The Old Man and the Sea as a Tragedy
Table of Contents
The Criteria or Tests of A Tragedy
While the critics disagree as to whether The Old Man and the Sea is a tragedy or not it should not be difficult for the average reader to settle the problem because the average reader is not to be led by subtleties or by abstruse considerations. If we apply the age-old tests to this novel, we shall certainly conclude that it is a tragedy. A tragedy is a tale of exceptional suffering leading generally but not always to the death of the chief protagonist or the hero. The hero is generally possessed of certain admirable qualities but he is not perfect: in fact he suffers from a fault or flaw which precipitates his downfall although this downfall is brought about by certain other causes too-the villainy of human beings, chance, accident, or the working of an arbitrary fate.
The admirable qualities of the hero must include an exceptional capacity to suffer, or the power of endurance much above that of ordinary people. The tragic hero may perish but his spirit is not broken or crushed. The sufferings and the fate of the hero generally arouse strong feelings of pity and fear, while his manner of enduring his sufferings and his fate arouse our admiration and respect for him. Finally, a tragedy should give rise to a sense of a moral order in the universe and not of chaos or moral lawlessness or a dominance of the forces of disorder and darkness.
The Old Man and the Sea a Tragedy
The Old Man and the Sea fulfils most of these criteria of a tragedy. It is true that Hemingway in his earlier novels shows himself to be more or less a nihilist, a man who finds the universe to be governed by arbitrary forces and who depicts man as alienated from society (from family and community) and as suffering grievous losses without rhyme or reason (such as Lieutenant Henry’s loss of his beloved Catherine in A Farewell to Arms). But The Old Man and the Sea is different, different as regards the universe it depicts and as regards its hero. Santiago the old fisherman does not carry an old wound (literally or figuratively) from the past as Jake Barnes and Lieutenant Henry do in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.
Santiago, a Superb Craftsman
Throughout the novel Santiago is given heroic proportions. The boy Manolin calls him the best fisherman, adding “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.” Santiago calls himself “a strange old man” with strength enough for a truly big fish, knowing many tricks and having resolution, and he actually gives evidence of all these qualities afterwards. He is not an ordinary fisherman but a superb craftsman who knows his business thoroughly and always practices it with great skill. He keeps his fishing lines straight where others allow them to drift with the current. Luck is welcome but he believes in exactness.
Daring More than Others
Santiago is the clearest representation of the hero because he is the only major character in Hemingway who has not been permanently wounded or disillusioned. To be a hero means to dare more than other men, to expose oneself to greater dangers, and therefore more greatly to risk the possibilities of defeat and death. On the eighty-fifth day Santiago rows far beyond the customary fishing area and he hooks a huge marlin.
Santiago’s Suffering and his Powers of Endurance
The account of Santiago’s struggle with the marlin has a tragic quality because of the suffering that Santiago undergoes, because of the suffering of the marlin, and because of the endurance of both the fish and the fisherman. Our admiration and our pity are aroused both for Santiago and for the marlin. From the very first Santiago shows determination. “Fish”, he says, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead”. Next, he says, “Fish, I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends”. His left hand becomes cramped, and the marlin proves to be bigger than he had thought it to be. He wishes to show to the marlin what sort of a man he is. “But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures”. He admires the manner of the marlin’s behaviour and its great dignity. He has had no sleep for half a day and a night and another day. It would be good even if he could sleep “twenty minutes or half an hour”. His hands have now been badly cut and he is “tired deep into his bones”. He feels that the fish is killing him but he does not mind. “Come on and kill me”, he says, “I do not care who kills who”. His pride is by now gone.
The fish, in spite of the agony it is undergoing, has proved obstinate and tough. When the fish has been killed, there come the sharks to eat it. Santiago has hardly enjoyed his feeling of victory (“I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today”) when the first shark, a Mako, appears. He drives his harpoon into the shark’s brain “with resolution and complete malignancy”. Here he also speaks those memorable words:
“But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated”.
He knows he has performed another heroic act. “I wonder how the great DiMaggio would have liked the way I hit him in the brain ?” he says with reference to his killing the Mako. Then come the two galanos and Santiago says “Ay”, a word which a man might utter if nails were driven through his palms and into the wood. This image of the crucifixion is intended to convey the agony of Santiago.
When the thought comes to him that more sharks might come in the night, he says, “I’ll fight them until I die”. But by midnight he knows that the fight is useless. He knows that he is now beaten finally and is without remedy”. His journey up the hill to his shack and his posture as he lies asleep on his bed are again described in terms reminiscent of the Crucifixion, to emphasize his suffering and his endurance. When he tells the boy that he has been beaten, the boy says that he has not been beaten by his adversary, the marlin, and Santiago agrees. “No. Truly. It was afterwards”. He is not averse to talking with the boy about future plans and when he falls asleep again he dreams about the lions (a symbol of youth and strength).
Santiago’s heroic quality does not forsake him till the end. Throughout, his ordeal and his attitude of mind are so described as to arouse our admiration and our pity for him. And as the marlin shows precisely the qualities which Santiago has, we pity and admire the marlin too. Thus both man and fish are tragic characters. The man returns home physically broken, though spiritually still strong, while the fish is reduced to a skeleton which yet produces a feeling of awe in all those who see it. Apart from his courage and endurance, other qualities which make Santiago admirable in our eyes are his tenderness, compassion, and love for the various creatures (birds, porpoise, flying fish, green turtles, hawks bills, etc.), his charity, his faith, and his piety.
The Conflict in Santiago’s Mind
Like most tragic heroes, Santiago experiences what is called an inner conflict. Having killed the marlin, he asks himself whether he has committed a sin. Yes, it was a sin even though he killed the marlin to keep himself alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. “Do not think about sin”, he tells himself, and yet keeps thinking about sin. He killed the fish not only to keep alive and to feed others but for pride and because he is a fisherman. Yet it was not a sin because he loved the marlin when it was alive and he loved it afterwards.
The Fault or Flaw in Santiago
Santiago is perfectly conscious of the transgression which has brought a disaster for him. He realizes that he went too far out, that he went “beyond all people in the world”. Hemingway seems to be saying that man, in his individualism, his pride, and his need, inevitably goes beyond his true place in the world and thereby brings violence and destruction on himself and on others. “I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both”, says Santiago to the mutilated marlin. “You violated your luck when you went too far outside”, he says to himself. Finally, when he asks himself:
“What beat you ?” the answer is: “Nothing. I went out too far”.
Yet in going out too far and alone, Santiago has found his greatest strength and courage and dignity and nobility and love, and in this he expresses Hemingway’s view of the ultimate tragic irony of man’s fate, namely, that only through the isolated individualism and the pride which drive him beyond his true place in life does man develop the qualities and the wisdom which teach him the sin of such individualism and pride, and which bring him the deepest understanding of himself and of his place in the world. Thus in accepting his world for what it is and in learning to live in it, Hemingway has achieved a tragic but ennobling vision of man which is in the tradition of Sophocles, Melville, and Conrad.
Resemblance with Classical Tragedies
The Old Man and the Sea is a remarkable tale of courage, endurance, pride humility, and death. It is classical not only technically, in its narrow confines, the purity of its design, and even in the fatal flaw (of exceeding one’s limits and going too far out). It is also classical in spirit, in its mature acceptance of things as they are. It is much in the spirit of the Greek tragedies in which men fight against great odds and win moral victories. It is especially like Greek tragedy in that, as the hero fails and falls, we get an unforgettable glimpse of what stature a man may achieve.
A Sense of A Moral Order In The Universe
This novel takes us into a world which has to some extent recovered from the gaping wounds that made it so frightening a place in Hemingway’s early stories. The world which injured Jake Barnes so cruelly, pointlessly deprived Lieutenant Henry of his one love, destroyed Henry Morgan at the height of his powers, and robbed Robert Jordan of his political idealism, has now begun to regain its balance. The world is no longer a bleak trap within which man is doomed to struggle, suffer, and die, but a meaningful, integrated place that challenges human resources and holds forth rich emotional rewards for those who live in it daringly and boldly, even though it inflicts pain and suffering in direct proportion to the extent men go far out.
The Old Man and the Sea is surely a tragedy, though this tragedy is no longer bleak and accidental; this tragedy is purposive. This sense of purposiveness makes its appearance in Hemingway’s philosophy for the first time, and it distinguishes this book from his earlier tragedies.