Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | MonkeyNotes
THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES
An author sometimes uses a characters surroundings to tell us something about the character him/herself. The old man's shack is an example. The description tells us that he is poor, certainly, but we also get the impression that Santiago is content with the simplicity imposed by his poverty, because he is himself a simple person, making few demands of life or of other people.
One room. Dirt floor. Table, bed, chair, shelf. That's it. But we hear no complaint at any time from Santiago and no suggestion that he's unhappy. It can't be that he's unaware of any other lifestyle; Havana is not all shacks.
The situation raises some interesting questions. Is Santiago "dumb" for being apparently content with this situation? And, although the book is certainly not a "social issues" story, is it fair for a man to have worked extremely hard all his life and still have only this to show for it? Still another related question might be, Is Santiago in some way "richer" than a man who retires with a healthy savings account and a suburban home filled with gadgets and appliances?
There's no mention of any children, but we know Santiago was married and that he misses his wife deeply. He's taken her picture down because "it made him too lonely to see it."
Now comes a curious contrast with the simplicity with which Santiago accepted his need for help just a few minutes before. He lies about what he is going to eat for supper, actually, he has nothing at all. The boy knows this, and it's likely that Santiago knows the boy knows it.
Manolin goes along with the game, asking if he can take the cast net and receiving permission, even though the net has been sold, apparently for money during a really desperate time.
"But they went through this fiction every day." It's both cute and sad at the same time. Probably all of us do that from time to time-pretend things are better than they really are. But perhaps most of us are not lucky enough to have a Manolin-someone who will play along with our fiction, our pretending, and still be there when really needed.
Into this stripped-down, simple, actually rather bleak existence on the coast of Cuba comes, of all things, American baseball. Santiago and Manolin talk about it in deadly serious terms, as though the outcome is terribly important. It's obvious that to both the old man and the boy the Yankees are the good guys. Santiago reads of his heroes' exploits from day-old newspapers which a friend, Perico, gives him at the bodega (a combination wine-shop and small food store). We'll find that even in the midst of his great struggle later on, Santiago reflects about baseball and is concerned about how the Yankees are doing. Why this interest? One easy explanation is that it's the most exciting thing in Santiago's and Manolin's lives, even though they participate only third-hand by reading newspaper accounts.
But you probably suspect it's more than that. Perhaps Manolin and Santiago are coming at baseball from opposite poles. The boy may see the great players as symbols of what he'd like to be and do; the old man may see them as symbols of what he has done or wishes he had done.
You may find other explanations; critics do not agree about why Hemingway introduces and sustains this topic of baseball through the story, although baseball is a popular sport in Cuba. In one sense it's almost an intrusion, a foreign element. And yet we accept it quite easily, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for Santiago and Manolin to be extremely concerned about the fortunes of a baseball team over a thousand miles away.
NOTE: FIGURES AS IDOLS
Both of them idolize "the great DiMaggio,"- Joe DiMaggio, the famous centerfielder for the Yankees. This makes a good springboard for reflecting on our own idols. Who are the "larger than life" figures in our lives, and why are they like that to us?
Manolin leaves the old man to read yesterday's newspaper, as he goes for the sardines he's bought. When he returns, the old man is sleeping.
Here is a paragraph to study carefully. It tells a great deal again in the sparing, utterly simple Hemingway style, full of details that are powerful because they suggest so much.
What do you make of brief descriptions like "His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun"? Do the patches and the fading and the different shades say something about the old man?
What do you make of "...with his eyes closed there was no life in his face"? Is it that, with his eyes closed, the color of the sea is shut off-and without the sea he has no life?
Or even the simple, "He was barefooted"? Later in the story we'll find Santiago acting with almost super-heroic powers that he finds somewhere within him. But here he's just a tired old man, fragile and, in his sleep, defenseless.
It makes an interesting contrast that we can apply to ourselves. How often we paint ourselves, either outwardly to others or inwardly to ourselves, as completely in charge; and yet how fragile and vulnerable we are in our private, unguarded moments. How fortunate we are if we have a Manolin. The boy gently covers Santiago with a blanket and leaves him to take his needed sleep, returning later with still another gift: supper. A real supper, not the fictional supper the two had pretended about a short time before.
And this time it's a gift from two sources: Manolin and Martin, the owner of the Ten-ace, who apparently has done this before. Remember that we'll shortly see Santiago in heroic terms, gallantly waging an almost superhuman battle. But here he's a very ordinary person who needs and is supported by other people.
Like Santiago, most-perhaps all-of us are fragile and dependent at times, even though at others we act with great individuality and apparent independence. We can wonder who were the Manolins and the Martins behind some of the great heroes of history; and who are the anonymous people supporting the heroes of today's headlines.
Without the supper Manolin brought from Martin, Santiago might not have had the strength for his coming three-day battle. Was there someone who, by some small act, helped George Washington find the courage to lead a ragged attack force across the Delaware? Did someone give an unrecorded word of encouragement that led to Abraham Lincoln's writing the Emancipation Proclamation?
Each of us might ask who were the perhaps forgotten supporters behind our own moments of "doing what had to be done." The conversation as the two eat supper seems principally about baseball, but it leads up to key ideas.
One is the lions on the beaches of Africa. Santiago really has seen lions on an African beach in his youth, and now they're a recurrent part of his dreams. (More on this shortly.) It's significant that the boy does not want to hear about them again, As close as they are, Manolin and Santiago do not share everything, as youth and age cannot.
Another key idea is the boy's comment, "There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you." After you've finished the story, you might want to analyze Manolin's comment critically. Is Santiago so unique, so larger-than-life that he doesn't and can't represent the rest of us "ordinary" human beings? Or is this simply the hero worship of a boy speaking to his idol-somewhat as Santiago himself speaks of "the great DiMaggio"?
The boy leaves and Santiago sleeps. Then come the lions, Santiago's recurrent dream.
NOTE: THE LIONS ON THE BEACH
If you had a recurring dream and mentioned it to a half dozen experts, you'd probably get a half dozen different interpretations. And you might meet someone who concludes, "Who knows what it means? You'll have to decide that for yourself."
That's what you'll find if you investigate different critical interpretations of Santiago's dream lions, and even of the beach they play on and the fact that the beach is almost blindingly white. Many experts sound rather sure of what the lions represent. And some say that it's pointless to try to deduce a specific, symbolic meaning.
Here are some of the suggested possibilities. The lions could simply be a reminder of Santiago's youthful days when he too was in the prime of strength. Or they may represent his admiration for nobility of deeds, since a lion is often characterized as "the king of beasts."
And yet Hemingway says Santiago's lions "played like young cats in the dusk." So it's possible to see the lions as symbolizing the great, often violent forces of life somehow tamed, in some ideal but probably impossible world.
That's one you can have fun working on if you like: what or who are Santiago's dream lions? And if you come up with something that you can't find in official opinions but can defend with believable reasons, Hemingway would probably be proud of you.