Themes in the Old Man and the Sea

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A commonplace among literary authorities is that a work of truly great literature invites reading on multiple levels or re-reading at various stages in the reader's life. At each of these readings, the enduring work presumably yields extended interpretations and expanded meanings. Certainly, The Old Man and the Sea fits that description. The novella invites, even demands, reading on multiple levels.

For example, readers can receive the novella as an engaging and realistic story of Santiago, the old man; Manolin, the young man who loves him; and Santiago's last and greatest battle with a giant marlin. Indeed, Hemingway himself insisted that the story was about a real man and a real fish. Critics have pointed to Hemingway's earlier essay — which mentions a presumably real fisherman who travels far out to sea in a small boat, catches a great fish, and then loses it to sharks — as the seed from which the novella springs.

However, the novella also clearly fits into the category of allegory — a story with a surface meaning and one or more under-the-surface meanings; a narrative form so ancient and natural to the human mind as to be universal; a form found in pagan mythology, in both Testaments of the Bible, and in Classical to Post-Modern literature. Likewise, the characters become much more than themselves or even types — they become archetypes (universal representations inherited from the collective consciousness of our ancestors and the fundamental facts of human existence).

From this perspective, Santiago is mentor, spiritual father, old man, or old age; and Manolin is pupil, son, boy, or youth. Santiago is the great fisherman and Manolin his apprentice — both dedicated to fishing as a way of life that they were born to and a calling that is spiritually enriching and part of the organic whole of the natural world. Santiago, as the greatest of such fishermen and the embodiment of their philosophy, becomes a solitary human representative to the natural...
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