The following is a thematic essay I wrote for my AP English Literature class. For our winter break assignment we were given several options to read and I chose The Old Man and the Sea:
In Ernest Hemingway’s short novel, the Old Man and the Sea, the main character, Santiago, is an elderly Cuban fisherman who has become salao, the worst form of unlucky. Having gone 84 days without catching fish, he set out into sea farther than ever before to prove that, despite his age, he still has what it takes to be a great fisherman. He seeks to reclaim his former title of El Campeón, a token of his long gone youth. In doing so, he endures a journey of survival ridden by great physical suffering and isolation.
In order to highlight the severity of the old man’s struggle, Hemingway uses the universal archetype of a hero in pain and suffering, Jesus Christ. The image of the old man trudging uphill with his mast across his shoulders and the way in which he falls onto bed later in the story — face down, arms out and the palms of his hands up — juxtaposes with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In addition to his hand injuries, which are similar to Christ’s stigmata, the old man wore a straw hat in the novel: “He had pushed [it] hard down on his head before he hooked the fish and it was cutting his forehead,” an image similar to that of Jesus Christ wearing the painful woven crown of thorns.
If that’s not enough for the reader to draw parallels, Hemingway blatantly makes the connections for them: “‘Ay,’ [the old man] said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into wood,” he writes. Perhaps, Hemingway uses this parallel to draw sympathy for the old man whose struggle to prove his self worth as a fisherman is one that readers can relate to.
Ultimately, the old man endures his suffering alone. In his pursuit of catching the biggest fish, he finds himself in complete isolation. He is forced to seek companionship with la mar, the sea in which he regards as a feminine entity: “The old man always thought of [the sea] as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.” The old man’s relationship with the sea and all that comes with it perhaps reminds him of his deceased wife, who is but a memory from his youth — another reason for him to prove that his golden days are indeed not over.
The sea ultimately gives the old man what he has been searching for, his greatest opponent of equal nobility and strength, an eighteen-foot Marlin. For three days, the old man battles the creature, the fishing line connecting the two as if by kinship. As the Marlin drags the boat further away into the sea, the old man finds himself searching for every ounce of strength he has left in his frail, elderly body. Throughout his struggle, one that has been established of great suffering, the old man begins to admire the Marlin and the beauty of the natural world. Somehow, he feels related to the Marlin. He says, “There are three things that are brothers: the fish and my two hands.” He acknowledges that the Marlin is suffering as much as he. They are one and the same.
Bringing home the Marlin would be the ultimate trophy, a testament to his skills. The sharks, however, destroy what was supposed to be his moment. As the old man battles with the seas’ creatures again, he loses the Marlin. Ultimately he brings home a carcass, which pains him greatly. He feels as if he lost a part of himself. Yet, when he arrives to the shores of La Havana, the fisherman and the boy, look up to him more so than ever before. The words he had uttered whilst he was suffering alone at sea — “A man can be destroyed but not defeated” — ring true as he arrives defeated by nature, but not broken. Risen from the waters after several days and as if by baptism, he arrives as a new man, a man whose talents transcends age, a man who finally understands that there is as much honor in defeat than as victory.
FootNote: The purpose of sharing this essay is to help students, like myself, either draw inspiration or to help them come to their own conclusions about the short novel. Plagiarism is for losers, so don’t do it.