The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

PART ONE: Form, Point of View, Structure

1. Hemingway might have written The Old Man and the Sea as a much longer novel, taking Santiago from his early childhood to his final dreams of the lions. What would have been lost if he had done this? What gained?

2. Hemingway might also have written The Old Man and the Sea as a short story, concentrating on the struggle with the fish, with the sea, and with the sharks--and probably telescoping or omitting the scenes before and after the struggle. What would have been lost or gained?

3. From whose point of view does Hemingway tell the story? Why did Hemingway choose to tell it this way? Did he make the right choice for this particular book? Why or why not?

4. In much of this book the old man is talking to himself. Is this heavy reliance on the introspective monologue a weakness or a strength? Explain your answer. Would this technique be a weakness or a strength in making a film of the book? Why or why not?

5. Why, where, and how effectively does Hemingway make use of the flashback technique? Analyze several specific flashbacks.

6. The entire novel is a single unit as written, but it is possible to divide the book logically into parts. How many parts are there and what happens in each section? Although there is no single right answer, your explanation should demonstrate the logic and accuracy of your divisions.

7. As Hemingway has built his book, does it end with a climax, an anti-climax, both, or neither? Explain your answer.


PART TWO: Sentence Structure, Diction, the Condensed Line

1. Hemingway is famous for his ability to pack meaning into a few simple words. Examine and comment on the following examples. Then find and discuss three more.

a. "He was beautiful, the old man remembered, and he had stayed." (p. 50)

b. "It jumped again and again in the acrobatics of its fear." (p. 72)

c. "Then the fish came alive, with his death in him." (p. 94)

d. "'You're tired, old man,' he said. 'You're tired inside.'" (p. 112)

e. "He had to sit down five times before he reached his shack." (p. 121)

2. Using the following three quotations as your evidence, describe the relationship Hemingway establishes between the old man and the boy. Then comment on the means by which he does it. You will have to examine the words, the implications, and the sentence structure. Consider, for instance, the effect of the way Hemingway strings his main clauses together with and on pages 9-10 and pages 121-122 -- exactly what you have been taught not to do. In what ways would the effect be different if Hemingway had subordinated one of his clauses and written, "Because the old man had taught him how to fish, the boy loved him"? Why doesn't he write on page 122, "When the boy saw that the old man was breathing and when he got a look at the old man's hands, he started to cry"?

a. "The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him." (p. 10)

b. "The boy keeps me alive." (p. 106)

c. "The boy saw that the old man was breathing and then he saw the old man's hands and he started to cry." (p. 122)

3. In describing the scars on Santiago's hands on page 10, Hemingway writes, "They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert." Is this simile appropriate and effective? Why or why not? Is the language as simple as Hemingway's language is supposed to be?

4. Look at the fourth sentence in the paragraph on page 28 beginning "Sometimes someone..." Is this the kind of sentence for which Hemingway is noted? Is it appropriate and effective in this context? Explain your answer.

5. Examine the following passage from page 35: "But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat. It turned on its side and then righted itself. It floated cheerfully as a bubble with its long deadly purple filaments trailing a yard behind it in the water."
Do you find here the simple wording and short sentences said to be characteristic of Hemingway's style? How do you explain your findings?

6. How does Hemingway communicate to the reader the fact that Santiago speaks and thinks in Spanish?

7. Now look carefully at the wording and the sentence structure of Hemingway's final paragraph. Then describe and explain your findings: "Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions." (p. 127)

8. Comment on any other features of Hemingway's diction and idiom that seem important.

9. Now that you have examined this sampling of passages from The Old Man and the Sea, what tentative conclusions are you ready to draw about Hemingway's diction and sentence structure? Find other passages that reinforce, modify, or change your present conclusions.

PART THREE: Meanings and Interpretations

1. a. Hemingway says of the old man on page 13, "He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility." How do you interpret this statement?
b. Humility has been defined as "the understatement of a powerful personality." What does this mean and to what extent does it apply to the kind of humility the old man has attained/

2. Discuss the role that luck plays in this book and consider the different shades of meaning Hemingway gives to it. (You will find references to luck on pages 9, 13, 32, 75, 116-117, and 125.)

3. Comment on each of the following passages, trying to relate it significantly to the book as a whole:

a. "There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it. But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too." (p. 16)

b. "Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel?" (p. 29) Whom does the old man mean by "they"?

c. "'Take a good rest, small bird,' he said. 'Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish.'" (p. 55)

d. "'I told the boy I was a strange old man,' he said. 'Now I must prove it.'
"The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it." (p. 66)

e. "But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers." (p. 75)

f. "'And pain does not matter to a man.'" (p. 84)

g. "The dentuso is cruel and able and strong and intelligent. But I was more intelligent than he was. Perhaps not, he thought. Perhaps I was only better armed." (p. 103)

h. "Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive." (p. 106)

PART FOUR: Symbolism

1. Where is the one passage in the book that unmistakably alludes to Christ on the Cross? What does such symbolism add to the novel? Do you find any other passages that may be reinforcing the Christ imagery? Can you be sure that they are doing so? The old man is sometimes taken as a symbol of Christ on the Cross. How do you reconcile this notion with the old man's own comment on page 64, "I am not religious," which he follows up with a perfunctory rattling off of a batch of "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys"?

2. How much convincing evidence do you find for regarding the old man as a symbol of man in general?

3. How much convincing evidence do you find for regarding the fish as more than just a marlin? If the fish is a symbol, what does he symbolize?

4. Are we justified in interpreting baseball and Joe DiMaggio as more than their literal selves? If so, what do they represent?

5. Does Hemingway encourage us to think of the sea in more than literal terms? If so, what is the sea standing for?

6. How do you interpret the young lions? Are they literal or symbolic or both, and why do you think so? If they are symbolic, what do they symbolize?

7. The great fish come in September, not in May. Santiago catches his big fish in September. Are we to take September only literally? If it is more than literal, what is it standing for?

8. Does Hemingway's text invite us to interpret the sharks as more than literal? If they are more than literal, what do they represent? What is their role in the general human drama?


1. Write a paper in which you comment fully and specifically on the significance for the entire book of Santiago's words, "A man can be destroyed but not defeated." (p. 103) To do this you will need to start with an exploration of possible meanings of the two words destroyed and defeated.

2. Write a full, detailed answer to this question: Were you satisfied that the ending of Hemingway's book makes a believable, meaningful, and moving fulfillment of the old man's experience?
For this paper, consider the ending to include all that takes place from the time the first shark comes to the time of the old man's final dreaming of the young lions.

3. Write a carefully planned paper in which you explore the meaning and the appropriateness of Hemingway's title. In doing this, you will need to examine carefully each word of the title and you will also need to consider other possible titles that Hemingway might have used.

4. Now that you have examined the form, style, literary devices, levels of meaning, and theme of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, the toughest and perhaps the most important question of all remains: As a literary work, how good is it?
Write a composition in which you give this question the most detailed, thoughtful, honest answer of which you are capable. Although you cannot force your reader to agree with your judgment, try to win his respect for the thoroughness, the fairmindedness, and the insight that have gone into the making of that judgment.

5. A character in John Steinbeck's East of Eden says, "No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true, and true of us...If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen." It might at first seem strange that you might find anything "true" about yourself in The Old Man and the Sea, but some of your contemporaries have "listened' to this story as if it were about themselves.
Write a carefully prepared paper in which you consider what the book has to say to you, where you came in, what you heard about yourself as you "listened."
Choose this topic only if you honestly feel that the book had something to say to you.

6. In the Preface to one of his novels, Joseph Conrad says that his task as a writer is "by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see. That--and no more, and it is everything."
Write a carefully prepared paper in which you show fully and specifically the extent to which Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea fulfills the writer's task of making you hear, feel, and--above all--see. You will want to give special attention to all the possible meanings in that word see.

Activities come from 12,000 Students and Their English Teachers, prepared by the College Entrance Examination Board in 1968.

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