The Old Man and the Sea

Exploring Hemingway's Classic Novella to Fulfill the Common Core State Standards

Summary, with References to Plot, Theme, Characterization, Symbolism, and Setting

     Some scholars assert that there are many plot archetypes. In contemporary literature studies, hundreds of sub-genres and "lenses" are posited, each one enjoying its healthy share of devotees (gender studies, Marxist criticism, and socio-political bias-hunting are but a few examples). Contrarily, I assert that all literature can be understood through one basic structural dynamic: virtue versus villainy. Good versus evil - in all its shades - is paradoxically the primeval and timeless conflict, as popular now as it ever has been. Nowhere is this made more apparent, though subtly and artfully so, than in Ernest Hemingway's Nobel Prize-winning novella, The Old Man and the Sea.

     The tale centers on the novella's protagonist, a fisherman named Santiago, and his attempt to capture a giant marlin in his old age. The plot is deceptively benign: it is superficially about an old man on a boat for 80 percent of the book's length. However, this simplicity is also the novella's greatest strength, for it belies one of the strongest examples of the literary hero since Milton's Samson and Virgil's Aeneas. Santiago has no superpowers, no histrionic character traits, and no zany quirks. All he is equipped with is his quiet integrity, and this is enough.

     The story begins and ends with humility. In the exposition it is revealed that Santiago had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, which was a guarantor of poverty for a fisherman in 1950s Havana. He lives in a shack with nothing but the essentials for survival and pictures of his wife (whom it is hinted had died sometime before the plot begins). He sleeps on a springy cot unfit for a criminal, stuffing his unused clothes with newspaper to create makeshift pillows. His only solace comes from a young boy named Manolin, who occasionally helps Santiago at sea and brings him food. One day, Manolin informs Santiago that he can no longer help him on his fishing trips, as Manolin's parents deemed Santiago to be "unlucky." Saddened but undeterred, Santiago embarks on another fishing trip alone.

     At sea, Santiago endures a number of hardships throughout his days-long excursion. Physically, he battles exhaustion and scarring, cut by both fish and fishing line. He does indeed come upon a great marlin - majestic in size and color - but the fight it presents is equally impressive. In one memorable scene, Santiago is forced to hold onto the remaining fishing line by pulling it over his shoulder while his body is turned away from the fish, such as how a miner might carry a bag full of gold on his way out of a cave. The line digs and slices into his skin, and the pain is predictably intense. His hand, on account of the constant grip he must maintain, eventually seizes into a useless, rigid claw, and he spends nearly an entire day nursing it back to an acceptable mobility. He battles tuna (for bait as well as for his own sustenance), sharks, jellyfish, and the marlin itself throughout the ordeal.

An artist's rendering of the author, Ernest Hemingway

     Exhaustion sets in, which manifests a number of mental and emotional issues that pile on top of the aforementioned physical pain. While some of the early signs of fatigue are not exceptionally severe (he speaks to a bird that lands on his little boat a bit longer than would be considered normal, but he quickly recognizes his weariness and regains his focus), it eventually uncovers (and worsens) his latent loneliness and yearning for the past. He always regains his composure, however, and uses the frequent lulls in the action to reflect lucidly on his life. In the scope of a few pages, he remembers his wife with sadness, ruminates on the effectiveness of prayer, wishes he were as strong and skilled as "the great DiMaggio" (his baseball idol), philosophizes about the (potentially) feminine nature of the sea, and yearns for the time in his life when he was in his physical prime. The latter proves to be the most moving account. Santiago tells of an arm wrestling match that he had won decades earlier. He describes how he dethroned a man who, to that point, had never been beaten. The match lasted nearly a complete twenty-four hours, and they sat in a stalemate for much of the time. Santiago eventually wins the battle of wills, and the victory earns him the nickname el campeón. While this story initially comes across as a silly and predictable caricature of manliness, it eventually becomes clear that it reveals an important truth in Santiago's character: his utter unwillingness to surrender. It foreshadows his eventual victory over the marlin, for although he is exhausted, bruised, and cut, and although he battles the marlin for days, he emerges triumphant; he catches the fish.

     But the victory is an incomplete one, and the philosophical underpinnings of the novella rise feverishly to the surface as the plot rolls into the resolution. After Santiago catches the marlin, he straps it to the side of his boat - for it is much too big to haul on board - and begins making his way back to shore. In the novella's final pages, however, Santiago's triumph is tarnished, if not totally erased. His boat is besieged by sharks, the very sharks that had brought him anxiety earlier. Although Santiago fights them off as fiercely as his fatigued body would allow, the sharks eviscerate the marlin, leaving only the head and the tip of the tail. He reaches shore with the marlin's carcass, which now is fit neither for food nor profit. Through a brief dialogue with Manolin, we learn that Santiago considers his endeavor a failure, even though he was successful in catching the fish. According to Santiago, his disappointment stems from his failure to protect the marlin's dignity. He had developed a respect for the fish, referring to it as his "brother" in the heart of the plot, and in so doing disgraced his adversary (and, accordingly, himself) by allowing it to be unceremoniously destroyed. Feeling like a failure, his exhausted body collapses onto his makeshift bed, and sleep wraps his troubled mind in quiet darkness.

When Santiago awakens, he finds Manolin waiting for him with coffee and newspapers to lift his spirits. They talk for a while, and Manolin eventually convinces Santiago that what he was able to do alone at sea was undeniably remarkable, especially for a man of Santiago's age. It takes some time and patience, but Santiago's perseverance wins out again, and his mood is improved. He agrees to allow Manolin to fish with him once more, a decision which symbolizes his acceptance of the fact that he is no longer "unlucky;" he rightfully considers himself a genuine fisherman again, restoring his battered integrity and identity. He is a hero, one of the quiet, uncelebrated sort, and his victory is an emotional and spiritual one. Still tired from his fight, Santiago falls asleep again; but this time, he dreams of the beautiful sunsets and lions that enlivened the beaches of his youth spent fishing in Africa, incandescent emblems of his reclaimed heroic dignity.

Audio of the Full Text, as Narrated by
Actor Charlton Heston

Questions/Tasks Addressing Each of
Webb's Depth of Knowledge Levels

Standard and Strand Selected: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.1 -Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

DOK 1:

     1) On page 11, how do the other fisherman treat Santiago?

    2) Read the following line, taken from page 31: "Each line, as thick around as a big pencil, was looped onto a green-sapped stick." What type of figurative language appears in this quotation?

**These examples satisfy the requirements of the DOK level 1 because it merely has the students engage in basic recall (question 1) and identification of figurative language (question 2), which are the most common question types at this level.  With regard to the standard, both questions must be answered by using explicit information culled from (or spotted within) text evidence.

DOK 2:

      - Please see the graphic organizer below:

**This graphic organizer, which is meant to be employed in an Image Walk activity paired with a descriptive scene in the plot (page 72 in my text, specifically), addresses the selected Common Core strand in that it requires students to provide text evidence for each of the five examples of imagery they find.  In this case, the evidence would come in the form of sensory details that the students perceive when listening to a passage from the novella.  This task surpasses DOK level 1 because now it requires students not only to recall and provide evidence, but to begin thinking about the evidence and, thus, expand their comprehension. They have to specifically isolate particular words and phrases that trigger the sensory reactions, which has them becoming increasingly critical in their reading.  However, the task does not quite reach a DOK level 3 because it does not require the students to make deeper connections or trace the recurrence of a theme/idea over the course of the entire novella.

DOK 3:

- This task would require that the students first interpret this passage:

“He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Then, once interpreted, a more expansive analysis is required.  The students will be asked to assert what this passage reveals about Santiago's view of the nature of womanhood (and, even more implicitly, manhood).  

- Next, they would have to connect this understanding of gender (which they may further ascribe to his cultural background or time period) with the symbolism/personification of the sea, which is meant to embody the characteristics of Santiago's idealized "woman."  

- Lastly, the students would have to solidify this into one motif, or recurring central idea, and chart how this motif appears both in earlier passages that they read, and then again in future passages.

**To accomplish all of this correctly and thoroughly, text evidence would be needed both receptively (in the initial interpretation phases), and expressively (when the students are made to find passages on their own that reflect the motif that they have discovered and assert them independently), easily fulfilling the Common Core strand.  With regard to applying Webb's knowledge levels, this task adheres closely to the requirements of the DOK level 3.  The task requires students to gradually arrive at an abstract central idea (the sea's embodiment of idealized femininity), and then uncover how this view of gender roles (and the sea's relationship with them) is manifested throughout the course of the entire novella.  This task does not meet the requirements of a DOK level 4 because it does not have the students explore this idea in other texts, so the crucial dynamic of intertextuality, essentially required for level 4, is ignored.  


                    (please continue reading below the video for my DOK 4 task)

Animated Short Film Version of
The Old Man and the Sea

DOK 4:

- For the purposes of reaching DOK level four, I will expand upon the motif-centered analysis of my DOK 3 task. After they have finished the novella and have traced the central idea (once again: the sea's embodiment of idealized femininity), I will have my students compare and contrast the concept with how it is expressed in the short film (above).  Despite encompassing only about 20 minutes, the film is faithful to the plot of the story, but it does feature some important deviations.  Most important of all of these deviations is its minimalist use of narration - the story is told more through the richly symbolic visuals and Santiago's facial expressions and posture.  The students will need to examine and employ, therefore, different kinds of "text" evidence from the video, such as color choices, angles/perspectives, music cues, etc., in order to engage in their analysis.  Ultimately, they will discover whether or not the motif is as successfully conveyed in the film as it is in the novella.  There is no one correct answer to this question, so a variety of divergent responses are possible.

- Then, the students would carry out a similar procedure using an essay by E.B. White on the allure of the ocean, "The Sea and the Wind that Blows" (continued below).

Writer EB White, author of "The Sea and the Wind that Blows"

     The work is an essay, which adds a nonfiction element to the students' analyses, allowing them to triangulate their comprehension across three separate genres/media: fiction, nonfiction, and film. In the essay, White portrays the sea as a fearsome but irresistible force of nature, describing how it never fails to compell him to got out sailing well into his middle age years. He uses many metaphors to vivify and share his enthusiasm for the sea, including a comparison to a woman similar in kind to the one made by Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea.  However, White does not stop there; he declares that he is drawn to the sea not unlike an alcoholic is drawn to a drink- it is not always pleasurable (to sail the dangerous sea alone), but the thrill cannot be denied or evaded.  The essay is rife with textual gems that the students can examine, which will only enliven their appreciation of Hemingway's text.

**The students will use these text details to compare and contrast, in writing, the symbolic value of the sea in all three texts.  Accordingly, text details are required in all phases of the task, effectively fulfilling the first strand of the Common Core Reading: Literature standards.  The task fulfills the requirements of a DOK level 4 because it harnesses the analytic power of the DOK 3 task and injects it with cognitive rigor and potential insight by way of intertextual exploration.  The ideas that the students will uncover will be simultaneously abstract and malleable, in that the sea-femininity metaphor can be understood from a number of different perspectives (and with varying levels of assent or dissent) but nevertheless appears in each text/medium.  Because of this rigor and potential for thoughtful, unique, and nuanced understanding described above, this task can be confidently asserted to meet the standards of the DOK level 4.

Technological Implementation:
Using Prezi to Visualize the "Hero's Quest" Narrative Structure, as Seen in The Old Man and the Sea

     Below is a Prezi I created which can be used by students to learn about the "Hero's Quest," a common narrative structure that is employed by Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea. It not only details the essential components of the "Hero's Quest" structure, but it also provides examples from sources outside of the novel, including comic books, films, and other classic works of literature.

     I would not use this Prezi as an in-class presentation.  Instead, I would have the students access it piecemeal in more of a flipped-classroom approach.  Outside of class, the students would carefully read one portion of the Prezi at a time, and then apply it to the novella in class (sometimes in groups, sometimes independently).  This way, more of our in-class time can be spent at the "applying" and "analyzing" levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, rather than merely the "understanding" or even "remembering" levels.  

However, the use of this Prezi would be even stronger when paired with another technological implementation that allows students to create and manipulate their own understanding of the "Hero's Quest," this time using evidence from The Old Man and the Sea exclusively.  Please read on past the Prezi to see an example of such an extension.

Leveraging Prezi Using Mindomo

Click on the button below to see a Mindomo template that could be altered, manipulated, and populated by students (this would be presumably created entirely by the students).

     As can be seen, the Mindomo map can be used to organize visually (and creatively) the text details culled after applying the "Hero's Quest" text structure and analyzing the plot to discover which events most accurately adhere to each phase. The students will have a veritable inventory of strong details - quotes and paraphrases - that could then be used for a variety of purposes, including, but not limited to, a culminating essay on the nature of heroism in The Old Man and the Sea and how appropriate it is to designate Santiago a hero.

     This excerpt from Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony is the perfect embodiment of Santiago's unwavering perseverance and severity in the face of obstacles.  One can hear pain in the cello's low notes, but beneath this minor-key surface, the music contains a steadfastness and strength that are undeniable.  The music seems superficially bleak, as do Santiago's difficulties throughout the novella, but this gloom belies the kind of strength and wisdom that can only be begotten from suffering.

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