THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA : ERNEST HEMINGWAY
REVISION MATERIAL FOR ENGLISH GCSE
Use this material to take you back to the text of the story and to encourage you to think
about it in structured ways.
We will work through some of these things before the end of term but there will be plenty
more for you to do during the holiday.
Tasks you need to do are in bold italics : e.g. -
Find more examples of your own of everything listed.
The question you answer may well require you (or give you opportunities) to show your
understanding of the Different Culture the story presents.
Find examples of all of the following to illustrate the life of Santiago and his
Poverty : e.g. Santiago’s shack – page 10; water-supply page 14.
Look for details of his diet, his clothes, and his possessions.
What are the most important possessions in Santiago’s life?
What does he value?
How do these things define him?
Religion : e.g. pages 26, 46, 63
Santiago’s machismo : e.g. : ‘pain does not matter to a man’- page 61
One expression of his machismo is his idolisation of Joe DiMaggio – the great
baseball player who was coming to the end of his career when the story was written and
who played in great pain from the bone spur in his heel : - e.g. page 70.
The absence of women in the story – Santiago’s wife is dead and his misogyny is
seen in his abusive terms for sharks – page 73 – and the Portuguese man-of-war - page
The dominant female in the story is the SEA – who is seen as a flighty, flirtatious and
unreliable lover – pages 20-21.
How does this affect the core of the story in S struggle with the sea?
His fellow fishermen : e.g. They see Santiago as salao - bad luck - page 5
e.g. Santiago trusts them but still takes his gear home – page 9
How the fish market works : page 6-7.
His relationship with Manolin : e.g. how M serves him – page 13, 18-19, page 89
The generosity of his community : e.g. Martin feeds him – page 13
Their reactions to what Santiago has done - e.g. the search : pages 83 and 90
The failure of outsiders to understand what Santiago has done - the American tourists
: page 92
Above all, perhaps, there is Santiago’s sense of being part of a wider community of
living things - even turtles as on page 26 - and with the sea and the fish.
How does his way of life on LAND help produce the attitude to his place in the world
that he feels when at SEA?
The Story’s Structure
Make sure you can recognise some of the main ways Hemingway organises the story
and consider how they affect your understanding of it.
This story offers several structural patterns :
1) A Voyage – this is very often the model for a story in which the hero discovers the
truth about himself
How does this apply to Santiago?
Land represents Santiago’s place in his community and his relationships – especially with
The Land offers security but it is also where Santiago suffers the disgrace of salao.
Is his return in a sense a return to die? (page 91).
Or is there renewal, perhaps through his apprentice, Manolin?
The Sea is the place for the individual’s combat with huge natural forces, where Santiago
seems to triumph only to fail at the end. He cannot defeat the sea, but he can struggle and
endure to the end : A man can be destroyed but not defeated. – page 75.
3) Together-Alone-Together : This parallels Land-Sea-Land but again allows
Hemingway to reveal the interior monologue of Santiago as he reacts to events at sea and
talks to himself – page 27.
Together with others (especially Manolin) on land we see him as part of a community -
e.g. page 18. See Different Cultures.
4) Tragedy : Some people see the story as following a tragic pattern in which the hero’s
flaw, in this case Santiago’s pride in his skills, knowledge and technique, leads him to
challenge the natural (or divine) law. His destruction is therefore inevitable : ‘He knew
quite well the pattern of what would happen…’(Page 75).
‘Was it a sin to kill the fish?’ Santiago wonders – page 76.
It may be that Santiago will die as a result – ‘something in my chest was broken’ (p.91)
Is this like the marlin’s heart into which he stuck the harpoon?
Or is it that : A man can be destroyed but not defeated…- page .
5) Finally, there is the 5-day pattern of events passing through day and night in each
At night when he sleeps we see Santiago’s dreams but even events in the day seem
dreamlike until he is sailing home – page 71.
Hemingway’s prose style has been described as ‘spare, compact and yet full of meaning
Hemingway himself said he wrote in the ‘iceberg’ principle: ‘The Old Man and the Sea
could have been over a thousand pages long and had every character in the village in it
and all the processes of the way they made their living, were born, educated, bore
children etc. …I have tried to do something else….I have tried to eliminate everything
necessary to conveying the experience to the reader so that after he or she has read
something it will become part of his or her experience and seem actually to have
Allegory (in which a story is told through symbolic representation and transposed to
In this reading, some see Santiago catching his fish as Hemingway, who had had little
success as a writer for a long while, trying to ‘land’ the great book and that the story
therefore tells of his struggle to do so, his skill, his craft, his luck etc. They also see the
sharks as literary critics who destroy what the writer has done yet he, of course, somehow
emerges greater than they are.
This is a rather limiting reading of the story though. Perhaps a more fruitful way is a –
Fable or Parable – that is a story with a moral that applies outside the framework of
Is this a modern Icarus story, of a man who ‘went out too far’ (page 87) and who is
destroyed by challenging the natural law of the sea?
Do you see other morals demonstrated in the story? What about the crucifixion
imagery associated with Santiago – e.g. pages 78 and 88.
Remember, one of the questions will offer you a short passage for detailed comment
before you expand to look at other related passages that fit the question, so CLOSE
READING is one of the skills you need to show.
The opening sentence’s directness sets up the whole story and is characteristic of
Hemingway’s use of language:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone
eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It is apparently direct and factual but it is almost always open to symbolic interpretation.
Santiago’s eyes being ‘the colour of the sea’ links him with it – as does the title - and his
patched sail is ‘like the flag of permanent defeat.’ - as is he.
The skiff is like Santiago. It returns damaged but mendable. Is this true of him too?
Much of the story is descriptive, usually with a lot of close detail, but the adjective is not
used as much as would seem likely. Rather it is the verbs – the actions – that are most
important. : ‘In the dark the man could FEEL the morning coming and as he rowed he
HEARD the trembling sound as flying fish left the water…’ page 20.
Look at the description of the first sight of the fish – pages 44-5.
It has four sentences of increasing length as more clauses linked just by and are added.
The first sentence is a narrative statement. Each sentence then adds an accumulation of
details before a final sentence adds imagery to sum up the effect : the baseball bat…the
rapier…the scythe-like blade….
Another example of this is his baiting of his hooks on page 21.
Try to see this pattern here and elsewhere. It recurs often.
Short sentences are very common – they are part of this directness/simplicity.
Look at how often we get objective (factual) description that then blends into Santiago’s
thoughts or feelings, sometimes by saying ‘he thought’, but sometimes without any
warning or indication.
Try the rest of page 45 as an example of this, then find some of your own.
Hemingway does not comment on the action as a narrator, it is always done through
Santiago’s own mind or just occasionally through Manolin.
The narrative consists of : description of actions
and interior monologue from Santiago when he is alone.
Now this is all your own work – with just a few starting-points.
Find some examples of your own for ALL of the following :
Santiago’s Skill and Craft as a fisherman e.g. 22, 30, 38 etc.
Santiago’s knowledge of the sea : e.g. 20, 71
How Santiago is described physically: e.g . page 12, and S on his own body – p. 41-2, 44
Santiago’s character – his pride, his endurance, his courage – e.g. page 81
Santiago’s suffering : e.g. page 64
The importance of luck – e.g. page 11, 22, 30, 85
The relationship between the old man and the fish- e.g. pages 67-9, 72, 84, 91
Consider why each of these is important to the story and how Hemingway presents his
ideas through them.
Some of the ideas in this guide are taken from :
Bloom’s Reviews of The Old Man and the Sea - edited by Harold Bloom
AF : December 2005