“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” -Ernest Hemingway. This American poet and journalist presented Santiago as the ideal man in his most successful publication The Old Man and the Sea. Roaring tenacity, unvanquishable dignity, unquenchable spirit— Hemingway’s vessel of virtue Santiago— despite the afflictions that beat and batter his aged body— holds fast with an anchored heart, undefeated and undefeatable through all trials. Placing Santiago as the central character of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway makes an exemplary hero who personifies endurance, bravery, and faith. However, as Hemingway evidently realized, this demonstration of an ideal man would be unsuccessful without trials and tribulations to arise and question Santiago’s character. The marlin— a giant, 18-foot warrior of the sea that wages battle with Santiago for three days and three nights is the antagonist of Hemingway’s novella. How is the old Santiago able to compete and even defeat his noble adversary? Hemingway masterfully contrasts the two throughout his novella and demonstrates how two entirely different species can be brought together by pure circumstance. Despite their vast differences, the old man and the marlin are both exemplary figures that demonstrate valuable qualities.
Firstly, Santiago and the marlin are enduring. Within the title, Hemingway allows us to know that the man is surely old and likely unfit for sea, as opposed to the marlin, who was made for the sea. No amount of hardship or pain is able to extinguish Santiago’s honor and endurance. Bearing firm resolve to return home with a fish, he defeats the hardships of his duel with the great marlin and catches it. In spite of hunger and pain and eighty-four days of bad luck, Santiago remains self-reliant. He dreams of days long gone by— of hand-wrestling and of golden lions on the beach of Africa. Santiago has faith that he is able to be like a sea turtle whose heart continues beating even in death. Bearing thoughts of perseverance, the old man endures. In spite of the many weaknesses that ail his body, his spirit is enduring, invincible and eternal. Through the final line of the tale, the old man continues to endure and dream about the lions of his youth. “The old man was sleeping again. He was sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.” (Hemingway 127) The marlin, possessing the same undefeatable perseverance as Santiago, provides a difficult challenge as the two both are unwilling two accept defeat. As the battle progresses, it becomes evident that the fight is not of strength but of endurance. In the process of their contest, by refusing to give in to the other or their weaknesses, they both transcend said weaknesses, providing laudable demonstrations of endurance.
Secondly, Santiago and the marlin are both courageous. Hemingway himself once wrote, “Courage is grace under pressure.” This definition flawlessly suits Santiago’s demonstration of courage, for despite his physical limitations, he is fearless. In spite of his bad luck, the marlin who challenges his strength, or the sharks who steal his catch, he withholds complaints and presses on with confidence. In fact, not only does he endure his fears, he takes those fears and transforms them into bravery. Rather than simply ignoring the sharks who eat his catch, he retaliates with his harpoon, oar and knife in an attempt to protect the marlin against the ravagers, remaining undaunted. For a single, fleeting moment, Santiago seems to accept defeat, saying, “I never knew how easy it is when you’re beaten.” However, he remains ultimately undefeated, as he sill possesses the courage to return home, to drag himself to his hut, and to accept the loss of his greatest catch. Hemingway uses this to demonstrate that humility, too, takes courage. The marlin wields similar courage as he combats the Santiago and his harpoon. However, the marlin demonstrates a different type of courage— rather than graceful, he is swift and strong, unafraid to approach the old man’s weapon, but remaining strategic in avoidance. Although the marlin’s courage is untamed, whereas Santiago’s is more strategic and thoughtful, both figures exemplify bravery at its finest.
Lastly, Santiago and the marlin bring out the best in each other. In an effort to uphold his pride, the old man hooks the marlin on his first afternoon at sea, though the marlin uses the situation to the old man’s detriment and pulls him farther from the land. Adamant to return home with a fish, he conquers the hardships of his duel with the great marlin and catches it, thus substantiating his self-reliance. His attitude toward the marlin demonstrates the extent of his honor as he is proud to call the strong, enduring creature his opponent. In fact, he stretches to call it his brother. Strangely, Santiago self-professedly loves the fish even as his kills it. The marlin, possessing many of the same qualities as the old man, presents a near perfect match for Santiago. He is strong-willed, enduring, and fierce. Additionally, the old man identifies the fish as male and old, alike himself. These similar qualities cause Santiago to see the marlin as an alter-ego. Due to their similarities, they bring out the best in each other amidst their duel. To an extent, Santiago’s struggle with the marlin is, in a way, a struggle with himself. Neither are fighting with strength— it is not a struggle of power, but of endurance and refusal to accept defeat. Santiago’s grapple with the marlin is a struggle to subdue his own weaknesses as much as it is a struggle to subdue his foe. Through their competition and their mutual refusal to accept defeat, they both draw out valuable qualities in one another, resulting in an applaudable display of endurance, courage, and honor.
Ultimately, Santiago’s pride, perseverance, and self-reliance are what make him a symbol for the best in any of us. Our battles may not be with marlins, sharks, poverty, or even with old age; but we are all involved in a battle against some foe at different points in our lives. Hemingway has masterfully designed a character whose experiences can assist us in winning our own battles. As his tale is woven, Santiago reveals that defeat lies in refusing the fight, not in losing it.