Character of Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea

Character of Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea

Santiago Character Analysis


The Old Man of the title is a fisherman by trade. He bears the fitting name of Santiago. The word “Santiago” literally means Saint James who was originally a fisherman living close to the Sea of Galilee and subsequently became an apostle. Eventually he suffered martyrdom.

The Story of Santiago

Early one morning after months of bad fishing luck, he rows out alone into the Gulf Stream near the island of Cuba. Towards noon of the first day, he hooks a gigantic marlin. For two days and two nights it pulls him in his boat far northward and eastward while he hangs for dear life on to the heavy line, a human towing bitt, fighting a battle of endurance against the power of the fish. On the third day, again nearly at noon, he succeeds in bringing the marlin to the surface and killing it with his harpoon. Since it is too large to be put aboard, he lashes it alongside his skiff and sets his small, patched sail for the long voyage home. Then, one by one, two by two, and later in large numbers, the sharks attack the dead marlin. By the time the Old Man has reached his native harbour, there is nothing left of the marlin except the skeleton, the bony head, and the sail-like tail.

Santiago’s Moral Victory

The Old Man loses the battle he has won. The winner takes nothing but the sense of having fought the fight to the limits of his strength, of having shown what a man can do when it is necessary. He is undefeated only because he has gone on trying. Enemies break through Santiago’s lines of defence and take away his possession. As for Santiago himself, he has reached a condition of absolute physical exhaustion as well as an absolute but not abject humility. Both have cost him almost everything, which of course is the price one must always finally pay. Santiago’s victory is the moral victory of having persisted in his purpose without permanent damage to his belief in the worth of what he has been doing.

The Initial Portrait

The warmth of our sympathy can be traced in part to the way in which the portrait of Santiago himself has been drawn. “He was an old man,” the story begins, “who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

A Literary Immortal

Strictly speaking, the man Santiago is only a simple fisherman, like his namesake. But like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, another old man going about his lonely professional work, Santiago acquires a high dignity. In both cases an individual is singled out and presented in terms of a contest of endurance that seems to be symbolic of human life. Both Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer and Hemingway’s fisherman belong to the gallery of literary immortals.

Santiago and Jesus

Santiago bears a significant relationship to other characters in the Hemingway canon. Hemingway had felt interested in the proposition that there must be a resemblance between Jesus Christ in his human aspect as the Son of God and those countless thousands of men in the history of Christianity who belong to the category of “good men”, and may therefore be seen as disciples of Our Lord. The young priest in A Farewell to Arms is an early example. The old Spaniard Anselmo, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a later example, Santiago shows certain qualities of mind and heart which are clearly associated with the character and personality of Jesus Christ. There the essential gallantry, a kind of militant spirit. There is the stamina which helps in his determination to endure whatever is to come. There is the ability to ignore physical pain while concentrating on the larger object which is to be achieved.

Santiago’s Humility

Santiago’s humility is of that well-tested kind which can co-exist with pride. “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” When his own disciple, Manolin, calls him the best fisherman, Santiago replies:

“No, I know others better.”

The great fish that Santiago is soon going to fight against will not, of course, prove Manolin to be wrong. Quite the contrary. But when the Old Man finally defeats the marlin, we are told that his pride has been gone for a long time, forced out by his suffering. The humility remains as the natural companion of his immense fatigue.

Santiago’s Piety

Although Santiago is often jocular about his religion, he is yet a pious old man. The piety appears in his constant unquestioning awareness of a supernatural power, at once outside and inside his personal struggle. His allusions to Christ, to God, and to the Virgin are never oaths; they are simple petitions to a supposedly available source of strength of which he feels the need. “Christ knows he can’t have gone,” he exclaims in the uncertain interval before the fish is actually hooked. “God let him jump,” he prays soon after dawn on the second day. “God help me to have the cramp go,” he says, when his left hand has become temporarily useless.

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Santiago’s Compassion

Along with humility, pride, and piety, Santiago is richly endowed with the quality of compassion. Coleridge’s ancient mariner had said: “He prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small.” Santiago, however, does not love all creatures equally. He dislikes, for example, the Portuguese men-of-war. “Agua mala,” says he to one of them, “You whore.” Outwardly handsome, inwardly lethal, these beings strike him as the falsest things in the sea. The sharks too he looks upon as his enemies. But his hatred is more than overbalanced by his simple love and compassion for other creatures. His principal friends on the ocean are the flying fish. He loves the green turtles and the hawksbills with their elegance and speed.

Santiago’s Optimism

A professional and seasoned fisherman, Santiago always thinks that new day will bring new hopes and hence he continues his effort of fishing without knowing the result.

“Eighty five is a lucky number.”

Santiago says that if the past is hopeless, future will be hopeful. He should never give up his efforts but on working hard in order to make his future bright and promising. If the past is full of miseries and sufferings, it does not mean that he should give up his efforts. The new rising of the sun will certainly pave his way to success. He believes that constant effort brings glory in life. After all “Life’s not a child’s play”. Hence Santiago is a true epitome of optimism.

Santiago Versus Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner

Coleridge’s ancient mariner comes to share with Hemingway’s Old Man (who may also be called an ancient mariner) this quality of compassion. But while Coleridge’s ancient mariner achieves this through a prolonged ordeal, Santiago already has this compassion as by a natural gift. The act of shooting the albatross is in no way comparable to Santiago’s killing of the marlin. One is meaningless and arbitrary: the other is professional and necessary.

Santiago’s Solidarity with The Natural World

Hemingway’s heroes sometimes lose touch with Nature and may, as a result, come to grief. Jake Barnes in the Parisian cafe-circle (in The Sun Also Rises) and Frederic Henry in the tangle of war in Italy (in A Farewell to Arms) are two memorable examples. But Santiago is never out of touch. The line which ties him to the fish guarantees that the alliance will remain unbroken. Santiago is even more closely allied with birds and fish than Saint Francis was with his animals and birds. When the bird has flown way, he is momentarily struck by a sense of his aloneness on the vast waters. But he presently realizes that no man is ever alone on the sea. This feeling of solidarity with the visible universe and the natural creation is one more factor helping to sustain him through his long ordeal.

Santiago’s Martyrdom

Santiago’s experience is a form of martyrdom. The Old Man’s only fault, if it is a fault, consists in doing to the best of his ability what he was born to do. He does nothing wrong from the moral point of view, but this does not prevent his martyrdom. His ordeal by endurance is comparable to a crucifixion, and he attains, by virtue of his courage and persistence, a kind of deification or apotheosis.

A Moral Realist

Santiago’s humility and simplicity do not allow him to mar his achievement by any conscious martyrdom. “Man is not made for defeat” he says at one point. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” His resolution is always strengthened by some such thought as this, and he acts in accordance with it. These qualities of determination and action sustain hat point when he knows that his only remaining course is to take what comes when it comes. The arrival of the sharks on the scene does not surprise him. He does not expect for a moment that they will let him escape uninjured. He is moral realist.

The Problem of Sin

Yet Santiago feels certainly troubled by moral and metaphysical questions. One is the problem of whether there is any connection between sin and suffering. “It is silly not to hope,” he thinks to himself after the killing of the Mako shark, “Besides I believe it is a sin.” In this way he enters into a consideration of the problem. “Perhaps,” he speculates, “it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people.”

Went “Too Far Out.”

Although Santiago admits to pride and lays claim to love, his moral sense is not fully satisfied by this way of resolving the problem. He looks for some other explanation. What he seems finally to decide upon is the notion that he had gone “too far out.” This concept of going too far out implies a fearless effort of the soul and a willingness to take a greater risk where a greater prize is promised. Very early in the book a contrast is established between near and far, between the lee shore and the Gulf Stream. There are the in-shore men, those who work within sight of land because it is easier, safer, and less frightening. And there are those who, like Santiago, have the boldness to reach beyond the known. “Where are you going?” Manolin asks him, on the eve of the eighty-fifth day. “Far out,” replies Santiago.

Non-Christian Saintliness

And yet Santiago’s saint-hood is of a non-Christian order. His charity for instance, arises not from the feeling that all are God’s creatures but from a sense that he and all natural creatures participate in the same pattern of necessity and are subject to the same judgment, “Take a good rest, small bird”, he says to the warbler which has come to rest on his fishing line. Similarly, his faith and hope rest, not upon any belief in a just and benevolent God, but upon his belief in man’s ability to endure suffering.

Santiago’s Endurance

In a sense, The Old Man and the Sea is a study in pain in the endurance of pain and in the value of that endurance. The old fisherman fishes as much for a chance to prove himself as he does for a living, and though he fails to bring the giant marlin to market. Starting in simple physical pain, he transcends his own heroic ideal, personified in DiMaggio, and ends in the attitude of the crucified Christ: “He slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up.” All this he endures without compromising his code either as a man or as a fisherman: he succeeds in showing “what a man can do and what a man endures.”

The Old Man’s Triumph

The fundamental qualities of the Old Man’s character his humility, his simple and pagan reverence for the conditions and processes of life, and his capacity for suffering serve to transform his defeat into a triumph as much as the divinity of Christ transforms the terror and sorrow of the Crucifixion into the promise of life.

Santiago, The Undefeated

Santiago is not an entirely new character in Hemingway’s fiction. He is development of the code hero as depicted by Hemingway in some of the previous novels. In fact, Santiago is the code hero grown old and wiser. He distinctly reminds us of Manuel Garcia, the bull-fighter in the short story “The Undefeated” who lost in one way to win in another. Like Manuel Garcia, Santiago is a fighter whose best days are behind him. But he still dares; he sticks to the rules, and he will not quit when he is beaten. He remains undefeated; he endures; and his loss is itself a victory.

The Code Hero

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” This is how Hemingway states his theme in this novel. And the theme is familiar to Hemingway readers. Familiar too is the remark: “What a man can do and what a man endures.” This is the first time, in all Hemingway’s work, that the code hero and the Hemingway hero become almost one. Santiago represents the Hemingway hero having developed into the code hero.

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