The significance of nature in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Seminar Paper, 2000

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel “The Old Man and the Sea“ tells the story of Santiago (“the old man“), a poor fisherman who lives somewhere in the tropic sea near Havana. For 48 days he hadn’t caught a fish and his apprentice, a boy called Manolin who sailed with him, changed to another boat so the old man is completely alone. One day he catches a very big fish and has a three day long struggle with it until he finally kills it. He ties it on the side of his boat but since the fish has lost much blood many sharks are attracted and attack it. In the end Santiago reaches the harbour after a fierce fight with nothing but the bones of his catch.

Nature plays a very huge part in the novel since the setting is the sea and the fish is Santiago’s counterpart. In this essay the significance of nature as it is presented in the novel is analyzed. There are two possible ways to look at nature in “The Old Man and the Sea.“ It can be seen as “itself“ when we just look at how it is described and how Santiago’s relation to this nature (e.g. his environment, the animals that surround him etc.) looks like. On the other side nature can be interpreted as a symbol.

When talking about the nature in “The Old Man and the Sea“ it is quite obvious to first of all have a look how this nature is presented in the novel.

The environment of the fisherman Santiago seems to be at first sight something completely ordered and in perfect harmony. In Santiago’s “world“ everything is in its place. [1] There’s the sea with its creatures in it, the birds, the sun, the moon, the stars etc. The relation between the animals and Santiago is more like a friendship. We can see that e.g. on page 45 of the book where a little bird comes round to Santiago’s skiff.

A small bird came toward the skiff from the north. He was a warbler and flying very low over the water. The old man could see that he was very tired. The bird made the stern of the boat and rested there. Then he flew around the old man’s head and rested on the line where he was more comfortable. ‘How old are you?’ the old man asked the bird. ‘Is this your first trip?’ The bird looked at him when he spoke.

It looks like the old man feels pity for the little bird. He talks to him like if he really could understand. This shows that the animals, especially the fish like we see later in the novel, are like fellow-sufferers to Santiago. In his “world“ every element is somehow united in harmony or love almost. He feels for the bird like he feels for any other creature he “meets“ during his time on the sea. He calls the flying fish “his principal friends on the ocean“ (p. 22), and he’s sorry for the turtles that are killed by other fishermen from other boats.

He had no mysticism about turtles although he had gone in turtle boats for many years. He was sorry for them all, even the great trunk-backs that were as long as the skiff and weighed a ton. Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs. (p. 29)

Here one clearly sees that the old man is not like “most people“ who have no feelings for animals and think of them to be minor or less worthy than a human being. We get the impression that Santiago really is nothing more or less than one of the creatures in the sea. It can also be seen that every element (including Santiago) is combined in a unity.

In this context it is interesting to see that Santiago wonders “what the sea looks like from [...]“ (p. 60) inside an aeroplane. One really gets the impression here that he is like the fish in the sea that aren’t able to view the sea from such a distance. The old man and the sea are in that moment like one thing that can’t be disunited.

We can also say that the old man totally depends on the nature because it provides his livelihood. From this point of view nature can be called a living donor.

There’s of course not only this positive image of nature. It can be destructive and hostile as well. Certainly it’s not always a pleasure rowing on the ocean in search of fish. The nature that seems to be so peaceful at first sight is also sometimes like an enemy. When we just look at the first page of “The Old Man and the Sea“ we see that nature brings misfortune. Santiago “[...] fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days [...] without taking a fish.“ (p. 5) It becomes clear that man, even though he’s a part of nature, is sometimes totally inferior to it. Because of his experience we can’t assume that Santiago is a bad fisherman; being “unlucky“ (p. 5) just shows us that you can never rely on your skills when you’re in the nature. You never know what happens, and therefore Santiago’s destiny is closely connected to the “tempers“ of his environment. The cruelty that goes along with nature from time to time is shown when the old man’s outer appearance is described. His whole body shows signs of the destructiveness of nature. The sun assailed his skin, leaving “[...] brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer [...]“ on him. His “[...] deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords“ (p. 5) somehow witness the long struggle Santiago had with nature. Of course there are also the sharks that take away the old man’s catch in the end. It looks like nature takes away what it gives. The sharks too are a part of this unity; here they represent the destructive force of nature. Destruction and creation are closely connected to each other and are both a part of this nature.

This shows a clear ambiguity. Every element of this nature is united in harmony, but at the same time there is this fight among the creatures. We see this also in Santiago’s compassion for the fish. The whole situation is ambivalent because the old man’s feelings are conflicting. We already found out that he is sorry for the bird or the turtles, but his feelings for the marlin are different - they seem to be bigger. The fish is, unlike the little bird e.g., a total match for Santiago. It is extremely big and powerful so that the old man has a three day long struggle with it. The fish is actually larger than the boat. After having swallowed the bait the marlin begins to tow the skiff toward the nothwest which is (in the Gulf above Havana) against the current! Both Santiago and the fish now try to hold out; the marlin as he tows the skiff, the old man as he hold the fish with the line. His hands even start to bleed. The fish and the man are now connected through the line. They just have to wait that one of the two loses strenght. Both probably have the same thought: They must endure until the other one gives up. This thought can be seen clearly on page 79 where Santiago thinks: “Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man. Or a fish, he thought.“ This makes the two of them very equal. Here again the reader gets the impression that Santiago is just like any other creature in nature or even thinks of the fish as a human being.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity. I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

In this passage of the book one thing becomes clear: not only the fish and men are equal in Santiago’s eyes, but also all other elements that are united in nature. Even the stars are his “brothers“ (p. 65).

It’s like everything has a fixed role to play in this “community.“ Santiago’s role is to overwhelm the marlin; the marlin’s role is to ecape the old man; the bird (p. 27) has to catch the fish to survive, but he has no chance because the “[...] flying fish are too big for him and they go too fast.“ It’s the principle of hunting and being hunted. The smaller one is always inferior to the bigger one. Santiago later experiences this principle when the stronger creatures (the sharks) attack and take away his catch.

One critic wrote: “A sense of brotherhood and love, in a world in which everyone is killing or being killed, binds together the creatures of nature, establishes between them a unity and an emotion which transcends the destructive pattern in which they are caught.“[2] All contestants in the novel are related to survival, they are all in search of food.

Another aspect of nature as it is described in „The old Man and the Sea“ is its changelessness. The boats go out to the sea, the sun rises (“[...] it rises always and sets and rises again without change of rhythm“[3] ), the fishermen catch their fish, they row back to the land, the sun sets. It’s like a routine that is repeated endlessly. Changeless is also what describes Santiago’s life the best way: Fishing is probably the only thing he ever learned and the only thing he has done his whole life long. It can be assumed that the old man starts fishing again as soon as he recovers from the strains on the sea. And since the ocean is unchanged for centuries this changelessness is represented in the sea itself.

In this context it’s interesting to see how Santiago’s behaviour as a part of this nature or in this nature looks like. We already saw that there is a unity between each element, and in this unity a sense of brotherhood. But how is the old man actually presented as an element in this unity? We can see that Santiago gained a lot of experience during his lifelong sojourn on the ocean.

In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away in the darkness. (p. 22)

Here we learn that he knows the sea very well. Even at night, in absolute darkness, he knows which animals surround him; feeling the morning coming certainly tells us that Santiago is really close with nature. As a result of that he is able to read the signs of nature. The birds e.g. give him a hint where exactly fish can be found (p. 30): “Now the old man looked up and saw that the bird was circling again. ‘He’s found fish,’ he said aloud.“ The fish are actually a very good help. They can be called his guides:

As he watched the bird dipped again slanting his wings for the dive and then swinging them wildly and ineffectually as he followed the flying fish. The old man could see the slight bulge in the water that the big dolphin raised as they followed the escaping fish. [...] He watched the flying fish burst out again and again and the ineffectual movements of the bird. [...] But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. (p. 27)

Also the stars are a help, especially to find the way: “Once he stood up and urinated over the side of the skiff and looked at the stars and checked his course.“ (pp. 38/39) Even in the darkness he doesn’t feel lost. He’s alone in a hostile element (hostile at least to most people) but doesn’t show any sign of fear. He can rely on nature.

A lot of analysts looked at “The Old Man and the Sea“ in terms of symbolism. I think especially the Christian symbolism is evident. If you just take the scene where Santiago returns to the shack you come across many symbols related to Christ. Some Christian symbols can be found in the description of nature as well (I’ll come to that later). Since the topic of this essay is the significance of nature I now try to point out some of the symbolic features of nature as it is presented in the novel. It is obvious to first of all have a look at the sea. It is the most important element in the novel. You just have to see that the title of the book is “The Old Man and the Sea“ and not “The Old Man and the Fish“ or anything like that. I think this is pretty interesting. Why did Hemingway choose that title for the novel? Since the story is all about a three-day long struggle with a marlin the title isn’t that evident. So then the sea must be a very important component in the novel. First of all we must say that the sea is the biggest “thing“ (both in type and in area) that we have on earth. It takes up 71% of the earth’s surface. Because of that someone who is out on the sea easily gets a feeling of being lost or at least being much smaller than the mighty sea. It must be called a hostile element as the human being is a creature that is originally living on the land. The land is our “home“ but the sea was always something frightning, unfathomable and mysterious. Consequently, the sea is in fiction often used as a symbol of life. A journey on the sea is like a symbolic journey through life. The participants experience life with all accompanying things just like Santiago on the sea. The ocean in “The Old Man and the Sea“ certainly symbolizes life itself and the role the individuals play in life. At the pages 21/22 we get an idea of how Hemingway’s personal view of life looks like:

But most of the boats were silent except for the dip of the oars. They spread apart after they were out of the mouth of the harbour and each one headed for the part of the ocean where he hoped to find fish. The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean.

The boats on the sea represent the people in real life. There are two kinds of people: those who have an active part in life and those who are merely observers of it and are very passive. Some boats are silent and paddle in the sea within the area where they know to be safe. They don’t test their boundaries. Boats represent journey and often adventure or exploration as well. Those who don’t go out far can’t explore life thoroughly and gain less experience. Others like the old man again see their life as a challenge. They go far out and risk their life. There are no boundaries that can stop them; they go where they want to go and not where the ocean wants to take them. Santiago shows no fear. He isn’t like the other boats that stay within the surrounding they know best. We find this idea of challenge on page 13:

‘Keep warm old man,’ the boy said. ‘Remember we are in September.’ ‘The month when the great fish come,’ the old man said. ‘Anyone can be a fisherman in May.’

Fishing in May doesn’t mean much to him, but September is the month he likes to be at the sea. This time he is able to challenge himself with the “great fish.“ People who don’t dare anything can’t lose anything. The old man dares a lot and he loses a lot. Even though he can’t be called a loser because he gains more strength and knowledge than other fishermen each day he is challenging himself. Santiago is able to read the signs of nature only because of his lifelong experience on the sea.

If there is a hurricane you always see the signs of it in the sky for days ahead, if you are at sea. They do not see it ashore because they do not know what to look for, he thought. (p. 51)

This shows us that there are unexpected occurrences in life. Those who live their life to the fullest (like Santiago) will be the least affected by these storms because they have the strength and the experience to handle them. The people on the land will be destroyed. They don’t have the power to handle the destruction the storms cause. This fact tells us that those who know the sea well are superior to those on the land who can’t read the signs of nature in the sky.

It is possible that the birds (p. 22) symbolize certain people, too. They could represent the weak and less experienced people who easily get lost on their journey through life. “Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?“ (p. 23) Getting lost here means being “swallowed“ by the ocean; in real life it could also symbolize death or failure of a person. Santiago is strong and skilled, life can’t be any harm to him anymore. But certain people (e.g. children) with few experience can be “destroyed“ more easily.

The stars can be interpreted as Santiago’s guides through life. “Once he stood up and urinated over the side of the skiff and looked at the stars and checked his course.“ (pp. 38/39) In this scene two contradicting actions are brought together: Santiago is doing something physical (urinating) and spiritual at the same time. Looking at the stars and checking the course can symbolize taking a look at one’s life, especially when a sea journey is representing a life journey. The human being (its physical and spiritual nature) is here represented in the person of Santiago.

The sea is besides that considered as the mother of life. The ocean is the beginning of life on earth; life originates from the sea. The fishermen in their boats profit by it and supply the people ashore with the fish that is provided by the ocean. Therefore both the ship and the sea symbolize fertility. In Santiago’s “world“ the sea is considered a woman. This opinion goes along with the idea that the sea is the mother of life.

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motor-boats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great flavours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. (p. 23)

Here we realize that two attributes are combined in one and the same element: the sea is masculine (to the young fishermen) as well as feminine (to the old men like Santiago). When the sea is dangerous and destructive the men feel like being challenged by the sea in a competition or fight. Then they think of the ocean as a man. Those who love it and don’t think of it as an enemy say it is feminine. Since the old man regards the sea as a woman he loves he compares the movement of the sea with a sexual act: “Just before it was dark, as they passed a great island of Sargasso weed that heaved and swung in the light sea as though the ocean were making love with something under a yellow blanket [...].“ (p. 61) The sexual intercourse is as well presented in the killing of the fish:

The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then he pushed all his weight after it. (p. 80)

The idea of the sea being a woman or mother was taken into consideration by a critic who wrote about the relationship between the old man and the boy Manolin. He saw the two of them (Santiago represents the father and Manolin the son) united with the “mother“ like in a family:

The complete professional is able to unite in harmony, for the first time in Hemingway’s fiction, father, mother (sea), and son (boy). [...] The mother is destroyed as a figure and made primarily passive and receptive (although she is potentionally dangerous, the professional can deal with her), and the son is made literally into a student who is able to give, without reservation, devotion and admiration to the father. [...] the father is made worthy by the boy (“I wish the boy were here“) [...][4]

The symbol fish and the symbol water are both connected in life. Both symbols are related to Christianity. The following sentence which can be found on page 75 of the novel reminds me of baptism: “He lifted some sea water with his left hand and put it on his head.“ Washing his hands in water (page 47: “[...] he washed his hand in the ocean [...]“) can symbolize purification. The fish is even more connected with Christianity since it symbolizes Jesus Christ. We can read in the Bible that Jesus told Peter (the first apostle), a fisherman by trade, that he would become a “fisher of men“ if he were to follow Christ. “San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio.“ (p. 90)

A very important part in the book is Santiago’s dream about the lions. Since that dream is mentioned so often it must have a relevant influence on the story, and this must be the reason why we can interpret it in so many different ways. It is obvious that the lions can be seen as a symbol as well, mainly because a dream is always symbolic. The dream gives us an idea of how Santiago sees his part in life. The first time the dream is mentioned on the pages 18/19. One day he falls asleep and dreams of Africa and lions on a beach that play “[...] like young cats in the dusk [...].“ This is pretty odd because normally you won’t expect to find any lions on a beach. Besides that they don’t behave like we would expect them to behave. They are more like cats than like predacious animals. Thus they could represent the violent forces of nature tamed, which is of course only an ideal but impossible in nature. The lions could also be Santiago when he was a young man and in possession of more strength. This is quite obvious because a lion symbolizes strenght and courage. Since the lions in Santiago’s dream are found on the beach (a place where those creatures normally wouldn’t go) they probably represent the same sort of people like the boats that go “too far out“ on the sea. The people in life who are very passive and don’t test their boundaries are also represented by the tourists at the end of the novel.

That afternoon there was a party of tourists at the Terrace and looking down in the water among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas a woman saw a great long white spine with a huge tail at the end that lifted and swung with the tide while the east wind blew a heavy steady sea outside the entrance to the harbour. ‘What’s that?’ she asked a waiter and pointed to the long backbone of the great fish that was now just garbage waiting to go out with the tide. ‘Tiburon,’ the waiter said, ‘Eshark.’ He was meaning to explain what had happened. ‘I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails.’ ‘I didn’t either,’ her male companion said. (p. 109)

They don’t comprehend what they see. They live their life as tourists observing things but not perceiving it thoroughly. Like other people ashore they aren’t able or don’t dare to examine the mystery of the ocean or - since the sea is a symbol - of life.

The lions go where other lions wouldn’t dare to go. They are testing their boundaries and see how far they can go just like the old man when he caught the marlin. But since Santiago is slowly losing the ability to have an actice part in life because of his age, he only can continue being strong and adventurous in his dreams. He sort of is living through the lions. After the long struggle he is returning home as a battered man. “The boy saw that the old man was breathing and then he saw the old man’s hands and he started to cry. He went out very quietly to go to bring some coffee and all the way down the road he was crying.“ (p. 105) Still we can’t say the old man is defeated. In his mind he stayed undefeated. The very last sentence of “The Old Man and the Sea“ tells us: “The old man was dreaming about the lions.“ This shows that he is the same person as before. To him “every day is a new day.“ (p. 25) He just doesn’t give up and tries to make the best out of bad situations.

In summary it must be said that there are two possible ways to look at how nature is presented in “The old Man and the Sea.“ On the first sight there’s the nature “as itself“: the author tells the story of an old fisherman catching a big marlin. Hemingway describes the relation between the main character and the fish. We get an impression of how Santiago’s environment looks like and “learn“ about the struggles a man experiences on the ocean. There he is told about the often destructive forces of nature as well as the “friendly“ side of it. Santiago and the fish turn out to be quite equal, they have the same “aim“ - both try to survive. Besides that we could see that Santiago is a very experienced fisherman; he for example is able to read the “signs of nature.“ On the other hand side nature can be seen as a symbol. If we interpret the novel in terms of symbolism we come to the conclusion that life is represented in the story and the part people play in it. Life is symbolized by the sea; the boats and the lions symbolize the people in real life. Two types of people can be found: those who are active, adventurous and challenge themselves, and those who are passive, anxious and don’t dare anything.

The character of Santiago hints at Hemingway’s own view of life. It can be assumed that he prefered the way the old man lived his life. Hemingway himself was very adventurous. He was involved with bullfighting and deep-sea fishing and he also fought in the Spanish Civil War. His writings reflect those experiences. Through his novels the readers gain an understanding of Hemingway’s life and their own. Hemingway challenges the readers to take risks and, in other words, dare them to go out to sea and catch their own marlin.


Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. London: Arrow Books, 1993

Benson, Jackson J. Hemigway - The Writer’s Art of Self-Defense. Minneapolis: University

of Minnesota Press, 1969, pp. 124-185

Gurko, Leo. Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell

Company, 1968, pp. 159-174

Portas, Allison. Dictionary of Symbolism. June 2000.



[1] Benson, Jackson J. Hemingway - The Writer’s Art of Self-Defense. Minneapolis: 1969, p. 171

[2] Gurko, Leo. Ernest Hemingway and the Pursuit of Heroism. New York: 1968, p. 162

[3] ibid., p. 160

[4] Benson, p. 177

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The significance of nature in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik an der RWTH Aachen)
American Modernist Fiction
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ISBN (eBook)
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Ernest, Hemingway, American, Modernist, Fiction
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M.A. Anke Wartenberg (Author), 2000, The significance of nature in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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