English 204 – Environmental Literature

Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.

Discussion Questions:  The Old Man and the Sea


·        Consider the inherent contradiction in this quote by Hemingway from Green Hills of Africa and what Santiago does in The Old Man and the Sea.  If you don’t see the paradox of the Machine and the Garden theme, then discuss how both attitudes can be compatible.


“A continent ages quickly once we come.  The natives live in harmony with it.  But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out and, next, it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow away in Canada.  The earth gets tired of being exploited.  A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts.  When he quits using beasts and uses machines, the earth defeats him quickly.  The machine can’t reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise.  A country was made to be as we found it.  We are the intruders and after we are dead we may have ruined it but it will still be there and we don’t know what the next changes are.  I suppose they all end up like Mongolia.”


·        Hemingway has been categorized as a primitivist—that is he longs for and searches for unspoiled natural settings.  He also wants (as did Thoreau) to confront nature at a primitive level, to confront alone the essential facts of life and reduce life to its most elemental terms.  Find passages in The Old Man and the Sea that suggest that Santiago is that same kind of primitivist.  Do you find Santiago heroic in a tragic sense?  If so, why do you admire him?


According to Joseph Meeker, the tragic hero “demonstrates that unique human individuals are capable of experiences that go beyond the capacity of humanity in general…Neither the laws of nature nor the laws of men are absolute boundaries to the tragic hero, but are rather challenges which he must test by attempting to transcend them…The suffering which accompanies his struggle or results from it is merely a price that must be paid for his momentary freedom from the restraints accepted by all other creatures…Personal greatness is achieved at the cost of great destruction…but…any price is justified for the fulfillment of the unique personality” (Comedy, 1974, 50-51).  Santiago claims that “man can be destroyed but not defeated.”  Is he thus a tragic hero?


·        Find passages that suggest how Santiago views nature.


·        Explain why Santiago experiences an inner struggle between feelings of sin and necessity.  It is sinful to kill the marlin but he must do it.



·        Hemingway said:  “There isn’t any symbolism [in The Old Man and the Sea].  The sea is the sea.  The old man is an old man.  The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.  The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse.  All the symbolism that people say is shit.  What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know” (1952).  But let’s trust the tale and not the teller!  Use symbolism to read the book as a Christian allegory, as an existential text, as a Freudian dream, an autobiographical narrative, or even as a humanistic saga of triumph in the face of absurdity.


·        How do you characterize Santiago’s relationship with Manolin?


·        What do you make of Santiago’s dream of the lions on the coast of Africa?


·        How would you characterize Santiago’s view of the ocean?  Cite passages to support your claims.


·        Are there positive masculine images and negative feminine images in the book?  Locate them and suggest how Hemingway privileges the masculine over the feminine.  (Only one woman appears in the book and that is at the very end of the book.)