Art Culture

Humanity vs nature: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Nayan Sayed Jibon | Published: 22:15, Jun 03,2020 | Updated: 13:15, Jun 04,2020


Earnest Hemingway’s protagonist Santiago is a classic example of the nature of humankind. Santiago shows how human, in the face of the harshest nature, can be destroyed but never defeated. The current COVID-19 pandemic is another such test which has already destroyed our known world but mankind will not be defeated, writes Nayan Sayed Jibon 

THE biggest tragedies teach us the biggest lessons. This Pandemic which is the worst tragedy happening in our life has revealed many lessons that we couldn’t grasp earlier. Most importantly, it unmasked the truth about our true nature as human being. The cruel attack of the virus, its casualties, the overwhelming of our health care system, its economic consequences threatening so many people’s lives, the necessity to practice social distancing and self-isolation, the uncertainty of returning to the land of normal life together are valid reasons for worry, anxiety and feelings of being defeated.

But we are not. Because, ‘A man can be destroyed but never defeated’. That was what Ernest Miller Hemingway, one of the most popular writers of the twentieth century, said and which precisely is the motto of his novella The Old Man and the Sea.

This novella was published in 1952 and awarded the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Moreover, Hemingway was also awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 ‘for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence he has exerted on contemporary style’ as the Swedish Academy writes.

The main theme of this classic book is, man versus nature which is a theme that symbolically sets humanity under the control of the natural world. True to this, the old man Santiago, the main character of the novel faces several challenges from nature and the most obvious being his battle with the giant marlin fish. Here he is, alone on the mighty ocean towed by the big fish that he has hooked. Their struggle lasts for two days, before Santiago kills the marlin.

Santiago is an old and poor fisherman in a small Cuban town called Cojímar. For many days, for more than he can even remember, he was not being able to catch a single fish. He lives in a little shack, on sandy floor, without any kitchen to cook. Every day he goes out to catch fish in his little sailboat and every day he returns with nothing. But finally one day he decides it is enough and packs his little boat with a few gallons of water, his lines and goes off to sea at dusk.

He dreams to go far out to catch a big fish. Likewise, Santiago soon catches a marlin, which is so big that initially he thinks it weighs over 1,000 pounds. Then begin the epic fight between man and beast, between an old man and a powerful fish.

The old man very carefully hooks the fish, but he cannot pull it in his little boat. Instead, the mighty fish begins to pull the boat. He becomes afraid to tie the line to the boat because the fish is very powerful and speedy; as a result, the old man bears the strain of the line with his shoulders, back, and hands. The fish continuously pulls the boat all through the day, through the night, through another day, and another night. The entire time, Santiago endures constant pain from the sharp fishing line. 

Whenever the fish lunges or leaps, the cord cuts through Santiago’s body badly. Eventually on the third day the marlin tires, and Santiago, sleepless, hurt, and nearly insane, manages to pull the marlin close enough to kill it with a spear. Dead beside the boat, he realises that the marlin is indeed the largest Santiago has ever seen. He ties it to his boat, raises the small mast, and sets sail for the shore.

However, as Santiago sails on with the fish he faces another threat from nature. Sharks are attracted to the tied up marlin, and although Santiago manages to kill a few, the sharks eat the fleshes of the fish, leaving behind only its skeleton. Santiago realises that his whole struggle with the marlin was for nothing and he has lost everything he achieved. But, soon he inspires himself by telling that, ‘a man can be destroyed but not defeated.’ Because although he has lost the fish, he has won all the challenges nature threw at him. After returning to the harbor, Santiago goes to his shack to sleep. In the meantime, truth reveals and everyone sees the skeleton tied to his boat and amazed.

So, what does this struggle tell us?

Both the fights, between the old man with the sea and between humanity and the COVID-19 can be equated with a war, the ancient war between nature and humanity. Humanity is being attacked by an invisible virus that is changing the reality. But we are also not giving up. We are fighting it with our unity, endurance, compassion, choices, and all the other things that define us as human.

Our body’s personal army is working from cellular to the macro level. Each cell, molecule, tissue, organ in this army is playing their roles in warding off this invading pathogen. Like the old man in the sea, humanity is being humbled by this virus. The patients are fighting with panic in their eyes. Coupled with the anxiety that comes with not being able to have adequate oxygen and breathe. Many of them are surviving and many of them are exhaling their last breath with a sigh of not seeing their family for the last time.

In the front line of this war, many workers, including doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, and sanitation workers are protecting with their shield of hard work. The nurses and the doctors are constantly on the edge, their adrenaline is always pumping and they are in a constant dilemma of what decision to take. Many of them have kids, some of them may have breastfeeding ones but they are not hesitating to take the extra 10 minutes in the ICU with their protective equipment and holding the hand of their patients in their last moments.

Not only physically or emotionally but this pandemic has also knocked down the fort of our economic growth that we erected with our sweat and blood. We are losing our jobs, businesses, industries, savings and the global debt burden is at an all-time high. But like Santiago, the old man we’ve seen in the novella, we are determined to fight till our last breath because we believe that humanity can be destroyed but never defeated. 

Yes, we are in a war. But amid this terrible battlefield we found a chance to dig deep into our human nature. Historically, many pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and enter a new world. This one is no different. It is a bridge between the worlds of our past and future.

Either we can choose to walk through it dragging the carcass of our old self which is infected with avarice, binaries, dogmas, and differences or we can walk through it lightly with our little luggage of unity, compassion, love and ready to imagine a brave new world.

Nayan Sayed Jibon is a student of Jahangirnagar University

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