Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea: An Appreciation by Joe Canuck

EH 1306N
July 1934 Ernest Hemingway with marlin. Havana Harbor, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

This essay was originally written in the summer of 1981 when I was 21-years-old and taking my first English course at the University of British Columbia. This is the last essay of three essays that I had to write for an American literature course focusing on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The Professor was Bickford Sylvester. The first essay I wrote for him was on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, followed by an essay on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then this third and last essay for him on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

The first two essays were very rebellious essays. I was 21-years-old, after all, and the hormones were still raging. I was also a very angry young man. I was angry that my parents had recently divorced, angry that I wasn’t cut out to be a major league baseball player, angry that I had no clue what I wanted to do with the rest of life, really. I was the proverbial rebel without a cause. I was, in retrospect, like the wild marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. Much to his credit, Bickford Sylvester understood me. And he showed impeccable style and grace, too, which I can now fully appreciate as a mature man. I am 54-years-old or about the same age he was when I first met him in 1981.

Bickford Slyester
Bickford Sylvester

As a matter of fact, not only did he tolerate my arrogance, he was gracious enough to play the part of the old man to my part of the marlin in our little classroom tug-of-war. I somehow understood this at the time, and understand it even more profoundly today, 33 years later. In the end, I submitted to the master and showed him my respect and turned in this essay, my least provocative and most respectful one as a peace offering to him. I am indebted to him for pointing out the symbolism of the old man’s circular journey and the allusions to Christ at Calvary, which were incorporated into my essay and duly accredited to him in the footnotes.

Surrey, June 13, 2014

Update: November 26, 2015

Just learned that Bickford Sylvester passed away in 2 summers ago aged 89 in August 2014, just 2-months after I first posted this essay on my Joe Canuck art website.


There is no room for the meek and weak in The Old Man and the Sea. It is a hash world, indeed, where only the toughest and fittest survive, and this suits Santiago just fine. Santiago, the old fisherman of this sublime final novel by Ernest Hemingway, is probably the toughest guy I’ve ever known. They don’t come any tougher than Santiago. They certainly don’t make men like Hemingway’s Santiago any more — that’s for sure. If nothing else, Santiago’s stoicism sets him apart from the rest of the men in his small Cuban fishing village.

For Santiago, each day is a struggle and each fish caught is a battle and a small victory. In order to scrape by a subsistence living, Santiago must fish every day, alone and in his tiny skiff. But for 84 days in a row he hasn’t caught anything of substance that would give him any sustained sustenance. Beyond merely existing, he hasn’t been put to the real test. He hasn’t been physically or mentally challenged. He hasn’t known what it feels like to be alive, really alive, hyper-alive, for 84 days now. On the 85th day he sets out again, but this time it will be a voyage like no other. His voyage will be a condensed 72-hour version of Homer’s epic Odyssey. Insofar as Santiago’s solo fishing expedition seems more fantastical than believable, more myth than reality, he could very well be the Ulysses of our times.

There is no doubt in my mind that Santiago is a modern day warrior. He is not afraid to go way, way out into the Gulf Stream in search of the big prize, not even during the height of the hurricane season. He will go to the far corners of the earth if he has to. He must! The man is fearless. All he has with him when he goes to do battle with the giants is his pathetically tiny skiff and the bare basics, such as a harpoon and finishing lines. He tempts the Gods too much and on the 85th day the Gods humor him: the grand prize, the big fish he has searched for is found, and for the next 48 hours, he will literally be engaged in a tug-of-war with the biggest marlin he has ever encountered. He will be engaged in the biggest existential threat and toughest battle of his life, too.

The old man gives it his all, and before 48 grueling and bloody hours have passed by, Santiago will single-handedly kill a dolphin, a Mako shark, and two or more Shovel-nosed sharks who got in the way of this epic battle of wills and strength between himself and the big marlin. But really, and fundamentally, the battle is between Man and Mother Nature. Santiago’s trial and tribulations are worthy of sainthood. It was a marathon test of strength and endurance that would have humbled much younger and much stronger men. The triumph of Santiago’s will over physical pain and fatigue is truly transcendental, if not Christ-like.

Santiago is like Jesus Christ in one obvious respect: he, too, is an outcast. He is a prophet among sheep. Santiago’s contemporaries pity him while the younger fishermen do not understand him. His only fan and loyal companion is the young boy named Manolin. It is not clear if they are related or who adopted whom, but the young boy seems to be as devoted to Santiago as much as Santiago is devoted to him. Santiago is like a father to the boy. But more important than this father/son relationship is the master/pupil relationship. Santiago is a mentor to the boy. Santiago is a good teacher and Manolin is an eager pupil. What the boy learns from the old man, no one else can teach him. No one else is cut from the same cloth.

What is Santiago’s philosophy of life? Just what exactly is the boy learning from the old man? Santiago is an individualist: he likes to do things his own way. Santiago is resolute: he will not be dissuaded from doing what he knows he must do. Santiago is a realist: he does not want to kill the marlin, but he knows he must in order to survive. Santiago is steadfast: he suffers from physical aches and ailments, but he does not complain nor will he ever shirk his duty. The boy is in good hands. Manolin will grow up to be a good man.

Although it is true that Santiago does not want to kill the marlin, he knows he has no other choice. (The marlin really ought to get equal billing beside Santiago as the other central protagonist in this novel.) It is either kill the marlin or be killed by it. Life cannot exist without death. This, of course, is a paradox. The tragic tones of this paradox are underlined by the fact that Santiago calls the marlin his brother. Is it not indeed tragic and cruel to kill our “true brothers” to survive? [1]  Another paradox that this short and lovely novel deals with is this: It is through pain and suffering that we truly experience our beings to the utmost degree of intensity. This is why Santiago believes “fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” [2] The old man’s fight with the marlin is terribly painful, but he would not want it any other way.

Furthermore, Santiago believes that “pain does not matter to a man.” [3]  Hence, manliness is measured by how much pain you can endure, for necessary purposes and for the right reasons, of course: Santiago is neither a sadist nor masochist. For men like Santiago, there is an unwritten law that says you do not give in to your pain under any circumstances. Sigmund Freud said suppression leads to neurosis. Perhaps this is why in insane asylums men out number women. In any event, one thing is for certain, Santiago is not insane. However, he doesn’t fit into mainstream society neither. He is wise but his wisdom is ignored. Mainstream society has no room for wise men. Mainstream society is full of men who scorn Santiago. Mainstream men do not wish to labor and sweat like an ox when modern devices and gas-motored boats will make their work and lives easier. Mainstream men see Santiago as an anachronism, as a dinosaur. Mainstream men are lame.

Though small in numbers, Santiago has his admirers. He is called El Campeón (The Champion) or numero uno (number one) by those who appreciate the old man and the old ways and can remember when Santiago walked tall and proud in the village. Soft-minded and soft-bodied fishermen who use buoys rather than sticking to traditional ways and ‘good ol’ fashioned elbow-grease’ don’t get half the respect that Santiago gets, even if that respect is unspoken. But the narrator does not have this problem: he wants us to know that in a world full of common folk, Santiago is singularly uncommon, if not the ideal. Hence, scavenger sharks like the Shovel-nosed are “hateful” and “bad smelling”[4]  but Makos are all right because like Santiago, Makos have “no fear at all and would do exactly what [they] wished.” [5]  If Santiago could be reincarnated, he would probably wish to come back as a Great White Shark, the most feared and fearless top predator of all the oceans. In other words, Santiago is at the very top of the food chain. He is the majestic white king of the deep blue seas.

Of course, men do not want to be weak or to be perceived as weak, especially men like Santiago. I think Santiago would rather die than be weak or be perceived as weak. Nor should real men fear death. The old man is not afraid at all to die, but he will. He is very close to the end of his life and he knows it. This marlin, or what remains of it after the sharks were finished eating it, will be Santiago’s last. Against what’s fair and just — The Gods are cruel — he has brought back the 18-foot-long skeletal remains of the once mighty marlin back to his shack on the beach. Santiago may have won the battle but he has lost the war. He knows this all too well but he does not want our pity. Manolin will be his comfort and legacy. When Santiago dies, he knows that Manolin will take his place. And when it is Manolin’s turn and time to die, you can be sure someone else will take his place, too. So long as men and women procreate, life will be eternal. Death is inevitable; so is life. You cannot stop either death or life. Neither should be feared.

When Santiago dies, the world will continue to turn as always. This is the law of the Universe. Animals sense this intuitively even if they don’t know it intellectually. This is why the marlin makes “a very big circle” just before it dies. [6]  This is also why Santiago’s voyage is circular. Is the old man an archetype? More precisely, is Santiago our redeemer? It was not for no reason that Santiago’s humble fishing trip has miraculous and biblical overtones that allude to Christ at Calvary. [7]  This is sublime stuff. Hemingway is at his very best and spiritual here. He saved the best for last, in this, his final novel and his most mature work of literature. Knowing that the young Manolin will carry on after he is gone, the old man can die in peace. The circle is complete. [8]  The novel ends with Santiago lying down to sleep the eternal sleep. Totally spent from his 72-hour ordeal and odyssey, Santiago quickly fades away dreaming of the magnificent lions he once saw in Africa. Alone and in quiet solitude, he is finally at peace with himself and the cosmos.


[1] Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York., p. 75.

[2] Ibid. p. 106.

[3] Ibid. p. 84.

[4] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[5] Ibid. p.101.

[6] Ibid. p. 86.

[7] Ibid. p. 121.

[8] The circular theme and or circular scheme of Hemingway’s novel is well articulated by Bickford Sylvester in his essay, “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and The Sea” by Bickford Sylvester (Publication of the Modern-Language Association of America, New York, N.Y. 10003, March 1966). p. 132.


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