"The Old Man & the Sea" - Who Was Hemingway's "Santiago"?

 I'll pretty much say the same thing I've been saying so far: I suppose I don't need to explain much about The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway's greatest work and a cornerstone in American Literature.

The story's not complex. There's nothing like intrigue or several side stories with lots of characters bound together in The Old Man and the Sea. But that's one of the reasons why it's the book it is. Beauty lies in simplicity, according to many. And The Old Man and the Sea verifies it. All you're reading about is an old fisherman setting out to catch the big fish, but ending up with its carcass and a little flesh on it because of the sharks. And yet you can't help but have your heart filled with sorrow and compassion for old Santiago.

So, who was Hemingway's Santiago? Where or whom did he draw the inspiration from for his classic novel?


As long as he was alive, Ernest Hemingway insisted that there was not really anything he drew inspiration from for old fisherman Santiago or anything else in The Old Man and the Sea. As for the many theories about allegories in the writer's iconic work, he repeatedly rejected them all - if not called them silly.

Is it truly so? Or was Hemingway not talking about his inspiration?

Well, The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952. The truth is that Ernest Hemingway first wrote about his old fisherman in 1936, in an essay for Esquire magazine. Then he got himself occupied with For Whom the Bell Tolls and he left his old fisherman for a few years. But he never took him off his mind.

Hemingway's Santiago

Hemingway had already met Gregorio Fuentes, the captain of his boat under the name Pilar, in 1928. Gregorio Fuentes became a friend of Hemingway for longer than 30 years - until the writer's suicide in 1961. The Old Man and the Sea's Santiago had a lot in common with Fuentes. He was thin and blue-eyed, born in Canary Islands among others. It also appears that Hemingway discussed the book with Fuentes quite often. So, there's enough ground to claim that Fuentes was an inspiration for Hemningway.

As for Santiago's adventure in The Old Man and the Sea, this is were the theories on allegory - reasonably - find ground in.

Ernest Hemingway was one of the lucky writers. By saying "lucky", I mean he was one of the writers whose work became popular and praised while they were still alive. Hemingway won a Pulitzer, a Nobel Prize and saw his works being filmed. However he didn't manage to escape criticism.

The Last Fishing Expedition

The Old Man and the Sea was his last work. He had already been acclaimed before the end of World War II though, thanks to The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The latter one was published in 1940 and it wasn't until 1950 Hemingway published Across the River and Into the Trees. Now, that was not only a publishing failure, but also a highly criticized book.

It was a common feeling that Hemingway was done as a writer; that the days he wrote masterpieces were far over. He definitely didn't enjoy it! He felt he had to do something in order to change the impressions on him. So, like his Santiago who set out for the big fish because it had been a long time with no catch, he got determined to write the big book that would restore everyone's faith in him. And like his Santiago, he knew it was his last chance.

Luckily for the writer, he had better results than his hero! Regarding the inspiaration for Santiago's mission, we don't have information and we'll probably never have. The story's end was part of Hemingway's original idea back in 1936. Maybe Gregorio Fuentes was the inspiration for this too, maybe not.

Hemingway was smart indeed! When he sent his manuscript to his publisher, he wrote to him that this was his greatest work so far and that he would never manage to write anything better than it. Apparently, he was right.

Hemingway's life wasn't an easy one. He already was a heavy drinker in the 1930's. So, it probably wouldn't be easy for him to write a book with an optimistic message. Yes, his literary fisherman was based on his captain friend and yes, the fisherman's struggle and agony was based on his. If you ask me though for one thing and only I would distinguish in his masterpiece, I would choose the writer's deep compassion and understanding for every soul in his book; even the sharks.


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