A Biographical Analysis of The Old Man and the Sea
By Clint Kalbach

Many of Ernest Hemingway’s stories are either literally or figuratively based on his experiences.  Philip Young, a literary critic and authority on Ernest Hemingway, concurs: “Many of the stories…are very literal translations of some of the most important events in Hemingway’s own life” (63).  The Old Man and the Sea continues this autobiographical tradition.  When The Old Man and the Sea is analyzed from a biographical perspective, it is obvious how Hemingway’s life influenced his writing.  First of all, The Old Man and the Sea can be interpreted as an allegory of Hemingway’s career at the time he wrote it.  In addition, Hemingway was lonely when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, and his loneliness is apparent in the protagonist’s loneliness and isolation.  Furthermore, in this novel, women are portrayed in a negative way, which is a result of Hemingway’s failed relationships with women, including his mother. 

Hemingway’s struggle as an author is similar to the protagonist’s struggle as a fisherman.  Young writes: “The Old Man and the Sea is…an account of Hemingway’s personal struggle…to write his best….  The…metaphors…need almost no translation” (126).  Many people thought Hemingway’s best days were behind him.  Literary critic Sonny Elizondo agrees: “The Old Man and the Sea was published in1952, after the bleakest ten years in Hemingway's literary career…and people began to think that Hemingway had exhausted his store of ideas” (“Background”).  Hemingway was one of the most prolific and successful writers of the 1920s and 1930s, but in 1950, after nearly ten years without publishing a novel, Across the River and Into the Trees was published, and it was a disaster.  According to award-winning biographer James R. Mellow, “Across the River and Into the Trees is the worst of the [Hemingway] novels published during Hemingway’s lifetime…” (557). 

Similarly, Santiago, the protagonist, was once a great fisherman, but now he is regarded as a has-been, because he has gone “84 days…without catching a fish” (Hemingway 9).  Therefore, “many of the fishermen…make fun of the old man…” (Hemingway 11).  The diction Hemingway uses to describe Santiago’s sail also illustrates how unsuccessful he is as a fisherman.  Hemingway writes: "The sail was patched with flour sacks and…it looked like the flag of permanent defeat" (9).  Moreover, Elizondo points out: “The simplicity of Santiago's house further develops our view of Santiago as…unsuccessful….  His house is very simple with a bed, table, and chair on a dirt floor” (“Summary”).  Hemingway not writing a successful novel in ten years is similar to Santiago not catching a fish in 84 days. 


With such a long time between novels and his reputation as a great author on the line, Hemingway had to prove himself again, and Santiago also felt that he had to prove himself again.  Hemingway writes: “[T]he thousand times  [Santiago] 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).  To save their reputations, Santiago had to catch a great fish, and Hemingway had to write a great novel; and Santiago’s quest to catch a great fish is symbolic of Hemingway’s quest to write a great novel.  “[T]he old fisherman figuratively sails the author's unconscious…in an attempt to pull forth the great story from its…depths” (Elizondo, “Summary”). 


Moreover, Santiago’s marlin is torn apart by sharks, and that is symbolic of critics tearing apart The Old Man and the Sea, which—after the reviews of Across the River and Into the Trees—is probably what Hemingway expected.  Elizondo concurs: "The sharks are…embodiments of literary critics tearing apart Santiago's (Hemingway's) catch (book)" (“Summary”).  Hemingway thought The Old Man and the Sea was a great novel.  Before the book was published, he said, “It’s as though I had gotten finally what I had been working for all my life” (qtd. in Young 132).  However, he probably expected literary critics to condemn it.  Hemingway was still hurting from the literary critics’ condemnation of Across the River and Into the Trees, which he thought was fine.  According to Mellow, before Across the River and Into the Trees was published, Hemingway said to his publisher, “If it isn’t good [sic] you can hang me by the neck…” (559).  In addition, although critics condemned Across the River and Into the Trees, Hemingway remained confident in its quality.  He said, “In writing I have moved through arithmetic, through plain geometry and algebra, and now I am in calculus.  If they [critics] don’t understand that, to hell with them” (Mellow 561).  Therefore, Hemingway probably thought The Old Man and the Sea would also be criticized. 


Hemingway’s failed marriages and rejection by a teenage girl also influenced the writing of this story.  Hemingway was married four times, and his last marriage, to Mary Welsh, was also in jeopardy during the time he wrote this novel.  When Hemingway was married to Mary, he told a friend that "[m]arried couples could find themselves on roads that diverged and…it had already happened in [his] marriage"  (Mellow 555).  Also, at the time Hemingway was writing this book, a teenage girl rejected him.  James R. Mellow claims that, in 1948, Hemingway fell in love with a nineteen-year-old Italian girl named Adriana Ivancich.  They kept up a six-year correspondence, and during that time, Hemingway expressed his love and loneliness for her.  Adriana, however, was not in love with Hemingway; and she only thought of him as a friend (553-554). 


Hemingway’s loneliness is apparent in Santiago’s characterization and external conflict.  Santiago’s wife is dead, so he is lonely before he faces his external conflict.  Hemingway writes: “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it…” (16).  Adding to Santiago’s loneliness, Manolin, his only companion, is not allowed to fish with him anymore.  Santiago misses Manolin.  During the rising action, when he hooks the marlin, he says, “I wish I had the boy” (Hemingway 45).  He reiterates this remark throughout his ordeal.  Since Manolin cannot go with him, Santiago has to sail his boat by himself, "beyond all people in the world" (Hemingway 50).  "He is surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of…water" (Elizondo, “Summary”).   This isolation adds to the theme of loneliness. 

Hemingway’s hatred of women is also apparent in this story.  Not only is this a result of his failed marriages and rejection by Adriana, it is a result of his relationship with his mother, Grace.  “Grace had the unexplained penchant for wanting to pass off her two eldest children, Marcelline and Ernest, as twins, dressing them alike, sometimes in dresses” (Mellow 11).  In addition, according to Mellow, Hemingway blamed his mother for his father’s suicide (565).  These occurrences caused Hemingway to say, “[I] hate her guts, and she hates mine” (Mellow 565). 

Because of Hemingway’s negative experiences with women, most of the references to females in The Old Man and the Sea are negative.  One of Santiago’s, and Hemingway’s, beliefs is that females lack self-control.  Elizondo notes: “The representation of femininity, the sea, is characterized expressly by its caprice and lack of self-control” (“Themes”).  This is apparent in the exposition, when Santiago says, "If [the sea] did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them" (Hemingway 30).  Moreover, "[Santiago] remembered the time he had hooked one of a pair of marlin…and the hooked fish, the female, made a wild, panic stricken, despairing fight that soon exhausted her" (Hemingway 49). 

In contrast, Santiago believes that males have an abundance of self-control.  He knows that the marlin he has hooked now is a male before he sees it.  He says, "He took the bait like a male, and he pulls like a male, and his fight has no panic in it" (Hemingway 49).  According to Elizondo, Hemingway believed that “To be a man is to behave with honor and dignity …and…to display a maximum of self-control” (“Themes”).  The manner in which Hemingway exalts males further deprecates females. 


Santiago also associates femininity with deceptiveness.  In the exposition, when he sees the Portuguese man-of-war, he refers to it as “agua mala,” which means “you whore” (Hemingway 35).   Whore is a derogatory term used towards women, so Santiago sees the Portuguese man-of-war as a symbol of femininity.  After he calls the Portuguese man-of-war a whore, he says, "The iridescent bubbles…are beautiful.  But they …[are] the falsest thing in the sea" (Hemingway 36). 


Interestingly, there is only one woman in this story, a tourist, and since she briefly appears in the denouement, her seemingly innocuous observation is significant.  The woman sees the remains of Santiago’s marlin—a long spine with a huge tail at the end.  Upon seeing the remains of the marlin, she asks a waiter what it is, and in broken English, the waiter tries to explain that sharks ate the marlin.   But she thinks he is trying to say that the remains are a shark’s, and she says, “I didn’t know sharks had such handsome, beautifully formed tails” (Hemingway 127).  "The female tourist…represents the feminine incapacity to appreciate Santiago's [Hemingway’s] masculine quest…  She does not speak the waiter and Santiago's language…so [she] is ignorant of the old man's [Hemingway’s] great deeds” (Elizondo, “Summary”). 


Ernest Hemingway’s life certainly influenced the writing of The Old Man and the Sea.  The similarities between Santiago and Hemingway are remarkable.  Both of them were struggling: Hemingway had not written a successful novel in ten years, and Santiago had not caught a fish in 84 days.   Therefore, they both had to prove themselves again.  Moreover, Santiago’s marlin being torn apart by sharks is symbolic of critics tearing apart The Old Man and the Sea, which is probably what Hemingway expected.  Because of Hemingway’s loneliness, which was a result of his failed marriages and rejection by Adriana, Santiago’s wife is dead, and he is lonely and isolated.  Furthermore, Hemingway’s negative experiences with women influenced him to portray females in a negative way.  He believed that women lack self-control, and they are deceptive.  He also felt that Adriana, his wives, or women in general did not recognize his, or any man’s, greatness.  The Old Man and the Sea is a manifestation of Hemingway’s life experiences.

                                     Works Cited

Elizondo, Sonny. Classic Note on The Old Man and the Sea: Background. 11 Aug. 2000. Grade Saver. 18 Feb. 2002 <>.

Elizondo, Sonny. Classic Note on The Old Man and the Sea: Main Themes. 11 Aug. 2000. Grade Saver. 18 Feb. 2002 <>.

Elizondo, Sonny. Classic Note on The Old Man and the Sea: Summary. 11 Aug. 2000. Grade Saver. 18 Feb. 2002 <>.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1952.

Mellow, James R.  Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Young, Philip. Ernest Hemingway: A Reconsideration. New York: Harcourt, 1966.