The Old Man and the Sea

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The Marlin Symbol Analysis

The Marlin Symbol Icon
The marlin is the giant, 18-foot fish that battles with Santiago in the middle of the ocean for three days and three nights. Although Santiago hooks the marlin on his first afternoon at sea, the marlin refuses to come to the surface and instead pulls Santiago farther and farther from land. Santiago admires the marlin's beauty and endurance, and considers it a "noble" adversary, telling the fish repeatedly that though he loves it, he must kill it. Ultimately, the marlin is presented as Santiago's worthy opponent. Struggling against such an opponent brings out the best in an individual—courage, endurance, and love. At the same time, because Santiago comes to see the marlin as an alter-ego—he identifies the marlin as male and imagines the fish is old—the marlin comes to represent Santiago himself as well. In other words, Santiago's struggle with the marlin is in fact a struggle with himself. It is not a struggle of strength but rather of endurance, and a refusal to accept defeat. Santiago's struggle with the marlin is a struggle to face and overcome his own weaknesses as much as it is a struggle to subdue the great fish. In the process, by refusing to give in to the fish or the weakness of his mind and body, Santiago transcends those weaknesses.

The Marlin Quotes in The Old Man and the Sea

The The Old Man and the Sea quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Marlin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Resistance to Defeat Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Scribner edition of The Old Man and the Sea published in 1952.
Day Two Quotes
He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely... He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man.
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago reflects on the oddity of his situation: he is fighting a marlin for hours on end, and neither of them has ever seen the other. The marlin is deep below his boat, and is "wonderful and strange" in the way he reacts so calmly to being hooked on Santiago's fishing line.

Many of Santiago's reflections demonstrate just how much he knows about the sea and its fish. Without even seeing the marlin, Santiago knows how strong the fish might be. This type of thought tells us that Santiago has been fishing for a very long time.

Amazed at the fish's determination to get free and survive, Santiago also wonders about the fish's age. He figures the fish must be old, sort of like he is, because of the way he acts. The fact that Santiago tries to get into the mind of the marlin a bit, wondering how the fish feels about things, deepens the sense that he truly cares about the sea and the marlin.

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Now we are joined together and have been since noon. And no one to help either of us.
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago sees himself in many ways as the fish's equal. They are "joined together" both literally, on two ends of the fishing line that Santiago uses to catch the marlin, and in their destiny. If Santiago fails to catch the marlin, he will have suffered another defeat and lost much of his equipment. He may even find himself unable to make it back to shore after such a long battle with no reward. If the fish escapes, Santiago will be ashamed at the least and completely ruined in the worst case; but if Santiago finally catches the fish, it'll be the end for his marlin brother. Their fates are tied together by fishing line.

This short phrase "And no one to help either of us" shows that Santiago misses Manolin. The old man continually thinks of the boy during his trials. Manolin used to come along and help Santiago catch fish, but now when Santiago needs him most the boy is somewhere else, with another fisherman.


Day Three Quotes
"Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

The dichotomy within Santiago-- that he must kill and sell this marlin in order to live, but also loves, admires, and identifies with the fish-- keeps coming up. Santiago realizes that he needs to make a living and that he may be able to kill the fish even though he loves it, but he never quite seems to fully resolve his worries.

Both Santiago and the marlin are unwilling to give up. They are both extremely determined to win the battle, but Santiago wants to exhaust the fish and kill him by sunset. Even in his old age, Santiago will not give up; even in his toughest fishing expedition ever he'll find a victory of some sort.

"If I were him I would put in everything now and go until something broke. But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able."
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago goes deeper into his reflection on the marlin and his attempt to figure out the fish's perspective on their long battle. The phrase "If I were him" signals the extent of Santiago's identification with the fish he's trying to catch and kill.

The old man knows what he would do if he were in the marlin's situation, but then he remembers that it's his human intelligence that allows him to think in this way. It's commonplace to assume that humans are smarter and other animals more skilled in other areas. Suggesting that fish are "more noble and more able," Santiago bows in respect to the creature he's hunting.

Day Four Quotes
You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in his battle with the marlin, Santiago begins for the first time to acknowledge the possibility that the marlin might win. He oscillates throughout the rest of the story between believing he can catch the marlin and make it back ashore, and fearing that he's taken on more than he can handle.

Like in his arm-wrestling match, Santiago realizes that his opponent has just as much of a right and a chance to win as he does. This humility is probably in part what encourages Santiago to work so hard at what he does.

But there's something special about this fish in particular that makes Santiago acknowledge his equal chance of winning and losing. For this fish is greater, more beautiful, calmer, and more noble than any Santiago has ever seen. This is a bit of a mini-lesson in Hemingway's writing style, as he strings together common superlatives to emphasize the almost unutterable greatness of the creature hooked on Santiago's fishing line.


Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.
Related Characters: Santiago
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

The fish is so rarely out of the water in the first three days of Santiago's expedition that any jump comes as a sort of climax after all the waiting. Because fishing can be a slow and tedious process, part of Hemingway's achievement with this book is simply that he is able to make fishing an interesting and even suspenseful subject. We, as readers, are forced in a way to sit along with Santiago while we wait for the fish to slow down and get tired or break free and leave Santiago stranded. Finally, here, all the waiting pays off—the marlin not only jumps, but Santiago has also finally pierced it with a harpoon. The battle is almost over.

We read that the fish comes "alive, with his death in him." This is an odd phrase, meaning that the fish is making his last stand for life, even with Santiago's harpoon in his heart. It also recalls notions of sacrifice and resurrection, and some of the Christian imagery of the book. The rest of the passage emphasizes how huge and how majestic the fish really is. The marlin is significantly bigger than the boat Santiago rides in, and powerful enough to splash water all over the boat. Even in its death it is described as something powerful and beautiful, even sublime.


You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

With the worst of his trials behind him, Santiago begins to question himself and his motives in killing the fish. Throughout the four days of pursuing and trying to wear down the fish, Santiago develops a real connection to it. Now that he has won the battle and killed the marlin, Santiago has second thoughts. He knows fishermen take pride in the size of their catches, and wonders if it might be wrong to do so.

Santiago tells himself it isn't wrong to kill the fish as long as he loves it. This might be a bit of inherited wisdom, something he has learned along the way. He quickly questions this too: might it be even worse to kill a creature when you love it? Given his near-absolute certainty as a fisherman and a navigator, it is a bit unnerving to see Santiago so unsure of himself. This journey has taken so much out of him that his mind goes places it wouldn't normally go. Or maybe Santiago is no longer interested in this kind of prideful fishing, and we are looking on as he finishes his final fishing trip.

He stopped for a moment and looked back and saw in the reflection from the street light the great tail of the fish standing up well behind the skiff's stern. He saw the white naked line of his backbone and the dark mass of the head…
Related Characters: Santiago
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

It seems odd, after all this time at sea with Santiago, to encounter something like a street light. We are quickly back on land and back with (relatively) modern technology, out of the barren and completely natural environment of the ocean. Santiago is looking back at his prize fish, ruined by the sharks who tore it to bits, and it is hard to know what he might be feeling at this moment. The streetlight is symbolic of the town as a whole, and much of the remainder of the novella will focus on the reactions of other people to the fish skeleton left on the beach by Santiago.

Once again, the fish's immense size is emphasized by its "great tail," stretching "well behind the skiff's stern." It's a grotesque image, this giant fish skeleton waiting on the beach for people to wake up and see it in the morning. But Santiago is too exhausted to do anything with it, and the dead fish-- stripped of all its value-- may have stripped Santiago of all his pride and desire to continue fishing too.

Day Five Quotes
"What's that" she asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide.
Related Symbols: The Marlin
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage, the second to last one in the novella, provides a bit of both dark humor and wrenching tragedy. Hemingway has a laugh at the cluelessness of tourists, and his writing cleverly adopts their perspective when this shift is mentioned: "the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide." From the perspective of all the men who live along the sea, it's a "great fish"; but to the tourists who haven't any clue what is going on, it's "just garbage waiting to go out with the tide."

This passage seems a bit out of place at first, given that the reader has spent the entire novella so far alongside Santiago. But the woman's question suggests how differently people can see the same object: to Santiago this fish was not only a brother but also the hard-won reward of a nearly deadly fishing trip; to the tourists looking on, the fish is the object of something between curiosity and disgust.

Directly after this passage, the waiter at The Terrace tells them how the fish was maimed (by sharks), but the two tourists think he means the skeleton itself is of a shark. This miscommunication emphasizes how important language and context are in conveying the story behind anything-- something Hemingway was always thinking about.

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