The Old Man and the Sea
Glossary of Terms
A large pelagic tuna with long pectoral fins.
A small Hispanic grocery.
Any of several marine food and game fishes of the genus Sarda, related to the tuna.
To congeal, as a fluid.
A type of cloud characterized by dense individual elements in the form of puffs, mounds, or towers.
A nautical measurement equal to six feet.
A long, slender series of attached cells, as in some algae and fungi.
A large iron hook attached to a pole, used to catch large fish.
The upper edge of the side of a boat.
Having many lustrous colors like the rainbow.
A rounded post, in the stern of a fishing boat, around which the harpoon line is passed.
A mackerel shark.
Loosely twisted hemp or jute fiber filled with tar, used in caulking seams and packing joints.
The persistent emission of light without burning, following exposure to radiations.
A mass of floating organisms, primarily microscopic algae and protozoa.
A small sword used for thrusting.
Any seaweed of the genus Sargassum, commonly known as gulfweed.
An agricultural tool with a long, curving blade fastened at an angle to a handle.
A flat-bottomed open boat with a pointed bow and a square stern.
An aquatic bird related to a gull but usually with a more slender body and bill, and smaller feet.
Hemingway spends a good deal of time drawing connections between Santiago and his natural environment: the fish, birds, and stars are all his brothers or friends, he has the heart of a turtle, eats turtle eggs for strength, drinks shark liver oil for health, etc. Also, apparently contradictory elements are repeatedly shown as aspects of one unified whole: the sea is both kind and cruel, feminine and masculine; the Portuguese man of war is beautiful but deadly; the mako shark is noble but cruel. The novella’s premise of unity helps succor Santiago in the midst of his great tragedy. For Santiago, success and failure are two equal facets of the same existence. They are transitory forms which capriciously arrive and depart without affecting the underlying unity between himself and nature. As long as he focuses on this unity and sees himself as part of nature rather than as an external antagonist competing with it, he cannot be defeated by whatever misfortunes befall him.
Triumph over crushing adversity is the heart of heroism, and in order for Santiago the fisherman to be a heroic emblem for humankind, his tribulations must be monumental. Triumph, though, is never final, as Santiago’s successful slaying of the marlin shows, else there would be no reason to include the final 30 pages of the book. Hemingway vision of heroism is Sisyphean, requiring continuous labor for essentially ephemeral ends. What the hero does is to face adversity with dignity and grace, hence Hemingway’s Neo-Stoic emphasis on self-control and the other facets of his idea of manhood. What we achieve or fail at externally is not as significant to heroism as comporting ourselves with inner nobility. As Santiago says, “[M]an is not made for defeat….A man can be destroyed but not defeated” (103).
Hemingway’s ideal of manhood is nearly inseparable from the ideal of heroism discussed above. To be a man is to behave with honor and dignity: to not succumb to suffering, to accept one’s duty without complaint and, most importantly, to display a maximum of self-control. The representation of femininity, the sea, is characterized expressly by its caprice and lack of self-control; “if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them” (30). The representation of masculinity, the marlin, is described as “great,” “beautiful,” “calm,” and “noble,” and Santiago steels himself against his pain by telling himself to “suffer like a man. Or a fish,” referring to the marlin (92). In Hemingway’s ethical universe, Santiago shows us not only how to live life heroically but in a way befitting a man.
While important, Hemingway’s treatment of pride in the novella is ambivalent. A heroic man like Santiago should have pride in his actions, and as Santiago shows us, “humility was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride” (14). At the same, though, it is apparently Santiago’s pride which presses him to travel dangerously far out into the sea, “beyond all people in the world,” to catch the marlin (50). While he loved the marlin and called him brother, Santiago admits to killing it for pride, his blood stirred by battle with such a noble and worthy antagonist. Some have interpreted the loss of the marlin as the price Santiago had to pay for his pride in traveling out so far in search of such a catch. Contrarily, one could argue that this pride was beneficial as it allowed Santiago an edifying challenge worthy of his heroism. In the end, Hemingway suggests that pride in a job well done, even if pride drew one unnecessarily into the situation, is a positive trait.
Hemingway draws a distinction between two different types of success: outer, material success and inner, spiritual success. While Santiago clearly lacks the former, the import of this lack is eclipsed by his possession of the latter. One way to describe Santiago’s story is as a triumph of indefatigable spirit over exhaustible material resources. As noted above, the characteristics of such a spirit are those of heroism and manhood. That Santiago can end the novella undefeated after steadily losing his hard-earned, most valuable possession is a testament to the privileging of inner success over outer success.
Being heroic and manly are not merely qualities of character which one possesses or does not. One must constantly demonstrate one’s heroism and manliness through actions conducted with dignity. Interestingly, worthiness cannot be conferred upon oneself. Santiago is obsessed with proving his worthiness to those around him. He had to prove himself to the boy: “the thousand times he had proved it mean 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” (66). And he had to prove himself to the marlin: “I’ll kill him….in all his greatness and glory. Although it is unjust. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures” (66). A heroic and manly life is not, then, one of inner peace and self-sufficiency; it requires constant demonstration of one’s worthiness through noble action.
Santiago as Christ
Manolin has an almost religious devotion to Santiago, underscored when Manolin begs Santiago’s pardon for his not fishing with the old man anymore. Manolin says, “It was Papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him,” to which Santiago replies, “I know… It is quite normal. He hasn’t much faith” (10). Manolin’s father forced his son to switch to a more successful boat after 40 days had passed without a catch for Santiago; this is the amount of time Jesus wandered in the desert, tempted by Satan.
Just as Christ resisted the temptation of the devil, Santiago resists the temptation of giving in to his exhaustion as he battles the marlin. “It was a great temptation to rest in the bow and let the fish make one circle by himself without recovering any line.” But he is committed to beating the fish, to proving his strength is more steadfast, thinking, “He’ll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don’t even speak of it.”
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The end of summer is, for me, also a time of beginnings. And, it is a time when many of us choose to refresh or re-affirm our goals and plans, whatever they may be. This post, originally presented in March, 2012, uses a popular Hemingway story to illustrate the importance of doing just that.
The other day, while channel surfing, I caught a glimpse of Spencer Tracy playing Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea. It didn’t register much at the time because as you may know, when one channel surfs, the little grey cells kind of take a nap. Later though, I began to think about that story and the lessons it has to teach us.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Santiago is an old fisherman living in a village not far from Havana. Fishing is his livelihood and yet he has failed to catch any fish in eighty-four days. The young boy, who usually goes out with him, is instructed by his father to stay away from the old man. He is bad luck. So Santiago goes fishing alone.
On the eighty-fifth day, he decides to go out further than he usually does because somewhere within him, he believes there is a big fish just meant for him. His instinct proves to be correct as his hook and bait are swallowed by a Marlin so large it dwarfs the boat.
The Old man is determined to catch this fish. He wants to prove that he isn’t bad luck. He envisions bringing the giant fish into the tiny harbour of his home with enough to feed the whole village. Perhaps, deep down, he likes the idea of being a hero.
So, Santiago hangs onto the fishing line with all his might. The fish fights valiantly all the while dragging the boat further and further out to sea. The old man suffers as the line cuts through the muscle of his hands and his back goes into spasms of pain from pulling and resisting.
In the end, the fish tires enough to allow the old man to reel him in closer to the boat. It is then that Santiago is successful in sinking his harpoon into the fish’s heart. The battle is won. But, the war is just beginning as the old man realizes the fish is bigger than the boat. So with great diligence and respect, he straps the fish to the side of the boat and begins to make the very long journey home.
Over the course of the journey, the fish is attacked again and again by sharks. And, as much as the old man fights to preserve it, he fails. By the time he reaches home, he is completely exhausted… and the fish is reduced to a skeleton.
So, let’s, just for fun, suppose that Mr. Santiago is the CEO of his own company. His fishing business is not doing well. He has no allies except perhaps a young assistant who, while eager, is being influenced by his family to look for work elsewhere.
Mr. Santiago is desperate to save his business and his reputation in the business community. He decides to take a huge leap of faith without really thinking it through.
At first, it looks as if his tactic is paying off. In fact, he starts to reel in more business than he can possibly handle. And, it’s starting to draw the attention of other businesses hungry to expand. Mr. Santiago fights hard to protect his interests with the few resources he has, but to no avail. Eventually, he is forced to close his doors and the glorious outcome he envisioned when he set out, becomes unattainable.
So, what advice might we give Mr. Santiago to help him realize a different outcome? Well, a few things come to mind for me:
Have a clear goal
Spend some time envisioning the goal. In your vision, where are you fishing? How much and what kind of fish are you catching? How big is your boat? What equipment do you have? Who is giving you support? What have you learned that you don’t know now? How did you learn it?
Build a plan to support the goal.
Being able to clearly imagine the goal is important but you must also have a realistic plan for achieving it. This includes ensuring you have sufficient resources and capability to execute the plan. And, by the way, a good plan is only good when it is acted upon. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in wasting your time.
Consider the potential risks and rewards
Before venturing into uncharted waters, it’s a good idea to first reflect on what you stand to gain and lose by doing so. If the risk seems greater than the potential reward, you might want to re-think the strategy.
Develop Solid Relationships with others
John Donne once said, “No man is an island entire of itself”. With that in mind, consider inviting others to share the goal and be part of the venture. Protect your interests from becoming shark bait by offering other, like-minded people of your choosing to participate and share in the rewards.
Think Beyond the Achievement of the Goal
To consider achievement of the goal as the end would be a mistake. You also have to anticipate what might happen in the event of a huge success. What then? How will you manage it? What more will you need? How will it change you? How will it change your company?
Know When to Cut the Line
There is of course a point of no return on just about everything. In the case of Santiago in the original story, going further and further out to sea after he had caught the fish ensured that by the time he made it back to shore, there would be nothing left of it. In business we also have to know when to stop.
The bottom line is that striking out to explore new territory is an essential part of leadership. However, the success of such exploration and the achievement of goals rely on one’s ability to marry leadership skill with management ability. Perhaps if Santiago had understood this, the outcome of his story might have been more positive.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?
2 Responses to Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea
Hi Mark ~ Thanks for adding your excellent insights to this post. Yes! In spite of his failure, Santiago learned some things about fishing and about himself. And, as you say, he also had some opportunity to do things differently next time.
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