Lessons in Manliness from The Old Man and the Sea

by Bryan Schatz on July 12, 2011 · 53 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

“Que va,” the boy said, “It is what a man must do.”

“Success” is all too often assumed to be the indicator of the value of a man. But success, in and of itself, merely speaks to a particular status and may have nothing to do with the journey that the man took to get there, or whether or not he retained his integrity along the way. Among the many aspects of the story, it is the idea of redefining success and victory that makes The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway’s classic novella, so profound.

It is a seemingly simple story: Santiago is an old, experienced fisherman who hasn’t brought in a catch for months. On the 85th day of this dry spell, he heads far out into the Gulf of Mexico where he hooks a giant marlin. Unable to pull the fish into his skiff, he holds onto the line for three days before killing it with a harpoon. After lashing the fish to his boat, Santiago heads home with his hard-won prize. But along the way, sharks reduce the fish to bones, and the old man returns to port as he left–empty-handed.

Yes, a simple story on the surface, but also a tale with a much deeper message and a relevance that transcends time and place. It speaks to the universal truths of a man’s existence within this world, where pride, respect, tenacity, and dreams fuel a man in his quest to thrive in the face of struggle. It is a story about the indomitable spirit of man; Santiago stands as a symbol of an attitude toward life, and his fight with the mighty marlin offers numerous lessons to all men.

Lessons in Manliness from The Old Man and the Sea

“A man is not made for defeat.”

Santiago has nothing but a broken-down shed and a rickety skiff with a sail that is “patched with flour sacks” and looks “like the flag of permanent defeat.” The skin of his gaunt body illustrates his hardships and is marked with deeply-set wrinkles, scars, and blotches from the punishing sun. And because of his terrible misfortune, he is a pariah in his small fishing village.

But while nearly “everything about Santiago is old,” his eyes remain “the same color as the sea and are cheerful and undefeated.” Instead of throwing in the towel after 84 days of terrible luck, he sails farther out into the Gulf than he has gone before.

A man continues to do whatever he must do to the best of his ability, no matter what tribulations befall him. While challenges and setbacks can strip a man of all outward signs of success, still his spirit can remain undefeated. For it can will a man to never give up and to keep on trying.

Or as Hemingway puts it: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

A man does not depend on luck.

Luck plays a major role in the story and in our everyday lives, and to a superstitious lot like fishermen, poor luck can seem paralyzing. In Santiago’s little Cuban fishing village he is labeled “salao, which is the worst form of unlucky,” after having gone eighty-four days without taking a single fish.

This makes him a outsider among his peers, and it costs him his trusty partner, the boy Manolin, whose parents forbid him from fishing with the old man. While Santiago deals with the suffering of being hungry and poor, other boats from his village continue pulling in good fish every day.

Anyone can have luck of course, but not everyone one can have determination, skill, and perseverance. Santiago knows this and therefore believes in his ability rather than chance. “To hell with luck,” he thinks. “I’ll bring the luck with me.”

He does this by not taking any shortcuts in his work. He keeps his fishing lines straighter than anyone, and he makes sure that, “at each level…there [will] be a bait waiting exactly where he wishes it to be for any fish that swim there.” Santiago keeps his lines with precision, and he is ready for whatever comes.

We cannot attain success simply by waiting for good things to happen. It is when we strive forward towards a goal that we open ourselves up to opportunity. As Santiago muses, “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when the luck comes you are ready.”

A man bears pain and hardship without complaint.

“He was shivering with the morning cold. But he knew he would shiver himself warm and that soon he would be rowing.”

Whether it’s something as trivial as being cold or as significant as skirting along the borders of death, a man simply does what must be done, without self-pity and without complaint. Santiago does not whine about hunger pains or thirst, nor does he mope about the fishing line that cuts into his hands.

Out at sea, far beyond the other boats, Santiago is presented with the greatest challenge of his life. It comes in the form of an eighteen-foot marlin and makes for a long, long battle that spans days. Near the edge of his exhaustion, Santiago’s hand is cut deeply and cramps up “as tight as the gripped claws of an eagle.” He washes the cut in the salt water and lets it dry and warm in the sun. But the hand refuses him and he is forced to work with his right hand alone, against the powerful fish that is two feet longer than his own skiff. Drained, Santiago “settles against the wood” and simplytakes his suffering as it comes. He is comfortable but suffering, although he does not admit the suffering at all.”

A man does not boast.

The quality of a man is best seen through his actions, and developing humility is a key ingredient in letting our actions do the talking for us. Santiago is given plenty opportunity to boast during a conversation with his young friend, Manolin, but he does not.

Manolin asks, “Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?”

“I think they are equal.”

“And the best fisherman is you.”

“No. I know others better.”

“Que va,” the boy says, “There are many good fishermen and some great ones, but there is only you.”

“Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.”

And it’s only because of Santiago’s determination that none do. Boasting only briefly satisfies insecurity. It leaves no lasting impression on the crowd who hears it.

A man finds inspiration from others.

“But I must have 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.”

For Santiago, it is “the great Joe DiMaggio” who inspires and motivates him. He possesses traits that Santiago admires, reminding him that to be successful you have to put all of yourself into a task and bear up under difficulty. Looking up to others–having heroes–provides us with examples to follow, the knowledge that others have overcome obstacles as well, and the assurance of the great possibilities of a man’s life.

A man goes down swinging–no matter his age.

Old age is a common excuse, and for certain things it is legitimate, but all too often it is used either where it has no place or before any effort has been made to prove the assumption wrong. When the sharks begin attacking Santiago’s marlin, at first he fears that he cannot defend himself because of his age, but before long, he gathers his tools to be used as weapons and does what he must. When he breaks the blade off his knife in the body of one shark, the fear sinks in again. “Now they have beaten me,” he thinks. “I am too old to club sharks to death. But I will try as long as I have the oars and the short club and the tiller.”

And many more sharks do come. He has to club and strike them with all of his strength. During the fight, the sun goes down and Santiago wonders, “What will you do now if they come in the night? What can you do?” He digs deep. “‘Fight them,” he says, “I’ll fight them until I die.”

Though the sharks do eventually tear Santiago’s marlin apart, they do not defeat him as a man, and he never gives up. Paddling in, he tastes blood in his mouth, so he spits into the ocean and says, “Eat that galanos. And make a dream you’ve killed a man.”

Every man has sharks that circle him; they gather when they smell the blood of real achievement. But you’re never too old to put up a fight.

A man’s legacy comes from maintaining his integrity.

Santiago drifts away from the pages of this story with exactly the same thing he had when it began: almost nothing. His catch does not bring him money nor “success,” but it does provide him with a legacy that will endure far beyond any monetary gain ever could have. For he retains his own integrity in the face of great challenge; he exhausts himself in a good fight. A man doesn’t quit.

What other lessons in manliness can be found in The Old Man and the Sea? Share them with us in the comments.

{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steve July 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I occasionally teach this book to my middle school students. This post will surely find its way into my class. Great piece!

2 Takeshi July 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Classic.

3 STRONGside July 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm

My wife hates this book, and I absolutely love it. I think it is because of the many many awesome examples and lessons in manliness that I picked up from the book. What a great post and thanks for bringing me back to one of my favorites!

4 Martin Redford July 12, 2011 at 5:14 pm

A recent study has found that it is not intelligence which determines the “luck” of a man, but more importantly his self-discipline. A man can be a genius, but if he lacks self-discipline he will most likely make it nowhere.

5 Steve July 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I have to confess that I have never read this book.

I will get hold of a copy soon though, it sounds well worth reading for several reasons.

6 Ellen July 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm

My father died last Tuesday. He was only 76, but when I read this, I thought of him because, throughout his life, he “fought the good fight.” He was never successful as the world defines it, but he certainly retained his integrity to the end. Thank you for reminding me just why I am and always will be proud of him. He was a true man, a good man. I just hope you inspire more guys to be manly like this too. He wouldn’t have wanted to be a dying breed.

7 Griff July 12, 2011 at 7:03 pm

This is truly an inspiration to all men.

8 Nick July 12, 2011 at 7:32 pm

Ive read a bunch of His short storys that are just fantastic. But i do need to finally pick up this book and read it. I have seen the old moive verson of it with Spencer Tracy. thats really the only reason i can relate the examples your giving from the book. But another great Post.

Thank YOU!

9 Joe Shmo July 12, 2011 at 7:44 pm

While I like a great deal of the articles on this site, this one wasn’t even worth a read. The Old Man and the Sea was nothing but an attempt to reestablish Hemingway’s reputation. It’s a book good for teaching, but the intrinsic value is fickle, and the Christ connection is sickeningly obvious.

10 Rich July 12, 2011 at 7:45 pm

That was great..

11 drifter July 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Well Joe Shmo, though you may be correct about the intentions of the book, I’d still chock it up to a matter of interpretation; however meaningless or trite a thing might be, it doesn’t stop people from finding meaning or attributing meaning to it.

12 Matt July 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm

What is worth teaching if the book has no intrinsic value? I would say the value is in what you get from the story, not the writer’s intentions. All the points about a man’s life that can be pulled from this simple story make it invaluable. Maybe Joe Shmo should read the post on cynicism.

13 Andrew July 12, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Great read! I’m a huge fan of Hemingway so I am glad to see an article focused on his work. Hemingway is a Real Man and a great author.

14 Patrick July 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm

This is a great piece. Hemingway is one of my favorite authors. I took a lot from “The Old Man and the Sea” the first time I read it, and it continues to be a source of inspiration in my life.

15 Tom July 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Absolutely loved this book. What a great post for this country today when so many men are looking for work.

16 Hal July 13, 2011 at 5:41 am

I first read this book more than 40 years ago. Some people see only the surface of a story like this, or they don’t like something about the author. Hemingway and machoism are are synonymous with evil to many people, especially women.
Like the poem “If” this is a fine book to read and reread to learn how to be a man.

17 David Y July 13, 2011 at 9:22 am

I recently started reading and re-reading some of the great American classics. Will need to add this to the list. It’s been too many years since I first read it.

Steve (#1). It’s good to know there are teachers still exposing students to books like this.

18 Jared July 13, 2011 at 9:58 am

Excellent post! And also from Santiago, don’t forget to take your fish oil. It’s good for the heart.

19 Mato Tope July 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm

What a fantastic, inspiring article.
I’ve read The Old Man and The Sea a few times over the years and the line that sums it all up for me is;

“Pain means nothing to a man.”

Nancy Spain writing for the Daily Mail said of the book;

“That Ernest Hemingway is able to convince me that Santiago’s battle is not in vain; that there are other powers in the world besides fear and greed; that every form of life has its own dignity and beauty, is his strength and importance as a writer.
For one does not need to be a tuna fisherman to appreciate the true glory of this little masterpiece.”

I second that emotion.

20 jblykins July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

This is a great article. As a man fast approaching 60 and having been unemployed for several months (hell, almost two years!), I have been trying not to just give up. Then I read Bryan’s line: “You’re never too old to put up a fight.” What a great thought! I made a poster of it and hung it on my wall to remind me. Thanks, Bryan!

21 Josh July 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Thanks for the article! a great reminder of what makes this novella so great. Out of all the Hemingway stories I have read, this made the biggest impact of me. I can’t really put it into words but there is a profound humbleness, simplicity and dignity of it that deeply moved me – much more than his novels (although I enjoyed them). After reading, it felt like a whole lifetime had washed over me. And now those feelings come flooding back!

(IMO I feel that this and the Nick Adams short-stories show Hemingway at his best)

22 Michael Vu July 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm

How can you not like this book? Or value the lessons in this simple read?

Love the book, and highly recommend it.

23 Mike D July 13, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Bravo.

24 Yousuf Mehmood July 13, 2011 at 2:26 pm

As I have learned throughout life and in The Old Man and The Sea, it’s the struggle that makes the victory sweet and the defeat bitter, but it is also the struggle that you retain most of all

25 CRM July 13, 2011 at 4:04 pm

I remember reading Old Man and the Sea when back in high school and of course also seeing the film. (classic). Many lessons and one thing i will always remember taking from it. “never give up”

26 BenG July 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Great post! There are really some great takeaways here. I’d point out though, that pain is an important feedback from our body and our spirit(in the case of emotional pain) and you “ignore” it at your own peril. We should never be afraid of pain, but it is best thought of as a message to be responded to. Emotional pain ignored can lead to a lifetime of bad habits and decisions compensating for a hurt that we carry with us and reinflict on others–not manly at all. Physical pain ignored could very well be more serious than something to just muscle through. As men we are highly susceptible to the macho factor, and it helps us sometimes, but can be a serious liability. I’m a big fan of Hemmingway as a writer, but I think he truly failed as a man, cheating on and divorcing his wives and ending his life with a shotgun with myriad broken relationships including with his own mother, deeply gynophobic, drunk, and ultimately a slave to his own pride. If he had paid more attention to some of the emotional pain he had been dealt early in life, he may have had a different story. Great writer though–truly gifted.

27 Al No July 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I too had a strong reaction to this article but in the opposite direction. This story has always reminded me of one of the worst traits of men. Continue doing something because it is what you’ve always done and it is the label you have pasted on your forehead. Continue to do the same thing in the same way and expect a different result, even though you’ve been doing it and getting the same bad result for 80+ days now. Refuse to believe that the poor result you are getting is anything to do with you, even though others are doing the same task and getting good results. There is no intrinsic dignity in suffering. Overcoming hardship is admirable, but only if you prove the wisdom of your course of action by being successful in the end. If not you can replace tenacious with stubborn, stoic with suffering silently for a long time for no good reason or result. There is an idea that being poor is more righteous than being wealthy and that being wealthy is synonymous with evil. If you make suffering your goal, you will find it.
Thanks for another interesting article, I hope it is acceptable on this site to express a different opinion to the majority of posters.

28 Dave July 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm

I remember having to read this book in middle school. I hated it, and it turned me off of Hemingway for a very long time.
The whole time I remember reading the book thinking “Why doesnt he just quit and find something else to do?”
I still hate this book.

29 Ryan July 13, 2011 at 5:11 pm

“On the ashes of the dream, that’s where I’ll build it. If only to remember the foolishness of that first attempt spurred on by ignorance and conceit”

-Leonard Maxwell

30 Ryan July 14, 2011 at 1:29 am

You’ve left out another meaning, or theme, of this story.

The marlin is the book, a piece of art hard fought and hard won. The sharks are the critics who tear it apart without understanding its worth. Hemingway was attacking what had been attacking him. Not only critics, but the public who didn’t understand his work, or who envied it and defamed it because of their envy.

But I agree with your interpretations here. I’ve always seen it as a message to men, and to humanity at large. Which is why it led, finally, to Hemingway’s greatest prize.

31 Dave July 14, 2011 at 7:33 am

I read this book at least once every couple of years and it reminds me of how soft the average man has become. Bitching, whining and complaining rule the day. Excuses substitute for decisive actions. And where has all the grit gone? Santiago’s only alternative was to throw himself on the mercy of the people of the town. He couldn’t “change direction” or “reinvent himself”, he was dirt poor, not upwardly mobile. The world has come to the point where many need to actively seek hardship, rather than having it imposed upon them. Imagine that, making an effort not to be comfortable. Welcome to the age of the Marshmallow Man.

32 Daktari Frank July 14, 2011 at 3:46 pm

This is a great book, deeply inspiring. I differ on one point: the old man should have asked the other fishermen what they did get the fish. But then i realise that the story will be different and thereby not accord us the great lessons we draw from it.

33 Ryan July 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Well done. Two more thoughts come to mind. Santiago is a kind sage to the boy. He doesn’t try to be wise or eloquent but he engages the boy, respects him, sets an example for him. I remember first reading this story as a boy and wishing I knew an old man who would talk to me like Santiago. Not only did Santiago look up to his own heroes, he served as an unwilling hero himself.
For the second point, I should do more research but I remember several references to Christ in the story. I don’t know (and actually doubt) if Hemingway intended them. The one that comes to mind is the image of Santiago returning home, carrying his mast uphill across his back like a cross, bleeding and tired. As for what messages such images convey, I’ll leave that to future discussion.

34 Ng July 14, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Truly inspiring…

Does anyone know where to get artwork or poster like the image? I googled and couldn’t find anything.

35 Cory July 14, 2011 at 11:03 pm

This is my favorite book of all time. I read it in one sitting on the evening it was assigned by my high school literature teacher. The most amazing thing to me was that it never let up. There were no chapter breaks, no clear points to rest. At the end I was astonished to realize that Hemmingway was able to project, even in a fraction of the degree, Santiago’s fatigue upon the reader.

I would almost disagree, however, with your last observation. It seems that you make Santiago’s experience a great defining moment in his life through which he perseveres and therefore attains this legacy. I think the message is that his legacy was already there. He didn’t gain anything from the experience because it was just another fish to him and he was simply doing what he always did. The value therefore is how a glimpse into a single demonstrative moment of Santiago’s already present legacy can affect Manolin (and by extension, the reader).

Thank you for your thoughts. I am excited to read through some of your other suggestions.

36 Chris July 17, 2011 at 7:43 am

Ernest Hemingway is like several things in my life, one of which is the movie “Fight Club.” The man, his works, and that movie relate to each other in this way; what I said to my father when he asked me about the new poster (of Fight Club) on my wall, if I liked the movie. I said: “It’s not a question of like or dislike. It’s a question of truth. It… has truth, and some lies, in it, that I appreciate.” Hemingway’s writings are often like this for me. Hemingway, for all his faults, is an excellent writer– just one I choose not to read voluntarily unless seeking something specific for writing purposes. (I write, and sometimes need references, just like in any other art.)
And the movie? Oh, it’s psychotic. Possibly in a bad way, not in a good way! XD
Thank you for your article!

37 Allen Uribes July 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

I would definitely like to read this book for the summer is over.

Thanks for sharing.

38 Christopher July 29, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Ng, I found the original source of the image, it is a painting called ‘The Old Man Sees The Marlin’, and is by an artist called Kay Smith.

http://www.kaysmithartist.com/Hemingway.htm

I actually found it by clicking and dragging the image into the Google Image search bar. Not many people know you can do this now, but it really is so useful!

Also, loved this article. Hemingway is one of my favourite writers, and this story, and the lessons it can teach us, are nigh on perfect.

39 pramod deep November 30, 2012 at 12:45 am

the simple thing that can be understand from the novel is that an inspiration which says we should not subdue ourselves till the end and at the same time it speaks of the supremacy of humanbeing and its power

40 Indushni Naidoo March 28, 2013 at 2:52 pm

My dad passed away on 21/03/13. My dad used to talk about the old man and the sea but we never took any notice. Now after reading this article, I realize that the book was symbolic of my dad’s life too. I will definitely read the book. My dad (aged 63) was an old man whose ashes we took to the sea

41 Gunajit Baruah April 30, 2013 at 4:29 am

This book was in our B.A. syllabus which really inspired me and whenever I feel disgraced from my aim I re-read some of Santiago’s speeches.

42 Pat July 10, 2013 at 11:17 pm

Guess I should have actually “read” this one in HS.

43 ALEEM July 18, 2013 at 6:16 pm

This is really an inspirational story written from a part of his life. i would rather say, whatever he experienced, is an also achievement and shared in the form of story. well written, further more, luck can be brought through hardship. i must appreciate hemming ways , not because of lesson, but because of his courage and patiences :)

44 Kory August 2, 2013 at 5:59 pm

One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. It proves that no matter how much we struggle for worldly gains, in the end it is just you and your integrity and if you have sacrificed that, you have nothing.

45 Santiago August 12, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I think this book has taught us so much about struggling and fighting and keep moving; in this link you can see a beautiful design inspired by the book! take a look please! :)

http://www.behance.net/gallery/Marlin/10350949

46 Randy Flickinger August 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I read this book as a Sophomore in high school. The lessons and meaning of this book never left me. One of the best books I ever read! You could not help but feel the pain and struggle that Santiago went thru. That, to me, is a good book. Hemmingway brought me into the story through reading it. Thanks for this article, it was excellent.

47 Cameron Woodbury September 9, 2013 at 8:04 am

This book teachess wonderful lessons about life that we all need to know like perseverance and hard-work.

48 Jeyan Sam G September 25, 2013 at 10:02 am

Grace, while under pressure. That is the message of the book.

49 Max September 29, 2013 at 7:07 am

,,,AI NO… repeating the same thing over and over??? weston pepper #30 had he stopped at 29, Edison 6000 tries? had he stopped? and the old man didn’t “just do the same thing expecting different results, he went further out to sea. There is a difference to suffer just to suffer and suffering to achieve something bigger than what you are. As was quoted “a man can be beaten but not defeated”. Cool hand luke, is a good example. the old man did win in the end just did not reap financial rewards for his work. Being rich is not evil, Bill Gates is an example, so is Warren buffet they are both rich by living the examples in the story. Steve Jobs is another example, he had to start over several times. Great fortune is as much about luck as anything else, being prepared and working hard is the best form of luck there is.

50 palash gajbhiye February 10, 2014 at 8:58 am

what is meaning of line ‘came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water…’

51 Mr. Mystoffelees March 5, 2014 at 12:03 am

Being in the general age range of Santiago, I can feel this story as an allusion to aging and death.

I remember the young years, when being first, or fastest, or strongest was all important. We carried our pride in our physical prowess- that alone.

In the middle years, our combat shifted to racket ball, then to golf- but the urge to win was still there- tempered with the beginnings of wisdom born of experience.

In the autumn of life we are robbed of most of our earlier physical abilities. If we have not by then gained wisdom, essential to any form of enjoyment, we founder. Santiago is a wonderful example of how that wisdom can be our strength. How our savvy can be our ace in the hole. And, how our experience can provide judgement.

And, sadly, Mr. Hemmingway allows us to see that Santiago is about to have his last dance, one for which he is finally quite ready.

BTW, the meaning of the quote above is, I believe, literal. The fishing line, which has been relatively still, began to vibrate with the efforts of the marlin to escape death, and the line physically came out of the water due to that effort. The final fight for the fish had begun- and that fish would fight till the end, just as would Santiago.

52 Matthew March 14, 2014 at 5:53 pm

I think you covered the perseverance and integrity angles quite well, but the other angle on this story that I find very inspiring is the dignity with which the old man battles the marlin. How even though they are eachother’s enemy, he also deeply respects the marlin for being equally full of stubbornness and strength as the man is himself. At one point, he even admits that he respects it so much, that he wouldn’t even care anymore whether he kills the the marlin or it would kill him, for he has found his equal in honorableness.

To me, it means that even though all men have different opinions, goals, beliefs and/or priorities in life, some of which may very well conflict with one another (in the book this is symbolized by the fisherman and marlin both doing what they must do to survive), the most important thing for all men is the mutual aspiration of those honorable qualities described by the other aspects of the book like perseverance and integrity, and that we must respect other men when they have these qualities, even when we’re not on the same page as these men.

53 Mensuru mohammed April 7, 2014 at 1:35 pm

The book is a very nice book, you can learn so many things from the like man and nature how to use our to maintain so many things. A man must be patient in everything

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