Major themes in The Old Man and the Sea


The theme is the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing. The old man and the Sea of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is a brilliant work packed with multiple themes. Perseverance, achievement, strength and pain, solidarity, and religion are the most striking themes of the iconic novella The old man and the Sea.   

Theme of Friendship  

The relationship between Santiago and Manolin is introduced early in the story. They are unlikely companions; one is old and the other young, yet they share an insuperable amount of respect and loyalty for each other. Santiago does not treat Manolin as a young boy but rather as an equal. Age is not a factor in their relationship. Manolin does not even act like a young boy; he is mature and sensitive to Santiago’s feelings. He even offers to disobey his parents and accompany Santiago on his fishing trips. 

More Notes:  The Old Man and The Sea 

Theme of Perseverance  

The most significant and dominating theme of the novella the Old Man and The Sea is Perseverance.  Santiago’s strength and endurance have been tested for catching an enormous marlin. He struggles so much to catch fish. After finally catching the fish, Santiago has to kill numerous sharks that ultimately destroy the marlin. Here Hemingway illustrates the manhood and perseverance of Santiago.  Santiago has to persevere despite pain and suffering. His perseverance leads him to be victorious against the sharks but not defeat them. Hemingway says,  

But man is not made for defeat. 

 Santiago says this out loud after he has struggled for several days to catch the Marlin and then fought against sharks, despite his injuries. He was completely tired but he proved the meaning of manhood. He states that,   

A man can be destroyed but not defeated. 

 Thus, Santiago proved that manhood is about doing what needs to be done despite how hard it is. Santiago was in tremendous pain and very tired, yet he fought bravely against the sharks because it was what he needed to do. This is how Hemingway illustrates what a man should be.  

The theme of Strength and Pain  

Hemingway further illustrates the theme of strength and pain. He again shows manhood by showing the strength that Santiago has and the pain he endures. Hemingway clearly reveals this theme through Santiago’s struggle but the theme becomes clear through Santiago’s dialogue. The dialogue helps Santiago motivate himself to continue.  Santiago states:  

And pain does not matter to a man. 

Theme of Achievement  

Hemingway shows two distinct kinds of achievement through the character Santiago.  

  •  External- material achievement   
  • Internal- profound achievement.  

After catching the fish Santiago returns to the Cuban fishing village. Catching the great fish and fighting against the sharks reveals Santiago’s external achievement. His undefeated tendency and courage lead him to be victorious. After bringing the Skeleton, the outlook of the other fisherman toward him becomes higher. It’s brought inner peace. Hemingway illustrates it as the internal and profound achievement of Santiago.  

More Notes: Suggestions

The theme of Solidarity/ man and Nature.  

Ernest Hemingway exposes the relationship between Santiago and Manolin. Manolin is very helpful and friendly. Though Manolin’s parents directly forbade him not to go to Santiago he did not say anything wrong to Santiago for his failure of catching fish. Again, Fishes, feathered creatures, stars, etc overall, are Santiago’s siblings or companions. The ocean is both kind and merciless, ladylike and manly. For Santiago, achievement and disappointment are two equivalent features of the same presence. They are temporary and show up and leave, without influencing the solidarity between him and nature.  

Theme of religion  

Santiago’s sufferings are depicted in terms of the sufferings of Lord Jesus Christ. Again, Santiago is an Orthodox Christian. But he is religious enough. Santiago feels guilty after killing the great Marlin. He thought that he committed a sin. But soon he realizes that killing the Marlin was not a sin because he loved the Marlin while it was alive and he loved the fish afterward. Soon he expresses his doubt saying,  

Perhaps it was a sin to kill a fish 


Thus, Hemingway exposes all the striking themes of the novella The old man and the Sea through the character of Santiago. Here in this novel, he is an old man who is defeated in accordance with his society, but he is a Christ-like figure from the inside. He may be old and lose his strength, but he is strong enough with his knowledge.  

Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

Articles: 230

Leave a Reply

error: Sorry !!