Santiago As A Heroic Figure In The Old Man And The Sea

Hemingway writes that The Old Man and the Sea, a novella, “should seem simple and easy to read and yet contain all the dimensions and depths of the world visible and the human spirit,” in a Letter to Charles Scribner (738).

Philip Young praises Santiago for his struggle and the “decency and dignity” he displayed. Leo Gurko lauds Old Man and his “stress of what man is capable” in a “world where heroic deeds can be done” as well Santiago’s struggle, which he calls “transscended” (377-82). Gerry Brenner says that Old Man “satisfies people’s desire to live in a larger-thanlife world” and is often seen as a fantasy. Santiago is a brave and confident hero, but does he really have the fable-like qualities that are believed? Is it true that the message hidden in “man’s hearts” is unrealistically heroic? Hemingway may have told a different tale: “I made a man and boy who were real, as well as a sea with real fish and sharks.” If “real” is the goal, then it may be time to reconsider Santiago. A hero too often overlooked for his ability to transcend the ordinary.

When you read Hemingway’s novel closely, it becomes clear that Santiago is not a hero. He is just an ordinary man who struggles with his age. Santiago’s sea experience highlights old age as the real enemy. The violent and calm fight between the sharks and fish is self-defense and a deception. The extrinsic strong actions were used, contrary to their intended purpose, as a prism through which the fragile and troubled inner self could be seen. This discovery not just reveals Santiago’s fierce inner fight, it also reveals that he is a man of great strength and courage.

Santiago’s loss of confidence is evident in the very first line of Old Man. The flour-sack patched sail represents a man. Santiago has “deeply-creased scars”, but “none” are “fresh”. It is better to understand the worn and old sail as a “flag of permanent defeat”. The shadow of old age that Santiago casts is also one that haunts him: It announces a “permanent defeat” that is a sentence that is given to every old man. This is a sign that youth and confidence are gone for good. It’s a “permanent defeat.”

Hemingway’s careful description of Santiago’s confidence and strength is enough to convince the reader that he is indeed confident. The effort is evident throughout the novella and in the beginning, especially. Santiago’s “confident,” “undefeated,” and “cheerful” eyes are mentioned repeatedly in the first few pages of the novella. These descriptions are designed to make readers think that Santiago has not lost his strength, confidence or power. However, a closer look at the text will reveal that all of these claims are false. Santiago and Manolo had two different dialogues:

“But, are you ready to tackle a fish of this size?”

“I believe ….” (9)”

There are some good and some very great fishermen. But you are the only one.”

“Thank you. “Thank you. “I hope that no fish is so big as to prove us wrong.”

“There’s no such fish as you suggest if your strength is still the same.”

“I am not as strong as you think I am.” (16, emphasis is added)

Santiago, when asked about his confidence or strength, replies with a weak “I’m sure” instead of a confident and definitive answer. In the second dialog, he attempts to find reasons for his potential failure. This happens before he has even set sail and encountered any fish. His lack of confidence is very evident. Why he did not reply “no I can’t” could be due to two factors: he didn’t want Manolo to feel disappointed and he refused to admit his lack of confidence. Real battle begins long before the physical fight with fish or sharks. The real battle field is the inner struggle, which begins long before any physical combat with fish and sharks.

The point is best illustrated by reading “A Clean, Well-Lit Place”, another short story of Hemingway.

The older server said, “You possess youth, confidence, a career, and an income.” “You’ve got everything.”

What is it that you are missing?

“Everything except work”

“You have my entire collection.”

“No. “I am old and have never been confident.”

This dialogue between two young waiters reveals the real reason for an old man losing confidence. It is because “youth,” or being young, is no longer. Santiago and the old waiter are both powerless. The only difference is that Santiago still denies the truth while the older waiter has given up.

Santiago struggles to recognize his declining confidence, but refuses to admit it. This struggle occurs time and again when he fights with the large fish. Santiago’s monologues are his way of encouraging himself: “…I am able to last. You must last. “Don’t mention it at all” (65); You are good, he said to himself. You’re always good” (68). Instead of demonstrating his confidence and strength, these words reveal his weaknesses. Self-deception is the battle that he fights against himself.

Santiago is careful to avoid saying he’s old or tired, but he still makes mistakes. Although he may have been tired and old, he didn’t want to admit it. He immediately added “but I killed this” (70). He must have been very careful in choosing his words, even during his monologue. His “tiredness” and “oldness” are quickly masked. When he finally forgets and lets his feelings out, (perhaps subconsciously), he says: “I’m wondering if the big fish has any plans for him or if it is just like me.” (35). His struggle with age could be described as desperate. When the rational constraints of his life are relaxed and true emotions prevail, he finds it impossible to control his dreaming. It is not his confidence or strength that he dreams about, but his nostalgia and longing for the youth, confidence, and strength of lions. Hemingway concludes that both Santiago’s dreams of young lions, and his daydreaming the powerful Joe DiMaggio, can be summed up in a sentence. Hemingway’s notes on Santiago’s arm-wrestling episode conclude that he “remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time” he “played the hand game”. Santiago would not have to remember the strength of the lions or Joe DiMaggio to gain more confidence. The act itself shows that he does not possess it.

Santiago’s heroic fight is assumed to be a great one. He is seen as strong and confident with a lot of perseverance. Santiago is a less real and humane hero because we fail to understand his inner turmoil and battle with age. A deeper understanding of Santiago’s inner world could make him more relatable and human.


  • baileywilliams

    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!