Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

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Ernest Hemingway’s final novel, The Old Man and the Sea, is a beloved American classic. The story follows an elderly Cuban fisherman as he engages in an intense struggle with a massive marlin far out at sea. Through this harrowing battle, Hemingway explores timeless themes of bravery, perseverance, and resilience in the face of adversity.

What makes this novel truly special is the way Hemingway employs a straightforward, fable-like language to convey these universal themes. The result is a powerful and enduring work of literature that continues to captivate readers to this day.

This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Book Summary

An old fisherman, venturing alone out to sea, lands the catch of his life and sees it destroyed by sharks during his return to port.

Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has had an extended period of bad luck: it is his 84th day without a catch, and September is not an easy month for fishermen.

He sits on the Terrace near the sea with his companion and apprentice, the young boy Manolin, who has loved this old man since he was five, when he began to go fishing with him. During the first 40 days of Santiago’s unlucky period, Manolin had been with him. But his parents consider Santiago to be “washed up” and have ordered Manolin to go fishing in a luckier boat. 

Some of the younger fishermen make fun of Santiago, but the older ones feel sadness for him. He does not care what others think; he believes his luck will turn the next day. Once before, he had an unlucky period of 87 days, but surely it will not happen again. 

While Manolin no longer fishes with the old man, he assists him by bringing food from the local bar, encouraging him, and attending to his fishing gear and bait. Manolin wonders if Santiago is strong enough to land a big fish, but Santiago thinks he is; he has had much experience at sea and knows the tricks of the trade.

That afternoon, Manolin accompanies the old man to his one-room shack, with its table, chair, bed, and dirt floor. Santiago is a baseball enthusiast and devoted Yankees fan, and they discuss who will win the pennant this season.

Manolin thinks both the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians can beat the Yankees, but Santiago is not so sure. After all, the Yankees have Joe DiMaggio—the old man’s hero—on their side, and his father was a fisherman, too. 

Even though DiMaggio has suffered from the pain of a bone spur in his heel, he continues to play well. After a while, Manolin goes off for sardines and bait. When he returns, he finds old Santiago asleep. 

With the tenderness and love of one devoted to his master, Manolin covers him with a blanket and leaves the shack. He comes back later to wake him up, bringing with him some black beans, rice, stew, and fried bananas that Martin, the owner of the Terrace, has given them for supper, as he has done before. 

The boy knows that unless he brings food, Santiago will probably not eat. He and Manolin chat about fishing, baseball, and Santiago’s memory of a long-ago trip to Africa, where he saw lions roaming on the beaches. After supper, Manolin prepares to leave. It is dark and he promises to wake Santiago in the morning. 

Later, Santiago dreams about places he has visited. The dream has become a frequent one: Each night he drifts back to the long, sandy beaches and smells the salty breezes that he once smelled in Africa. No longer does he dream about women, fighting, arm-wrestling contests, or big fish.

On Day 85, Santiago gets up early and walks over to Manolin’s house. He wakes the boy and the two have coffee. Then Santiago rows out to sea alone in his skiff. As he leaves the port and the smell of land, he notes the hissing sounds of jumping fish and the rising light of the morning. 

His years as a fisherman have taught him to be aware of the weather and of his surroundings.  His mind wanders as he reexamines his life. Even though the sail of his boat looks like a flag of defeat, Santiago is hopeful for the day’s catch. 

But he is also aware of his age and declining luck. Before daylight, he hangs his baits over the side of the boat, varying their depth to take full advantage of his drifting with the current.

He waits patiently as he stalks the sea with his eyes, listening for any signs of fish. He finds himself speaking out loud as his mind continues to wander.

Finally, the strike. A marlin (large, saltwater, game fish) eats the sardines on his bait at 100 fathoms, and Santiago hopes desperately that this will be his chance. The fish pulls gently, then seems to slip away. 

Suddenly, there’s a hit and Santiago feels the weight of an extremely heavy fish. As he releases the line, it unfolds and slips through his hands. He gives more line and tries to tighten the pressure with his thumb and finger. He attaches more coils and the fight begins.

His catch begins to tow the boat steadily out to sea. The old man tries to regain control by raising his fish to the surface, but is forced to resign himself to a long struggle. Hours elapse and he loses sight of land. 

As the fish continues to pull the boat out to sea, Santiago regrets his old age. He needs Manolin. Then he realizes his challenge. The Great Fish, as he calls it, is a true match for him, the seasoned fisherman, and Santiago vows to pursue the enemy, even if it means his own death. 

Tirelessly, the Great Fish pulls the old man through the water, seducing him with its strength. Santiago suspects that DiMaggio would stay with the fish as long as he has. In order to give himself more courage, Santiago recalls the time in Casablanca when he had arm-wrestled in a bar with the strongest man on the docks, the Negro from Cienfuegos. Santiago was young then, and beat the Negro after an all-night match. For a long time afterward, people called him “El Campeón,” the Champion.

Slowly, the old man feels a growing respect for the fish. Their struggle brings them together and Santiago begins to call him his friend. After many hours, the Great Fish rises momentarily to the surface. Santiago is awed by its enormous size, splendid coloring, great force. 

It is the largest fish that anyone in his village has ever caught. Santiago continues to plan his strategy: his only hope for victory lies with his intelligence. He will win, but it will be a long battle. 

Though he braces himself for the fight, the excruciating pain in his hands and back weighs heavily on him. He needs to sleep. Time passes, and Santiago’s mind wanders periodically as he recalls former triumphs. He speaks to the Great Fish, asking how he feels and apologizing for his role in the fight. They are now becoming brothers. By the third day, the fish begins to tire. 

Finally, it circles and slowly rises to the surface. The old man, faint and dizzy from the long struggle, harpoons his prize catch and kills it.

Overjoyed by his conquest, he must now return to port. Since the fish is larger than his skiff, he attaches it to the outside of his boat and sets back to shore.

Then the sharks arrive. Just one hour into his return voyage, the first shark attacks. It is a large Mako shark, attracted by the long trail of blood from the fish. When its huge jaws grab a large section of the Great Fish, Santiago harpoons it. 

The shark sinks with his harpoon and all his rope, but not before eating a large portion of his fish. Santiago begins to feel great sorrow. He knows that this is only the first of many sharks. He wishes he had never hooked the Great Fish, but there is nothing that can be done. 

Soon the other sharks approach. With each subsequent attack, Santiago skillfully defends his catch using all available implements, including his tiller. He vows to fight them to the death. But it is a useless fight, and as he draws near to the port, he feels a profound sense of tragedy. He has been beaten by the sharks, and the dignity of his Great Fish has been violated. 

When he arrives in the harbor, it is late and the lights of the Terrace are out. All that remains of his prize catch is its naked backbone with the great tail extending behind the skiff and the dark mass of the head with the projecting sword. He has tried to cheer himself up by saying that at least the sharks helped make his load lighter. 

But he knows that, underneath it all, he is sad, depressed. Santiago lands his small boat, drags himself back to his shack, and collapses in bed.

He is asleep when Manolin comes by in the morning. The boy notices Santiago’s bloodied hands and cries with compassion, vowing to help the old man change his luck. Outside the hut, a fisherman calls out that the Great Fish measures 18 feet long. 

When Santiago awakens, he is glad to see Manolin. It gives him pleasure to be near a human being instead of the fish and the sea.

Manolin informs him that he wants to start fishing with the old man again, despite his family’s claim that the man is unlucky. That afternoon, some tourists at the Terrace look down into the sea and notice the Great Fish’s white tail in the water. A waiter tells them it is a shark’s tail, which surprises them; they didn’t know that shark’s tails were so beautiful. Meanwhile, Santiago is asleep in his cabin, dreaming about lions, while Manolin watches him with love.

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Santiago is a poor Cuban fisherman who is old, thin, gaunt, and has deep wrinkles and a blotch of skin cancer on his cheeks. Despite his appearance, he is humble, determined, courageous, and proud of his work. When faced with a great challenge, he dares to pursue the marlin like a hunter, attaining the grandeur of a warrior through his struggle.

Although physically beaten after the catch is destroyed, his endurance and ability to fight make him a victor, not a loser. His name comes from San Diego (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain, who was also a fisherman.

Like other Hemingway characters, he is a code hero who lives by a specific set of values: hard work, dedication to his profession, courage, fearless pursuit of danger, defiance of death, and a willingness to serve as a role model to a young boy.

Santiago defines himself by his work, which is the center of his existence. He derives a sense of “one-ness” with nature from communion with the marlin and comes to realize that all elements of the world are part of a whole and form a brotherhood (humans, animals, nature).

He places a higher value on human achievement than on the acquisition of money and is a hero to young Manolin. Santiago is confident of his masculinity and feels a greater need to experience manliness than to prove it.

He is one of Hemingway’s first male characters to combine strength with tenderness. Some critics find him a cardboard character, too precise, not spontaneous or “human” in words or behavior, yet most readers find him an endearing and memorable figure.


Manolin is Santiago’s young assistant and companion who is helpful, gentle, understanding, loving, and devoted to the older man. Like a son to Santiago, he is an image of youth, vitality, and maturing strength.

Manolin complements Santiago and reinforces his courage, determination, and hope for victory. He heightens the reader’s understanding by serving as a contrast to Santiago and brings sympathy and compassion into the old man’s life.

The Great Fish (Marlin) 

The Great Fish (Marlin) is 18 feet long and fights Santiago for three days. The fish shows the same courage and desire to win as the fisherman.

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Main Themes

Courage: Santiago displays immense courage throughout his struggle with the Great Fish and the sharks. His heroism resembles that of Hemingway’s other characters who undergo trials and reaffirm themselves through bravery.

Humility and Pride: Santiago is a humble old man, aware of his age and fading strength, but confident of his skills and talents as a fisherman. He is proud of his role as a fisherman, but humble before the odds that confront him.

Aloneness: Santiago is alone at sea but not lonely, per se. He relates to the sea, the birds, the Great Fish, and even the sharks. He lives with his memories and thinks about the meaning of life.

Companionship and Love: Santiago and Manolin share a special father/son relationship that is based on their love for fishing and their unwritten code of intimacy.

Age and Youth: Santiago and Manolin represent two different age groups that portray the beginning and end of human life. When Santiago educates Manolin and prepares the boy for life, this guarantees that the old man’s skills learned from years of experience will be kept alive by a new generation.

Honor: Santiago has a sense of honor about his work and must perform well to fulfill his self-expectations. His honor is at stake in the pursuit of the Great Fish.

Death: Santiago is willing to die for his cause and has no fear of danger or death. Death is neither an obstacle nor a consideration in his struggle.

Heroism: Santiago is elevated to heroic level by his victory over his adversary, the Great Fish. His contest represents the larger view of human life with its wins and losses, successes and failures.

Simplicity: Santiago has a simple life, goals, needs, interests, dreams, and fantasies. Hemingway transforms the simple story of an old man into a universal struggle to which all readers can relate.

Nature and Reality: Hemingway uses nature as a realistic backdrop for the story, giving a context for the characters’ actions. The sea, marlin, birds, sky, and sharks give the reader an understanding of Santiago’s mind by serving as the objects to which he reacts.

Baseball: Joe DiMaggio, the famous baseball player, is Santiago’s hero. The theme of baseball is woven throughout the story, with talk of scores, wins, losses, and rules of the game. DiMaggio’s courage gives Santiago the energy to face his fight with the Great Fish and the sharks.

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1. Lions 

Symbol of beauty, youth, strength, aggressiveness, and courage. The Hemingway code hero is much like the lion, a symbol of heroism. The recurrent dream about the king of the beasts, along with his thoughts of the baseball king (DiMaggio), shows Santiago’s passion for the heroic life.

2. Christianity

Santiago, a teacher and a fisherman, is often called a Christ symbol: the excruciating pain of the struggle represents the crucifixion; the rope lashed over his shoulder during the fight with the Great Fish is Christ’s cross slung over His back; Santiago’s hands are like those of Christ, pierced with nails. 

But these symbols do not suggest the Christian idea of rising from the dead; Hemingway is more interested in human beings’ relation to this world, not to an afterlife which, for many Hemingway characters, does not exist (note the concept of nada, or the nothingness that exists after death). 

Santiago is not atoning for sins; he acts honestly, with humility, and struggles as a heroic man. He is not even sure he believes in sin. Hemingway’s is a religion of humans, not of supernatural or divine beings. 3. SHARKS Symbol of evil forces that prey on human beings.

The Writing Style

Hemingway’s writing style in The Old Man and the Sea is simple and direct, yet highly effective. His prose is spare and understated, yet he manages to convey a tremendous amount of emotion through his carefully chosen words. The dialogue between Santiago and Manolin is particularly powerful, revealing the deep love and respect that exists between them.

One of the most striking features of the novel is the way Hemingway uses repetition to convey the story’s underlying themes. For example, the phrase “man is not made for defeat” is repeated several times throughout the novel, emphasizing the idea that the human spirit is resilient and can overcome even the most daunting challenges.


1. Simple Yet Captivating Prose

Hemingway’s ability to create a captivating story with such simple, unadorned prose is a testament to his mastery of the craft. The Old Man and the Sea is a beautiful example of how less can be more when it comes to writing. The author’s minimalist approach to language draws the reader in, allowing them to become fully immersed in Santiago’s story without any distracting frills.

2. Themes of Perseverance and Resilience

The novel’s themes of perseverance, resilience, and the human spirit’s indomitable nature are incredibly powerful. Santiago’s unwavering determination to catch the fish and his refusal to give up despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles is inspiring. Through his struggles, the reader is reminded of the importance of never giving up and persevering through difficult times.

3. Beautifully Developed Characters

The characters in The Old Man and the Sea are beautifully developed, with complex and meaningful relationships with one another. Santiago’s friendship with Manolin is particularly touching, as is his deep respect for the sea and its inhabitants. Hemingway’s ability to create such richly drawn characters with such economy of language is a testament to his skill as a writer.


1. Repetitive Writing

While I appreciate the novel’s simplicity and Hemingway’s ability to convey powerful emotions with minimal language, I did find the story to be somewhat repetitive at times. There are several instances in which Hemingway reiterates the same ideas or phrases, and while this can be effective in some instances, it can also be a bit tedious.

2. Dated Themes

Additionally, some of the novel’s themes, such as the relationship between humans and nature, are not particularly unique or groundbreaking. While I understand that the novel was groundbreaking in its time, I found that some of its ideas and themes felt a bit dated when I read it.

3. Abrupt Ending

Finally, while I appreciated the novel’s ending, I found it to be somewhat abrupt and felt that it could have been a bit more fully developed. Despite these minor criticisms, however, I still believe that The Old Man and the Sea is a classic and enduring work of literature that deserves its place in the canon of American literature.


The Old Man and the Sea is a timeless tale of bravery and resilience in the face of adversity. Hemingway’s simple yet powerful writing style, combined with his exploration of universal themes, has made the novel a beloved classic that continues to captivate readers more than sixty years after its initial publication.

The Old Man and the Sea’s universal appeal lies in its ability to resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds.

The novel’s themes of bravery, perseverance, and resilience are timeless and have relevance in today’s world. Hemingway’s writing style is accessible, and his characters are relatable, making the novel accessible to a wide range of readers.

The Old Man and the Sea is a literary masterpiece that has left an indelible mark on American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and in 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his contribution to the literary world. The novel has been adapted into several films, plays, and even an opera, further cementing its place in popular culture.

About The Author

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was a famous writer who had an adventurous life. He was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, where he was injured. Hemingway was very brave and even received a decoration for his bravery.

During the 1920s, Hemingway lived in Paris, and in the 1930s, he moved to Key West. Later, he lived in Cuba from 1940 to 1959. In 1937, Hemingway traveled to Spain to report on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War for a newspaper syndicate.

Hemingway got married four times and had three sons. He lived life to the fullest and was not content with being seen as just a “man of letters.” Some of his other major works include The Sun Also Rises (1926), To Have and Have Not (1937), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

After his death, more of his works were published, such as A Moveable Feast (1964), Islands in the Stream (1970), The Dangerous Summer (1985), and The Garden of Eden (1986). In 1954, Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, which is a very prestigious award for writers.

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