Summary of The Old Man and the Sea

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The Old Man and the Sea book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novella
  • Modernism

What It’s About

The Struggle for Existence

The old man, his boat, the admiring boy, the sea, a few clouds, two or three fish, a few birds, the great marlin and finally the sharks – those are the ingredients of this famous novella. Stripping out the complications of modern life, Hemingway presents a story of one man’s timeless struggle both with and against the elements. Survival isn’t simply a Darwinian struggle to determine the fittest, but a need to persevere despite challenges and setbacks: to rise to the occasion but also accept that events can turn a success into a failure. It’s the need to go to sleep at the end of a harrowing ordeal with the simple idea that tomorrow you’ll get up and try again. The work of an aging author, The Old Man and the Sea focuses on the realities of growing old and the desire to remain vital and relevant. Much like the old man in the book, Hemingway found himself looking back on his early successes while finding it ever harder to repeat them. As such, his last completed work of fiction was a triumph over his critics, who had basically declared him finished as a novelist. In the middle of a confusing 20th century and with his characteristically economical style, Hemingway makes the battle of this lone fisherman off the coast of Cuba into a poignant story of humanity’s struggle to find meaning.

Take-Aways

  • With The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway triumphed over his critics after a prolonged creative crisis.
  • The old fisherman, Santiago, hasn’t caught anything for 84 days, and so he ventures into deeper waters. Finally, a great marlin bites the line. After an epic battle, the fisherman kills his opponent and lashes it to the boat. But its blood attracts sharks, which eat away at the marlin. Eventually, he must give up. He returns to his village with nothing but the fish’s skeleton.
  • The novella is a parable of human existence: No matter how much the world conspires against you, you’ll always win – as long as you keep on trying.
  • Its artful symbolism is an example of the author’s “iceberg principle”: Underlying themes shine through implicitly, just like the tip of an iceberg hints at its massive bottom underwater.
  • Published in 1952, the book played an important role in winning Hemingway the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
  • This stark story struck a chord with readers, who, after two decades of economic turmoil and war, were starting to enjoy the fruits of 1950s affluence.
  • At the time of publication, Hemingway had been living in Cuba for over a decade, after having spent many years since learning the art of fishing marlin in the Caribbean.
  • Despite his claim that characters in the book were fictional, the first mate of his boat, a fisherman in Cuba, grew into the role of Santiago. He charged tourists a hefty fee for playing the part.
  • Hemingway committed suicide in 1961. But his distinctive style survived in the multitude of writers it inspired.
  • “How many people will [the marlin] feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.”

Summary

Lost Fortune

Bad luck has haunted Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, for 84 days: All this time, he hasn’t caught a single fish. Even if he is a poor widower and doesn’t have a family to feed, going so long without a catch is a sad result – worse than poverty. It means to have nothing. The other fishermen feel sorry for the old man but keep their distance.

“Everything about him was old except his eyes, and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Only the boy Manolin, whom the old man took out to sea when he was just five years old, loves and admires him. Every night, Manolin comes to the beach and helps the old man with the boat, mast, sail, coiled lines and harpoon. But now his parents have forbidden him from going out to sea with the old man: He and his boat are just too much bad luck. Santiago himself prefers that the boy goes out with the others in their lucky boats. They are bringing in good catches.

Baseball and African Lions

The boy offers the old man a beer at the Terrace beach restaurant. They talk about the past. Manolin urges him to accept fresh bait for the following day, which promises to be an especially good one: After all, 85 is a lucky number, and the currents in September are good for catching large fish. Afterwards, they carry Santiago’s fishing gear home together. Before the boy goes off to get some sardines and fresh bait for the next day, they talk about the results and prospects of the American Baseball League. It’s an important subject for the old man who admires Joe DiMaggio, one of the most famous baseball players of all times. Santiago has heard that DiMaggio is a fisherman’s son, and he feels deeply connected to the player.

“But I must have confidence, and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly, even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.”

The boy makes sure that the old man gets a warm supper, which he picks up from the Terrace and brings back to the fisherman’s shack. The owner has been kind enough to send along two bottles of beer with the food. Manolin has already thanked him on behalf of Santiago, to spare the old man the humiliation. For the coming winter, the boy plans to get him a shirt, a blanket, shoes, soap and a towel. The old man’s only shirt has been patched many times. While eating supper, they talk more about American baseball stars. The boy says that for him the old man is the greatest of all fishermen. After night falls, Manolin says good-bye, and Santiago goes to sleep. He dreams of his youth. His first trips as a fisherman took him as far as the coast of Africa, where he admired the magnificent landscape and watched lions that came to the beaches in the dusk, playing like young cats.

The 85th Day

Early the next morning, before the sun’s first light, Santiago and Manolin prepare the boat and drink coffee together. Then, still in the dark, the old man rows out of the harbor. All around him, the other fishermen can be heard, but not seen, doing the same. The old man has resolved to go far out today, hoping that the sea would give him a great catch where the schools of bonito and albacore swim. He thinks of it more as a gift that the sea is giving, rather than as something he must wrestle from it. The young fishermen see it differently; some of them are equipped with motorboats and trawl nets. When the sun rises from the sea and the day becomes brighter, the old man has already reached the spot he had in mind. He throws out his baited lines and adjusts them. He knows that he’s a master of his trade and doesn’t make mistakes. He only needs some luck – the one thing that he’s been lacking for 84 days.

“The old man knew he was going far out, and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.”

He watches the birds, the water’s surface, the flying fish, the plankton and the cloud formations. He can “read” the sea and sky to guess the position of fish. He takes the oars and continues to row slowly. The coastline is out of sight now; only the hilltops glow like snow in the distance. The old man spots a bird circling above the water’s surface –  indicating a tuna swarm – and he manages to haul in a small ten-pounder. It’s a start, but it’s not the catch he’s hoping for. Santiago begins to talk aloud, fully aware that fishermen don’t consider it a virtue to speak unnecessarily. He talks out loud to himself about aquatic life: the beautiful but poisonous Portuguese man-of-war and the many species of turtles, whose bizarre behavior and longevity give them a mystical air. The old man allows himself to soliloquize; He knows he isn’t crazy; after all, the rich fishermen listen to baseball reports on the radios in their boats.

The Fight with the Fish

Suddenly, Santiago feels a gentle pull and a jerk on one of the lines. He knows at once that a big fish is nibbling at the bait but hasn’t swallowed the hook just yet. He holds the line between his thumb and forefinger, feeling what’s going on down there. It takes quite a while: The fish is only gnawing off the bait, and the old man prays that he’ll also swallow the tuna fish head with the hook in it. Finally, it happens. The fish, a marlin, now starts swimming off with the bait and hook in its mouth, towing the boat along with it. The old fisherman’s artful skill comes into its own. Santiago must delicately unleash the line, while keeping it reasonably tight at the same time. The fish – which will be able to move for quite a while yet – shouldn’t lose the bait in a panic. The bait and hook must move deeper into the animal’s throat, killing it eventually. For many hours until nightfall, the fish tows the skiff further out into the open sea. The old man has nothing but a small water bottle and the freshly caught tuna. His task isn’t too difficult for now. He must hold the line against his back and stay on guard in case the tension changes, so he can react swiftly. He must hold out, but it seems that the fish has no intention of giving up either. It’s a protracted duel between equals.

“Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for. I must surely remember to eat the tuna after it gets light.”

The fish isn’t tiring. In the night, the old man’s back stiffens, and his left hand completely cramps up, forming a claw. He must change his sitting position and wait until that hand opens by itself. It must be ready for action when the final battle with the fish – the hauling in – begins. Santiago forces himself to eat the raw tuna to keep up his strength. He cuts strips of meat from the fish with his free hand and chews it carefully. A small bird flies by and, so far away from the mainland, perches exhausted on the line that the fish is pulling. Clouds build up, but the fisherman knows that, although it’s the season, there is no hurricane coming. Then the slant of the line changes, and the fish emerges. It jumps, and the old man realizes how enormous and magnificent it is.

The Decision

The second night at sea falls. The old man remembers how, as a young man, he once beat a black man – famed as the strongest man around – in a long, 24-hour arm-wrestling match. He thinks about how the great DiMaggio played perfectly with a painful bone spur in his heel. An airplane passes high in the sky, plankton phosphorize in the sea, and Santiago, although he’s hardly religious, says a few prayers. He eats a dolphinfish that he caught in the meantime and manages to sleep a bit. Then, at the end of the night, the fish becomes restless. Santiago knows: He must continue to pull until the animal dies. Early on the third day, the fish begins to circle – a sure sign that its end is near. The old man, too, is beginning to see black spots before his eyes, and every part of his body hurts. The line cuts into his hands. The boy isn’t there to help him, but now the final battle must be fought. The hook wound in the fish’s mouth mustn’t widen, or the fish will be able to free itself. 

“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

The circles continue to get narrower, and the fish comes within reach. But it’s not dead, yet. It will take a harpoon strike to kill it. This much is clear: The fish won’t survive many more turns, but the old man isn’t strong enough for them, either. Only one of the two can win this fight. Finally, it seems to come up voluntarily alongside the boat to receive the old man’s perfectly placed harpoon strike. Finally, t’s over; the massive marlin is dead. The animal is far too big for the fisherman to take on board; Santiago has to lash it alongside the skiff. Then he can step the mast, set sail and go home. The trade winds continue to be favorable.

The Sharks

The first shark shows up an hour later. It has picked up the scent of the marlin’s blood. It’s a fast Make shark – an elegant predator. The old man sees it coming, and he is prepared. When the Make attacks from behind with its wide-open jaws, Santiago hits the harpoon between its eyes right into the brain. The shark goes down, though not without having torn out a big piece of the marlin’s tail beforehand. Santiago experiences the shark attack like an assault onto himself, and killing it feels like an act of self-defense. Yet this sea feeds not only scavengers. All creatures kill to live: The big fish eat the small, and the old man is part of the system. “Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive,” he realizes.

“How many people will [the marlin] feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity.”

What the boy does for him during streaks of bad luck also keeps him alive. On the one hand, the wound of the dead fish hurts him like one of his own; on the other, he tears off pieces and chews its delicate meat. He estimates the animal’s weight and calculates how much it will sell for at the fish market – enough to keep him going all winter. The harpoon was lost in the shark attack. The old man lashes his knife to one of his oars to prepare for the next ones. When two more sharks show up, he repeatedly stabs the knife on the oar into the sharks’ eyes, trying to crack open the cartilage around their brains. But each time the predators tear off some of the fish’s meat and take it down with them into the depths of the ocean.

“The line went out and out and out, but it was slowing now and he was making the fish earn each inch of it.”

The knife blade snaps. The old man has no other choice but to try and club the sharks to death. He swings the oars and tiller and beats them against the sharks’ heads. Night falls again, and now the sharks are showing up in packs. The old man thinks that half his catch is already lost. Santiago can only try to drive away the sharks, but eventually nothing is left of the fish, and, consequently, there are no more sharks to pursue him. Now that the fish is gone, his skiff is lighter and sails home easily.

Return to the Beach

Santiago reaches shore in the middle of the night. No one is awake to help him, so he struggles to haul mast and sail up the beach and collapses into bed like a dead man. The next morning, the other fishermen, who can’t go out because of the bad weather, admire the sheer size of the fish’s skeleton that’s still attached to the boat in the harbor. Manolin takes care of the old man and gets him coffee, but it takes a while until he wakes up. Even the coast guard has been out looking for him.

“Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

The old man will need some time to recover, and in the meantime, the boy takes care of business. While the old man was away, he made a good catch on other boats, and now he’s determined to go fishing with Santiago again. At first the old man refuses, because he is still unlucky, he says. But the boy knows that although the sharks beat his friend, he still has a lot to learn from the champion fisherman.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The novella is, according to a critic, a “short but not small masterpiece.” Uninterrupted by chapters, the narrative flow is clear and captivating, with a linear structure and the terse, spare style for which Hemingway is famous. He tells the story of a heroic fight between a simple man and a wild animal – a battle of life and death for both of them. Like the great heroic epics of antiquity, it features  a noble confrontation – not among gods, demigods and men – but between real men and animals faced with larger-than-life challenges.

Hemingway described his approach to storytelling by saying, “No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in.” According to his iceberg principle, or theory of omission, it is enough to focus on what can be seen above the surface. Good and true writing hints at the underlying themes, just like the tip of an iceberg suggests what’s hiding underwater.

Hemingway employed the stream-of-consciousness technique to let the reader slip into Santiago’s mind and experience the randomness of his thoughts and the determination with which he tries to stop himself from losing his mind.

Interpretation

  • The story focuses on a simple man – often referred to by the titular generic term “the old man” – thus making him into “everyman. The book doesn’t talk about day-to-day complications in the fishing business. Rather, the forces of nature, the fisherman’s advanced age and the hopeless situation transform the story into an existential battle.
  • In his heroic yet tragic fight, the old man wins and loses at the same time. He loses his livelihood when the sharks steal his prey. But he remains the moral winner and a hero, because he doesn’t give up until the end. Santiago puts it this way: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
  • By using basic primal images such as water, loneliness, chivalry, combat and sneak attacks of sea monsters (sharks), Hemingway brings the implicit symbolism of his parable to light.
  • The simplicity of the old man’s life is an allegory for the existential situation of humans: People are lonely and on their own in the vast nothingness of life (sea, sky and a piece of shore). They face fear of death and destruction, but they define their dignity by how they prove themselves in challenging situations.
  • Hemingway updates the Christian cardinal virtues of faith, love and hope: The old man decides to go out to sea, believing in himself and hoping for a lucky day. He loves and respects his worthy opponent, the great marlin. And because the old man is a good, kind-hearted person, his best friend – the boy – in turn loves him.
  • The story tells the tale of a man with great achievements in his past who struggles to remain relevant. This parallels Hemingway’s own difficulty in repeating his early success as a novelist. The theme resonates with anyone uneasy with the effects of aging and in fear of becoming redundant.

Historical Background

Hope and Fear in Post-War America

By 1951, when Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea, the United States was just beginning to experience the consumer boom that would characterize the ensuing decades. As the Korean War wound down, a comfortable life with material abundance seemed accessible to all Americans. With industry completing its conversion from wartime production, cars, refrigerators, TVs, and endless products and services seemed available to anyone with a job – and work was easy to get. As universities and colleges expanded rapidly to train demobilized soldiers in advanced skills, the problems of the previous two decades seemed miraculously to fall away. An age of progress and affluence beckoned.

However, with the experience of two world wars and economic turmoil not far in the past, the promise of the new economic order also brought fear. The developing cold war with the Soviet Union and the cataclysmic potential of nuclear weapons underlined the complexity of the new order. Mortgages and car loans, the challenges of adopting a middle-class lifestyle in places like the new suburbs, and generally navigating daily life in the post-war world also meant that the 1950s became an era of psychoanalysis and psychiatric medications like Valium and Benzedrine.

The Second World War set the stage for a mass literary culture. In a way never seen before or since, literature became an integral part of the American experience of war in Europe and the Pacific. As part of a government program, publishers produced millions of cheap copies of contemporary authors’ works for soldiers in the field. The selection of books was broad and included both pulp detective novels and sophisticated prewar literature. In the era before television, the program helped raise novels to a central place in many working-class lives. With access to higher education under programs for veterans, reading took off as a mass activity, and for a period in the 1950s, authors played a crucial role in the public imagination. Freshly minted suburbanites widely adopted Book of the Month Club and other literary subscription services, laying the ground for Ernest Hemingway’s success with his short, simply-written tale of a man, a giant fish and the sea.

Development

Starting in the 1930s, Hemingway lived on and off in Cuba. It was there that he met the fisherman Gregorio Fuentes, a native of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands who would eventually become the first mate on Hemingway’s boat, the Pilar. Although Hemingway claimed that the protagonist in the novella was “based on no one in particular,” many believe that Fuentes was his model for Santiago. And even if he wasn’t, he eventually grew into the role after the author passed away, charging literary tourists hard cash for taking his picture and listening to brief anecdotes of his friendship with Hemingway. He told every one of them that he had “never met a greater man,” while also claiming that he hadn’t actually read The Old Man and the Sea. Fuentes died in 2002 at the age of 104. Others believe that Hemingway’s original first mate, Carlos Gutiérrez – an older fisherman with 40 years of experience at sea – who taught Hemingway everything he needed to know about catching marlin and who spun many a yarn, inspired him to write the story. Hemingway first sketched out the main plot in a 1936 article in Esquire Magazine and in 1939, wrote to his editor that Gutiérrez had helped him with a tale “about the old commercial fisherman who fought the swordfish all alone in his skiff for four days and four nights and the sharks finally eating it after he had it alongside and could not get it into the boat.”

In the 1940s, Hemingway suffered from a number of health problems, survived two plane crashes, the unrequited love of a much younger woman, bouts of depression and writer’s block. In 1951, he wrote the draft of The Old Man and the Sea in just eight weeks. According to him, it was “the best I can write ever for all of my life,” and his fans agreed: In 1953, it received a Pulitzer Prize.

Reviews and Legacy

The Old Man and the Sea was a triumphant international comeback. Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, awarded for his life’s work and with a special mention of his novella masterpiece. For a deeply skeptical post-war generation, the story’s message hit home: Never lose your dignity, not even at times of great trouble and distress. The story was made into a movie in 1958, starring Spencer Tracy as Santiago, and a TV miniseries in 1990, with Anthony Quinn in the title role. It would be difficult to overstate Ernest Hemingway’s influence on contemporary literature. According to the scholar James Nagel he “changed the nature of American writing,” and many of Hemingway’s followers tried to emulate his lean, terse style – with varying degrees of success. One of the most famous literary rivalries of the time was that between Hemingway, the master of concision, and William Faulkner who wrote one of the longest literary sentence ever (1,288 words in Absalom, Absalom!). The latter commented on the former: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” To which Hemingway replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Apparently, he didn’t, because when asked to write a review of The Old Man and the Sea, Faulkner refused at first and later provided these words: “His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us. I mean his and my contemporaries.”

About the Author

Ernest Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois. The son of a country doctor and an opera singer, he learned hunting and fishing from his nature-loving father, laying the groundwork for Hemingway’s fascination with nature and the image of a bluff outdoorsman that he would later cultivate. He started his career as a local reporter in Kansas City. His beginnings as a journalist shaped his minimalistic style as a novelist later in life. During World War I, he volunteered as a paramedic, joining a group of writers and artists around Gertrude Stein in Paris after the war. He spent the winters of 1925 and 1926 in the Austrian Montafontal, where he wrote the novel The Sun Also Rises. Published in 1926, it was his literary breakthrough. Hemingway continued to work as a reporter and war journalist, covering the Greco-Turkish war in 1922, the Spanish Civil War from 1936–1939 and World War II in the ’40s. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway often deliberately sought out dangerous, adventurous and risky situations. He loved big-game hunting in Africa and bullfighting and survived two plane crashes, often writing his novels under intense psychological pressure. Like many writers of his day, he was an alcoholic, trying to live life to the fullest but also suffering from depression. Hemingway married four times and had three sons. After a long illness, he committed suicide on July 2, 1961, in his home in Idaho – as had his father before him and his granddaughter Margaux after him.


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