Santiago as a Heroic Figure in The Old Man and The Sea

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About this sample


Words: 1538 |

Pages: 3.5|

8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1538|Pages: 3.5|8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

The Old Man and the Sea is a novella that “should be read easily and simply and seem short,” Hemingway writes in a letter to his friend Charles Scribner, “yet have all the dimensions of the visible world and the world of a man’s spirit” (738).

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Out of admiration of Santiago’s 3-day long hand-to-hand combat, his dream of the African lion and his famous “destroyed but not defeated” slogan, “a man’s spirit” is often believed to be represented by Santiago’s courage, strength, dignity, wisdom and endurance, Philip Young praises Santiago’s struggle as “heroic” and his capability of “such decency, dignity” and “heroism” (100, 113). Likewise, Leo Gurko celebrates Old Man’s “stress on what man can do” on the world “where heroic deeds are possible” and Santiago’s struggle as “transcended” (377-82). Gerry Brenner summarizes that Old Man is often seem as a fantasy to “feed our imaginative capacity to wonder, marvel, and be awed” and “satisfies the conventional human wish to perform in larger-than-life ways” (10). But is Santiago really a hero so courageous and confident, even a little fable-like as believed? Is the hidden message of “man’s heart” really one that is so unrealistically heroic and full of strength? Hemingway’s own words might suggest another story: “I tried to make a real man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks” (74). If it is meant to be “real,” then there might be a need to re-examine Santiago—a heroic figure too often taken for granted to surpass the ordinary.

A close reading of Hemingway’s fiction reveals that Santiago stands not as a hero but as an old man desperately struggling with age, like any other ordinary old man. Santiago’s experience at sea foregrounds old age as his real adversary. The calm and seemingly confident appearance and violent fight with the fish and sharks, is a self-deception and self-defense. The strong extrinsic actions served, contrary to what they are intended to cover, as lens through which we can see the fragile and troubled inside. This finding not only discloses the fierce and desperate inner fight under Santiago’s calm and confidence appearance but may also serve as a way to see the sadness part “of man’s spirit” thus enriching the character and making him more human.

In fact, the indication of Santiago’s lost confidence is shown at the very first paragraph of Old Man: “The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat” (5). The flour sacks patched sail is a symbol of a man. As the next paragraph describes, Santiago is with “deep-creased scars” and “none” of which “[are] fresh” (6). When the old and worn sail is seen as “the flag of permanent defeat”, it might be better understood as a sign of his defeat. In the same way, the shadow old age casts on Santiago’s mind is one that really haunts: it announces not a simple defeat but a “permanent” one—one that every old man receive as a final sentence—that the youth, together with the confidence of youth, is gone forever, however much it is wanted or even begged to stay. It’s a “permanent defeat.”

It might not be a problem to accept the fact that Santiago is old, but it might take some effort to learn that Santiago’s seeming confidence is a disguise, for the message that Santiago is confident and strong is well established in the readers’ mind by Hemingway’s carefully designed description. This effort can be seen throughout the novella, the beginning in particular. From the very beginning readers are constantly reminded of Santiago’s “cheerful,” “undefeated” and “confident” eyes (6, 8) and that “[h]is hope and his confidence had never gone” (8). These descriptions trap the readers in the belief that Santiago is still full of strength, confidence and power. A closer reading, however, neutralizes all the claims that are intentionally dissembled. Below are two dialogues between Santiago and Manolo:

“But are you strong enough now for a truly big fish?”

“I think so….” (9)

“There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.”

“Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.”

“There is no such fish if you are still as strong as you say.”

“I may not be as strong as I think.”(16, emphasis added)

When his strength and confidence become the topic, Santiago gives a weak and powerless “I think so,” other than a definite and positive answer. In the second dialogue, he cautiously tries to find excuses for his possible failure—this happens even before he goes out to sea and encounters any fish—a very clear exposure of his lack of confidence. The reason why he does not answer “no, I can’t any more” might be twofold: he does not want to let Manolo down and fail to live up to his expectation; more importantly, he himself refuses to admit that he has lost his confidence. The inner struggle, which starts long before any physical combat with the fish and sharks, is the real battle field. It is not a potential encounter with a “fish” “so big” that make his confident waving; it is old age itself that leads him to doubt, however reluctant he is to admit and accept it.

This point can be better demonstrated by looking into another of Hemingway’s short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said. “You have everything.”

“And what do you lack?”

“Everything but work.”

“You have everything I have.”

“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.” (105)

This dialogue between two waiters—one old, the other young—reveals directly that the reason of an old man’s waving confidence is the passing of “youth”; in other words, “not young,” no longer young becomes the old man’s real problem, and it is devastating. The old waiter is as powerlessness as Santiago; the only difference might be, while the old waiter gives up the struggle and acknowledges the sad truth, Santiago is still trying to denying this—though he does it with wisdom, calmness and dignity.

The struggle Santiago has of knowing his waning confidence and refusing to acknowledge it happens time and again during his fight with the big fish. Santiago’s monologues of encouragement to himself show his struggle: “…I can last. You have to last. Don’t even speak of it” (65); “I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. You’re good for ever” (68). These words, rather than being the demonstration of his strength and confidence, actually reveal his weakness. His repeatedly self-deception of forcing himself to think positive and believe he is able and good reveals the inner battle he has against his weakness and tiredness.

Though Santiago tries hard to deny he is old and tired and is cautious of his words, there are still slips of the tongue. After the long exhausting struggle with the fish, he says, “I am a tired old man.” He must have realized the potential danger of recognizing that he is “tired” and “old”—however true it is—so he immediately adds, “but I have killed this fish” (70). He surely minds his words a lot, even in his monologue, and his sigh of being “tired” and “old” is too quickly covered up. But once he forgets to cover it and speak up his heart (maybe subconsciously): “I wonder if he[the big fish] has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?” (35). Desperate might be the word for his struggle with old age. Careful as he is with his words, he cannot control his dreams, when the rational constraints become loose and true feelings prevail. His constant dreaming of the young lions on African beaches reveals, on the contrary to the belief that it shows his confidence and strength, it in fact reveals his longing and nostalgia for youth, confidence and strength. His dreams of young lions and daydreaming of the powerful Joe DiMaggio can both be concluded in one sentence Hemingway notes at Santiago’s recall of his arm-wrestling episode: “he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time” he “played the hand game” (50). His dreams of lions, daydreaming of strong baseball player and recalls of his own strong youth all serve as his way to get “more confidence”, the things he does not possess now. Were Santiago still as young and strong as the lions, Joe DiMaggio and his own potent days, he would not need to remind himself of those strong things to “give himself more confidence,” the very act of trying to give himself more confidence actually shows he lacks it.

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Too often, it is taken for granted that Santiago’s fight is glorious and dignified and that Santiago is strong, confident and with great perseverance. However, the failure to see Santiago’s troubled inside and his desperate combat with age make him a hero unreal and less human-like. A re-examination of his inner world might serve to a fuller and richer appreciation of this household figure and make old Santiago more real and closer to life.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Santiago As A Heroic Figure In The Old Man And The Sea. (2018, May 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from
“Santiago As A Heroic Figure In The Old Man And The Sea.” GradesFixer, 25 May 2018,
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