What You’ll Love about… The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Matthew Thiele
2 min readMar 3, 2022
Winslow Homer, “The Gulf Stream.” Public domain courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ernest Hemingway gets a bad rap as a macho dirtbag, but his writing can be remarkably sensitive and humane, and even when it’s recounting brutality, it conveys a sense of waste and shame about that brutality that can be redemptive. The Old Man and the Sea seems to suggest that people would be better off minding their own business and leaving the innocent critters of the Earth alone.

The Old Man and the Sea focuses on the efforts of an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago to break his slump of 84 days without catching a fish. He ends up hooking a huge marlin, but it’s not clear that he is capable of pulling it in by himself, and he experiences various challenges and setbacks.

As he struggles to pull the marlin in, the text shows that Santiago’s consciousness is split between honoring the strength and majesty of the marlin and justifying his attempts to destroy it. He calls it “brother,” but he also admits to taking pleasure in killing it.

Santiago struggles against himself as much as he struggles against the marlin. His hand cramps up at one point, and he describes it as an embarrassing treachery. He has to remind himself to eat. He is accidentally cut beneath his eye after the marlin pulls unexpectedly. His hand is cut by a line burn during his struggle with the marlin.

Duane Raver, US Fish & Wildlife Service, “Blue Marlin.” Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The text shows that there is a dark side to most of Santiago’s motivations for pursuing the marlin. For all of his hard work, expertise, and skill in fishing, he is driven by habit and a casual disregard for the autonomy of animals. His judgment is clouded by pride and delusion, and his persistence is rewarded only by death and destruction. He kills four sharks in a futile effort to protect his prize after he lashes the dead marlin to the side of his boat. He recalls stepping on beached Portuguese men-of-war to pop them.

Many critics seem to view the old man’s struggle to catch a huge marlin as a kind of triumph of humanity over adversity and a demonstration of transcendent human prowess and absolute mastery over nature.

Careful observers will note that those ideas lie almost completely outside the text, and that the text itself paints a significantly different picture of a weak, irresponsible, and deluded old man who recklessly endangers himself and wastefully destroys most of the marine life he encounters.

Matthew Thiele

Teacher. Satirist. Scholar. Published in Slackjaw, Points in Case, McSweeney’s, Ben Jonson Journal, and elsewhere. Definitely not a robot. Or an alien.