American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SANTIAGO. In The Old Man and the Sea* (1952) by Ernest Hemingway* (1899-1961), Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman known as “El Campeon” (the Champion), captures a giant marlin after a heroic struggle and exhausts his remaining strength battling sharks that consume the marketable meat. Injured and dying, he retains his resolution at the novel’s end; the old man’s mystical vision at the moment of the marlin’s death signifies that he has participated in a timeless natural order giving his struggle transcendent meaning.

Santiago’s epiphany culminates unions with nature experienced by a succession of protagonists in Hemingway’s middle period, when he moved from existentialism to a combined romantic and religious mysticism. Santiago possesses rare characteristics necessary for attunement to the Gulf Stream, nature’s microcosm in the novel. Indomitable, intuitively perceiving the natural purpose of his special calling, he willingly extends himself against nature’s forces in order, paradoxically, to perpetuate its processes. In this, he matches the instinctive behavior of the charismatic carnivores he encounters: the marlin and the mako shark, champions of their species. Santiago’s voyage is not a quest but a pilgrimage, the ritualized vocational routine of an initiate, and so is the recurrent dream of his identification, when a youthful sailor, with lions he observed on an African beach. Santiago’s name and vocation associate him with St. James, as do parallels between his voyage and the legend of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago’s origins add credence to his portrayal as humanity’s link to nature. His blue eyes are the color of the sea and of the marlin and mako sharing his relation to them. Furthermore, like Gregorio Fuentes, Hemingway’s boatman and partial model for Santiago, the old man is from the Canary Islands. His eye color, common in that Spanish province, suggests that Santiago’s heritage not only unites the old and new Hispanic worlds but includes Continental racial and ethnic mixtures. Moreover, as amateur oceanographers like Hemingway have long known, the Gulf Stream and the Canary Current are part of a series of surface currents circling the North Atlantic, waters that perpetually connect the sites of Santiago’s seaborne discovery of his role and his crowning, seaborne reenactment of that role. That, with his implied panethnicity, further demonstrates his suitability as a representative human among the species and forces of nature.

David R. Goodman