Story Symbolism - The Old Man & The Sea - Literative

The Old Man & The Sea: Symbolism and Summary

Jennifer Mendez Literary Analysis

Originally published in 1952, The Old Man and The Sea is a short novel written by Ernest Hemingway…and it is rich with symbolism! Regarded as one of his most famous works, this story is read in high schools all over America. What began as a simple story about an aging fisherman, turned into something far more meaningful.

Summary of The Old Man & The Sea

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man & The Sea during a time when his career was on the decline. It was immediately regarded as a classic. Although a short story, it is jampacked with deeper meaning. It isn’t a merely a story about an aging fisherman. It is a story about meeting goals, and meeting your fate.

Let’s dissect it:

Synopsis of The Old & and The Sea

The story opens with Santiago, an experienced fishermen who has gone 84 days without catching a single fish. He is regarded as so unlucky that Manolin, his young apprentice, has been forbidden to sail with him.

On the 85th day of his unlucky streak, Santiago heads to the Gulf Stream, sets his lines, and has his bait taken by a Marlin. Santiago finds himself pulled by the Marlin, and two days and nights pass with him still holding onto the line. Despite his excruciating pain, Santiago has a soft spot for this Marlin, often calling him brother. He even states that no one will get to eat the fish.

On the third day, Santiago finally stabs the Marlin with his harpoon, and straps it to the side of his boat, before heading home. The blood from the fish calls the sharks, who then cause Santiago to lose his weapon. Soon, the sharks eat the majority of the Marlin, and Santiago proclaims that they have killed his dreams.

He returns to shore, where everyone admires the carcass—18 feet from nose to tail. Santaiago takes no pride in this. Instead, he drinks coffee, promises Manolin to fish together once again, and returns to sleep. He dreams of his youth, of lions on an African beach.

Symbolism in THE OLD MAN & THE SEA

Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea is largely attributed to Hemingway’s life as well as what is commonly referred to as “the human condition” (e.g. what it means to be human). Both of which make The Old Man & the Sea‘s symbolism worth reading into.

  1. Santiago carries his mast back to shore after his Marlin encounter. The way in which he carries it signifies the time when Jesus was crucified and carried the cross. “Then he shouldered the mast and started to climb” (Hemingway, 121).
  2. The Shovel-Nosed Sharks that eat the Marlin are said to be literary critics. Hemingway found them irritating, always bashing writers, without creating anything themselves.
  3. The sea itself is symbolic. It hides important things from Santiago, like the Marlin. When it finally gives it to him, Santiago must fight to keep it. The sea is life. Life hides things from us, only to reveal them later.
  4. Manolin is love an compassion, as well as the circle of life.  Despite everything, Manolin loves Santiago, and shows him love and compassion, like checking up on him when he arrived back with a Marlin carcass. But more than that, he is there to replace Santiago’s glory days at some point.
  5. For Santiago, lions are symbols of his youth on the African beach. It is his youth that he wants the most, now that he’s getting older. This sends the point across that he might be too old to fish now.

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About the Author

Jennifer Mendez

Jennifer Mendez has brought insightful articles to From author interviews to how literature meets gaming to expert insight into tools and writing processes, her dedication to helping our author community is quite inspiring. You can find more of her writing at