As Santiago sets out on the eighty-fifth day, the reader witnesses the qualities that earn him Manolin’s praise and dedication. The old man is an expert seaman, able to read the sea, sky, and their respective creatures like books that tell him what he needs to know. The flying fish, for instance, signal the arrival of dolphins, while, in Santiago’s experience, the magnificent tug on the line can mean only one thing: a marlin—a type of large game fish that weighs hundreds of pounds. Unlike the fishermen he passes on his way into the deep waters of the gulf, Santiago exercises an unparalleled precision when fishing. He keeps his lines perfectly straight instead of letting them drift as the other fishermen do, which means that he always knows exactly how deep they are. Santiago’s focus, his strength and resolve in the face of tremendous obstacles, as well as the sheer artistry with which he executes his tasks, mark him as a hero.
Santiago conforms to the model of the classical hero in two important respects. First, he displays a rare determination to understand the universe, as is evident when he meditates that the sea is beautiful and benevolent, but also so cruel that the birds who rely on the sea’s bounty are too delicate for it. Second, the old man possesses a tragic flaw that will lead to his downfall: pride. Santiago’s pride carries him far, not only metaphorically but literally—beyond his fellow fishermen into beautiful but, in the end, terribly cruel waters. As in classical epics, the most important struggle in Hemingway’s novella is a moral one. The fish itself is of secondary importance, for it is merely a trophy, a material prize.
Some critics have taken issue with Hemingway’s depiction of the old man because it betrays the very tenets of fiction that the author demanded (see “Hemingway’s Style”). Hemingway was, first and foremost, a proponent of realism. He wished to strip literature of its pretense and ornamentation, and he built a reputation as a journalistic writer who prized hard facts above all else. Metaphysical meditations and lofty philosophizing held little interest for Hemingway when compared to the details of daily life. As he states in A Farewell to Arms, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” But several critics have charged Hemingway with a failure to render his old man or, for that matter, the sea realistically. Hemingway has forged particular details that simply are not true. For example, as critic Robert P. Weeks points out, the poisonous Portuguese man-of-war that follows Santiago’s boat would not appear in the waters off of Cuba for another six months. A more significant, less petty objection is the charge that Hemingway reduces Santiago to an unrealistic archetype of goodness and purity, while the surrounding world is marked by man’s romance and brotherhood with the sea and its many creatures.
Many critics believe that Hemingway was striking out into new literary territory with The Old Man and the Sea. America’s foremost proponent of realism seemed to be moving toward something as highly symbolic as parable. Hemingway, however, disagreed. The philosophy that governed his writing of the novella was the same one that shaped his earlier novels. In a 1958 interview with The Paris Review, Hemingway spoke about The Old Man and the Sea:
Anyway, to skip how [the writing] is done, I had unbelievable luck this time and could convey the [old man’s] experience completely and have it be one that no one had ever conveyed. The luck was that I had a good man and a good boy and lately writers have forgotten there are still such things.
To Hemingway, Santiago and Manolin were as true to the real world as protagonists like Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms or Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises.
The old man’s memory of hooking the female marlin of a male-female pair exemplifies Hemingway’s vision of a world in which women have no real place—even the picture of Santiago’s wife no longer remains on his wall. Men are the central focus of most of Hemingway’s writing and certainly of The Old Man and the Sea. It is no coincidence that Santiago is convinced that his greatest adversary is, as he continually notes, a male, a fact that he could not possibly ascertain before even seeing the fish.