Reading Group Guide for The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway was born July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois.
After graduation from high school, he moved to Kansas City,
Missouri, where he worked briefly for the Kansas City
Star. Failing to qualify for the United States Army because of
poor eyesight, he enlisted with the American Red Cross to drive
ambulances in Italy. He was severely wounded on the Austrian front
on July 9, 1918. Following recuperation in a Milan hospital, he
returned home and became a freelance writer for the Toronto
In December of 1921, he sailed to France and joined an
expatriate community of writers and artists in Paris while
continuing to write for the Toronto Star. There his
fiction career began in "little magazines" and small presses and
led to a volume of short stories, In Our Time (1925). His
novels The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to
Arms (1929) established Hemingway as the most important and
influential fiction writer of his generation. His later collections
of short stories and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
affirmed his extraordinary career while his highly publicized life
gave him unrivaled celebrity as a literary figure.
Hemingway became an authority on the subjects of his art: trout
fishing, bullfighting, big-game hunting, and deep-sea fishing, and
the cultures of the regions in which he set his work -- France,
Italy, Spain, Cuba, and Africa.
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) earned him the Pulitzer
Prize and was instrumental in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in
1954. Hemingway died in Ketchum, Idaho, on July 2, 1961.
Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish for
eighty-four days, goes far out to sea in his skiff alone because
the young boy Manolin, who has fished with him and served him in
the past, is prevented from continuing to do so by his parents, who
are convinced that the old man has salao, bad luck.
Santiago kills a giant marlin after fighting it for three days,
lashes it alongside his skiff, and sails for home only to have his
fish attacked by sharks during the night and devoured despite the
old man''s valiant efforts to kill them or drive them away. The
morning after Santiago''s return Manolin finds the old man sleeping
in his palm shack, cries, brings him coffee, and pledges to replace
lost equipment and to fish with him again, for there is much that
he can learn. When the boy leaves, the old man is dreaming of lions
on a beach which he saw in Africa in his youth from a square-rigged
1. What is suggested when Manolin says to Santiago that his
father "hasn''t much faith" (p. 10) but that he, himself, "would
like to serve in some way" (p. 12)? Does this offer of Manolin''s
asking to throw the "cast net" (p. 16) echo the Bible and
underscore the boy''s respect for Santiago? Why is Santiago so
worthy of Manolin''s respect?
2. Why is the boy so important to Santiago? Despite his bad
luck, Santiago''s hope and confidence remain, even "freshening as
when the breeze rises" (p. 13) as the boy helps him prepare for his
next fishing trip. What does this statement indicate about the role
Manolin plays in Santiago''s life? Could "the boy" be regarded as a
3. Like other Hemingway characters, Santiago is very much alone,
"beyond all people in the world" (p. 50); yet he says, "No man was
ever alone on the sea" (p. 61). Why? Does he feel joined with the
creatures and universe or strengthened and sustained by them in any
way? Do his dreams of the lions or reflections about his earlier
strength support him?
4. Although determined to kill the fish, Santiago says that he
loves and respects it, and on the third day of his struggle he
says, "Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer
or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do
not care who kills who" (p. 92). Is Santiago ennobled by his fight?
Does it define his character?
5. How does the story of Santiago confirm the presence of two
themes prevalent in Hemingway''s fiction: "the undefeated" and
"winner take nothing"? Santiago says, "A man can be destroyed but
not defeated." Do you agree? Can the novella be read as an
allegory, a story with levels of meanings? Is it merely Santiago''s
story, or our story also?
After Reading the Novel
The Old Man and the Sea was acknowledged as a
masterpiece even before its publication, and Life magazine
took the unprecedented step of publishing the entire text in its
September, 1, 1953, issue, which sold over 5 million copies in two
days. Since its first appearance, the novella has continued to
affect readers of all ages profoundly. It has never been out of
print. Two film versions of the novella have been produced, the
first involving Hemingway''s participation, which stars Spencer
Tracy, and a more recent version starring Anthony Quinn. In 1999
IMAX is releasing worldwide its animated movie of The Old Man
and the Sea. Hemingway''s Esquire "fictionalized"
non-fiction articles (1933-1936): "Marlin Off the Morro: A Cuban
Newsletter" (1933); "Out in the Stream: A Cuban Letter" (1933); and
"On the Blue Water: A Gulf Stream Letter" (1936), which contains
the old fisherman sketch that was the inspiration for the novella,
are available in By-Line: Ernest Hemingway (Touchstone
Books). These articles display Hemingway''s considerable knowledge
of big-game fishing, in particular the marlin, the subjects about
which he would write in The Old Man and the Sea.