The Old Man and the Sea

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Themes and Colors
Resistance to Defeat Theme Icon
Pride Theme Icon
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Youth and Age Theme Icon
Man and Nature Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Old Man and the Sea, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Since The Old Man and the Sea is the story of a man's struggle against a marlin, it is tempting to see the novella as depicting man's struggle against nature. In fact, through Santiago, the novella explores man's relationship with nature. He thinks of the flying fish as his friends, and speaks with a warbler to pass the time. The sea is dangerous, with its sharks and potentially treacherous weather, but it also sustains him by providing food in the form of dolphins and shrimp. Finally, Santiago does not just see the marlin as an adversary, he loves it as a brother. In the middle of their struggle, Santiago says to the marlin, "Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who." Santiago's statement shows the depth of his admiration for the marlin and hints at the fundamental law of nature that unites man and animal: all beings must die, must kill or be killed. In this way, man and nature are joined in a circular system, in which death is necessary and fosters new life.

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Man and Nature Quotes in The Old Man and the Sea

Below you will find the important quotes in The Old Man and the Sea related to the theme of Man and Nature.
Day One Quotes
Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
Related Characters: Santiago
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this characteristically blunt introduction of Santiago, Hemingway sets him up as the novella's titular "old man."

Throughout this tale, Santiago's advanced age plays an important role in his fishing abilities and his interactions with the other fishermen. His body is breaking down, and his unlikely victory against the giant marlin seems like it might be his last big fishing expedition. His body is well-worn, and there seems to be a sort of honor in all the pain Santiago has been able to bear over the years.

But, as Hemingway describes them, Santiago's eyes still have a lot of youth in them. They are "cheerful and undefeated," reflecting Santiago's unwillingness to let up as he struggles to catch the marlin. With eyes the same color as the sea, Santiago is one with it. The sea is Santiago's livelihood, his joy, and his true home.


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He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.
Related Characters: Santiago, Manolin
Related Symbols: Lions
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

By using all these terms of negation (like "no longer" and "nor") to list things Santiago used to dream about, Hemingway creates a strong sense of all the experiences Santiago has had in his long life. Though the list evokes some nostalgia, it seems like Santiago's feelings resolve toward the end of this passage to a contentment with what he has lost and what he currently has.

The bravado of Hemingway's male characters emerges again, as we notice the things that Santiago once dreamed of: storms, women, great occurrences, great fish, fights, contests of strength, and his wife. In the world of these fishermen, and probably in Hemingway's mind too, these are the things that allow a man to assert his manliness. This mention of "contests of strength" points to the passage where Santiago arm-wrestles another man for an entire day.

It's important not only that Santiago is a man, but also that he's an old man. The other fishermen see Santiago as an old man, but he wants them to see him as a man just like them-- or better than them. If Santiago can wrestle in the big marlin, he'll prove to all the other fishermen he's still on top of their hierarchy.

And yet Santiago no longer dreams of these things. Maybe he just doesn't care too much what the others think of him now. His dreams of lions seem to emerge from memories of working on ships off the coast of Africa, far back in his past, and something about this choice of memories makes it seem like part of Santiago wants to retire from the difficulty and competitiveness of fishing and escape far away. Hemingway loves to write about lions, and they're an important element of many of his most well-known short stories.

Day Two Quotes
Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea.
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago has a deep connection with the ocean and its animal inhabitants, and here he demonstrates a concern for the birds around him. This novella is full of dichotomy-- the division of things into two seemingly opposite groups. For instance, Santiago is divided within himself between his role as a fisherman (to kill and sell fish) and his love for fish. Here, the ocean is dichotomous: it is kind and beautiful, but it is also "cruel" and "comes so suddenly."

This is one of many places in the novella where Santiago is drawn into reflection about the ocean and the life he has spent on it. The ambiguous phrase "Why did they make birds so delicate" evokes Santiago's lack of certainty about things like creation. The question assumes that someone made the birds, but the word they creates more ambiguity than a word like God. Usually, when Santiago finds himself in this sort of reflection, he forces himself back into the present and reminds himself that he should focus on fishing instead of wondering about really big things like creation or sin. But Santiago's deep appreciation for the sea is mystical, almost a sort of religion in itself.

But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.
Related Characters: Santiago
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Santiago is reflecting on the sea while he rows across it to reach a better fishing spot. Another major dichotomy of Hemingway's novella is that between thinking and doing. Santiago will try to get himself to stop thinking and just fish, but it's understandable that he thinks almost constantly even in the most difficult points of his battle with the marlin.

Hemingway uses Spanish nouns, which are gendered unlike English nouns, to explore the trope of the sea as a woman. This labeling of nature as feminine is typical not only of people who talk about the sea-- even in English we hear people use "her" to describe the ocean-- but also of Hemingway, who is very often focused on establishing firm grounds for masculinity as opposed to femininity. This passage implies that when women do "wild or wicked things" they do them because these actions are out of their control. Then there's this strange sentence about the moon affecting the sea as it affects a woman.

It's not really clear what it would mean for the ocean to be feminine, but the change in language from "la mar" to "el mar" signals a shift between Santiago's generation and the generation of younger fishermen in how they view the sea. To Santiago the sea is romantic, and should be seduced like a woman in his masculinist view. To the younger fishermen, the sea is a male enemy, and should be conquered with increasingly advanced boats and technologies.

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.

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.

The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.
Related Characters: Santiago
Page Number: 60-61
Explanation and Analysis:

Reading Hemingway's novella, it's difficult not to wonder whether or not Santiago might be lonely out on the boat alone for days on end. As his thoughts of Manolin suggest, he does feel loneliness, but here he comforts himself in feeling connected to some wild ducks flying above him. Hemingway's writing is more imagistic here than normal, with "etching" appearing twice and creating a poetic image for the ducks' movement.

Every bit of information Santiago is able to gather from his surroundings, like the clouds gathering for the trade wind, helps him plan his prolonged battle with the marlin far below. His information-gathering blends in with the rest of the narrative, but when we notice it we are reminded of how well Santiago knows his surroundings.

"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.

"It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers."
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of these moments in the novella when Santiago's thoughts both make sense and don't really make sense. It seems like, in these passages, Hemingway is trying to show how taxed Santiago's mind is during his long expedition.

It does make sense, in a way, for Santiago to look up at the stars, so far away, and be thankful he doesn't have to chase them. But, at the same time, Santiago's thought is something of a non-sequitur; it has little to do with the situation at hand. Santiago never imagined that the battle to catch this giant fish could have been so difficult, and in the most trying times his mind wanders a bit. The fish, he thinks, is difficult enough to catch when it's only a few hundred fathoms away instead of a few lightyears.

There is something else here of Santiago's mysticism. He feels more of a "brother" to the sea and its fish than to the sky above him, but in its entirety his view of nature places him as part of a larger whole rather than at the top of a hierarchy.

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
"How much did you suffer?"
"Plenty," the old man said.
Related Characters: Manolin (speaker)
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

The depth of the connection between Santiago and Manolin shows in this short dialogue between them. Manolin intuits that Santiago must have suffered greatly at sea for multiple days, having seen the massive fish skeleton left ashore. But, by asking Santiago how much he has suffered, Manolin tries to get the old man to talk about whatever happened over the past four days.

Santiago doesn't take the bait, and either out of humility or pure exhaustion doesn't want to discuss his struggles. This humility again suggests the Jesus-like character of Santiago. It is presumed that Jesus suffers greatly in the Biblical story, but he refuses to complain about the pain or say much of anything against the men who kill him. Santiago alludes to the fact that he suffered "plenty" at sea, but doesn't go into greater detail.