is deeply grieved to think that his fish has been mutilated. It seems to him “as though he himself were hit.” This however, is the beginning not the end. The scent of the fish spreads far and wide attracting entire shoals of sharks from the deep. The old man is now pitted against not one but legions. He wishes “it had been a dream” but then he reminds himself “man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” He kills them one after the other, first with the harpoon, then with the oar with the knife lashed to it, then with his club and lastly with his tiller. He gives a brave fight and makes short work of several sharks but they are too many: but that cannot dampen his courage. However, it does not mean that he is a
superman or a giant. He has the common weaknesses, which become all the more prominent when he is pitted against forces much stronger than he.
After he hooks the fish, he wishes a successful end of this adventure. Without compromising on his skill or in any way relaxing his efforts, he promises scores of “Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers.” Perhaps he does this to keep up his heart. However, his anxiety culminates into a delirium. When the sharks hit him, he cannot help calling out helplessly, “I’d like to buy some luck if there’s any place they sell it.” He then accuses himself of violating his luck by going “too far outside.” Nevertheless towards the end of the novel, he emerges a living martyr, reconciled to the fortune and ready to make new start.
Marlin, the old man hooks, drags his skiff for a couple of nights and two and half days. Another man in his place would have been panicky and given up but the old man knows better. He knows that a fish however strong and big it might be, can’t drag the skiff forever. Hunger and toil must take its toll. In the meantime he eats raw tuna to keep himself strong. At long last, the fish as he had predicted, starts circling.
He now gains line with every circle, forcing the fish to come closer with every round. As the fish comes alongside, he pulls with all his strength, and turns “part way over” but then it rights itself and swims away. It happens several times. The old man says, “Fish you are going to have to die any way. Do you have to kill me too?” he is so enamoured of the beauty and nobility of the fish that the calls it a brother. He even goes on to say, “Come on and kill me. I don’t care who kills who.” As the fish, now tired and exhausted, comes along side, he drops the line, puts his foot on it, lifts the harpoon as high as he can and drives it down with all his might “in to the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin.” He feels the iron go in and pushes “all his weight after it.” There oozes out a cloud of blood from the fish’s heart. It is dead. Soon it is afloat, green, golden and silver. The greatest adventure on sea has been accomplished although it is by no means the end of old man’s labour and struggle.
Old man is a born fisherman and is as at home in the sea as any fish. He has spent all his life in voyaging and fishing. However, this amphibian lives on land as well. Normally he comes back in the evening, carries his gear to his shack, sometime all by himself, but mostly assisted by the boy, Manolin. His shack made of “the tough bud-shields of the royal palm” is simply furnished. Besides, a table, and a chair, it has a spring bed covered not with a mattress or foam but with old newspapers.
There are a couple of pictures on Biblical themes as well as “a tinted photograph of his wife”, which remains covered in one corner “under his clean shirt” lest he should feel lonely. He has a fireplace “on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal” but there is nothing in his house to be cooked. He tries to put off the boy by pretending that he has “a pot of yellow rice,” for his supper, but the boy knows too well that the promised “yellow rice and fish” is a dream. Infact they go through “this fiction everyday”. Their conversation centers on baseball and the champion of this game. Dimagio is the favourite hero of the old man. Infact he is competing with Dimagio all the time and turns out to be his equal in fishing. His great feat on the sea is of course as big as any victory of Dimagio.
The old man hooks a huge Marlin, 1500 pounds or more and 18 feet in length. It is the biggest fish caught by any fisherman in that area so far. The old man perceives by pressure of his thumb and finger on line that it is a male and it is one hundred fathoms deep.
He also knows that the fish has the hook “side ways in his mouth’ and is rushing away with it. He lets the line slip through his fingers and makes the two reserve coils fast with this line. He does not lunge at the line lest it should throw the hook out. He says to the fish, “Eat it a little more. Eat it well.” And then he strikes hard with both hands again and again so that the points of hook firmly stuck in its flesh. This done, he braces himself “against the thwart”, leaning back against the pull. The fish starts pulling the skiff steadily.
It is a long drag that lasts for about three days and two nights. All this while the old man stands leaning against the bow with the line taut against his back. Towards the nightfall he covers his shoulders with a sack and slowly brings it under the line. The fish never comes up but swims nobly at a steady speed. Once or twice it gives a lurch; the line cuts through his right hand and once his face strikes against the stern and he is nearly pulled overboard. However, he endures the great pain in his back, the cuts in his hands and the bruises on his face patiently.
Manolin, the boy, is the symbol of the old man’s lost youth. It is he who has been teaching him fishing since his early childhood. The old man treats him like a loving father. Being issueless and widower Santiago is attached to him as a true friend, a mentor and a lover. Manolin too returns his passion with the same vehemence.
He is attached to the old man as a calf to its mother. Manolin takes very good care of the old man. He helps him carry gear to and from the shack. He listens to him avidly and showers the sincerest praises on him. He calls him, and believes it truly, that old man is the greatest fisherman in the world. He serves the old man with beer and brings him sumptuous supper from time to time.
It is true that he deserts the old man under pressure from his parents but his heart is still with him. When the old man does not return for three days, he is exceedingly restless. He is the first person to discover him in the shack and is so sorry for his miserable condition that he cries his heart out. He brings him hot coffee and promises to stay with him forever and ever. When Santiago says, he is unlucky, Manolin bursts: “The hell with the luck. I’ll bring luck with me.” He is thus a paragon of friendship, love and loyalty.
“The Old Man and The Sea” is not just an entertainer or a time-killer. It has something that goes deep down our psyche and arouses us out of our feckless, uneventful, lethargic day-to-day living. The old man is, infact, a sort of an “every man” who wishes to conquer the unconquerable, the Prometheus who desires to pull himself free from the prison of Fate. Hemingway has caught the true spirit of adventurism.
The old man’s adventure on the sea is not just an event, “one-in-a-series” but something new, something challenging, something impossible. He is pitted not just against a huge marlin or greedy reckless sharks but against all the forces of nature, rather the forces of universe that try to keep man subdued. They grudge him his success and cheat him of his final victory. Nevertheless he remains unbeaten to the end; his pride is unscathed and his spirit unbent. He rightly remarks that a man may be destroyed but not defeated. His struggle against the Marlin and his fight against the sharks are as much objective as subjective. He is Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon and Macbeth combined. He struggles nobly against the fish and kills it successfully but reaches the truly tragic height when he fights against the Sharks. It is his “be all and end-all”. He fights like Macbeth and suffers like Lear. He has the cleverness of Odysseus and nobility and charm of Hamlet. In crucial moments, the great tragic heroes say great things and so does Santiago: “Man is not made for defeat. A man may be destroyed but not defeated.” We can say that Hemingway has given us a message that a man should live a life of struggle. He should have courage to face the circumstances. When someone wants to prove his dignity he has to fight against the heavy odds without any help and even without any resources. He is to use all the available things to defend his pride.