The Old Man and the Sea

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Resistance to Defeat Theme Analysis

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Resistance to Defeat Theme Icon

As a fisherman who has caught nothing for the last 84 days, Santiago is a man fighting against defeat. Yet Santiago never gives in to defeat: he sails further into the ocean than he ever has before in hopes of landing a fish, struggles with the marlin for three days and nights despite immense physical pain and exhaustion, and, after catching the marlin, fights off the sharks even when it's clear that the battle against them is hopeless. Whenever the situation gets particularly difficult and despair threatens to overwhelm Santiago, he turns to a number of tactics to fuel his resistance to defeat: he recalls memories of his youthful strength; he relies on his pride by demanding that he prove himself a worthy role model for Manolin or by comparing himself to his hero Joe DiMaggio; and he prays to God, even though his prayers do nothing to ease his physical suffering.

Ultimately, Santiago represents every man's struggle to survive. And just as Santiago's effort to bring the marlin back to land intact is doomed, no man can ever escape death. Yet through Santiago's struggle, Hemingway makes the case that escape from death is not the issue. As Santiago observes near the end of his struggle with the marlin, "a man can be destroyed but not defeated." In other words, victory over the inevitable is not what defines a man. Rather, it a man's struggle against the inevitable, even when he knows it is inevitable, that defines him. And the more difficult the struggle, the more worthy the opponent, the more powerfully a man can prove himself.

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Resistance to Defeat ThemeTracker

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Resistance to Defeat 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 Resistance to Defeat.
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
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.

But I must have the confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Santiago and Manolin love baseball, which they hear about over the radio back on shore. Joe DiMaggio, one of the all-time best players for the New York Yankees, was a big star around the time when this novella seems to take place, and baseball seems to already have been massively popular in Cuba during the Yankees era.Santiago's assumption that DiMaggio "does all things perfectly" captures the way we tend to idolize our sports figures.

It's true that DiMaggio had bone spurs, projections at the end of bones that make it painful to move on them. Santiago tries to push through his pain by telling himself to be more like his baseball hero. Baseball gives Santiago a common ground for discussion with Manolin, and also provides him material for self-encouragement when things get tougher.

Day Four Quotes
"God help me endure. I'll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now."
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Having already said a few prayers earlier in his journey, the more desperate Santiago now claims he'll say each of the most common Catholic prayers a hundred times if God will only help him catch the fish.

It's never very clear where Santiago stands on religion, and these prayers seem more based on superstition than faith. The fact that Santiago knows the prayers means he has some familiarity with the church, but his other thoughts so far indicate that he's not particularly committed to the idea of a God.

Rather, Santiago seems to worship nature. He hopes that saying the prayers might help him win this duel with the fish, and it feels like the moment earlier in the book when Santiago discusses the lottery with Manolin. As further evidence that he's not particularly religious, Santiago says "I cannot say them now." He plans to say them later on to hold up his side of the bargain with whatever god might be listening.

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.

"A man can be destroyed but not defeated."
Related Characters: Santiago (speaker)
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

This phrase, one of the better known quotations from the novella, is typical of Hemingway's writing. It is an aphorism-- it uses simple words to make a huge and general claim about the way the world works.

Santiago says this aloud while sailing back to shore with the giant marlin and trying to fight off the many sharks who come to eat parts of it. Because Santiago hasn't eaten or slept much in a few days, it can be unclear how seriously we are meant to take these statements.

But if we do decide to take it seriously, rather than as the byproduct of Santiago's near-fatal exhaustion, we have to figure out the difference between beingdestroyed and being defeated. And why is the statement limited to a man? Defeat might imply acceptance that one has lost a battle, whereas destruction simply means the end to the existence of something.

To be destroyed without being defeated, then, is something like that old saying, "going down with the ship." In Santiago's (and perhaps Hemingway's) opinion, a man is someone who goes to the very limit of their capabilities and then either succeeds or fails. But, when a man fails, he does so completely and not out of a lack of effort.

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.

He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulder.
Related Characters: Santiago
Related Symbols: The Mast
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

This phrase is almost an exact transplant from the Bible's descriptions of Jesus Christ carrying the cross before his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. The exhausted Jesus, forced to carry his own heavy cross on his back, falls and gets back up again. In the Bible, these passages suggest the extreme endurance of Jesus and his willingness to suffer pain for a greater cause.

Here, Santiago tries to carry his (cross-shaped) mast away from his skiff to his home. He cannot bear the weigh after his exhausting journey. But he rises again, like Jesus, making the final push toward his house and refusing defeat after days at sea.

Throughout this novella, which plays with religious ideas like sin and prayer, Santiago has a kind of Christlike presence. He is a pariah figure, acts humbly and honestly, and ultimately spends three full days and nights at sea like the three days between Jesus' death and resurrection according to the Christian Bible.

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.

"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.