Places: The Old Man and the Sea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Caribbean Sea

*Caribbean Old Man and the Sea, TheSea. Branch of the North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds Cuba. The sea contributes to the sense of fatalism in the primary character. Alone on the vast expanses of the sea, Santiago, the “old man” of the title, suggests a symbolic understanding of human alienation amid an indifferent world. The sea functions as a backdrop for his reflections of his interior being, thus reinforcing themes of loneliness, struggle, and courage. Ernest Hemingway says of Santiago, “He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now.” His loneliness, however, is also comforted by the sea, as he knows that no man is ever completely alone on the sea.

The desolation of the open sea overwhelms the character, suggesting man’s relative insignificance, yet in this vast space, a courageous man finds beauty and solace by understanding his relationship to the environment. For Santiago, this relationship is like that of a man and woman (again reinforcing the man’s solitary existence). He understands the sea as la mar, a feminine noun in Spanish, something to be loved, something that gives or withholds great favors. In contrast, others understand the sea to be masculine, el mar, a rival or even an enemy.

Despite Santiago’s understanding of the aesthetic nature of his relationship to the sea, the sea itself is ultimately a violent, dangerous place on which survival becomes a primary goal and the ability to survive is the cardinal virtue. It is a place where predators feed on lesser forms of life, and Santiago’s struggle with the fish and with the sharks who feed on it illustrates that man also participates within this vicious cycle. Human existence is about surviving in a beautiful but hostile environment.

Santiago’s shack

Santiago’s shack. This place reveals the man’s poverty. Symbolically, it functions as a place where he retreats each night in humility before going out at daylight to fish and survive. It is a returning to the womb, demonstrating man’s longed for comfort in stark contrast to the hostilities on the sea.


*Havana. Capital and principal city of Cuba, in sight of which Santiago has long done his fishing. Its opulent urban setting contrasts with Santiago’s simple village and his daily struggle to catch and sell fish.

BibliographyBrenner, Gerry. “The Old Man and the Sea”: Story of a Common Man. New York: Twayne, 1991. Sets the novella’s literary and historical contexts and discusses its critical reception. Considers the novella’s structure, character, style, psychology, and biographical elements.Killinger, John. Hemingway and the Dead Gods: A Study in Existentialism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1960. Compares Hemingway’s views to those of such European existentialists as Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Adds much to the understanding of Santiago’s character.Sojka, Gregory S. Ernest Hemingway: The Angler as Artist. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines fishing in Hemingway’s life and works as “an important exercise in ordering and reinforcing an entire philosophy and style of life.” Devotes chapter 5 to The Old Man and the Sea.Waldhorn, Arthur. A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972. Sets out explanations of the terms “Hemingway hero” and “Hemingway code” then applies them to the works. Notes that Santiago’s humility is an unusual quality in a Hemingway character.Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966. Considers the novel’s roots in previous Hemingway works and discusses Santiago as a “code hero,” as distinct from a “Hemingway hero.” Claims simple interpretation of the book’s symbols reduces their meanings.
Categories: Places