As teachers of literature, we're always trying to convince students that a text is deep: it's full of symbols, imagery, ambiguities that lead to a "big idea." The Old Man and the Sea is exactly that kind of book, but how do you get students to see that when Hemingway writes so clearly and simply? The toughest part of the book is that it seems so easy. Of course we know better: an old man going on this long fishing excursion – that means something. Those lions, that big fish – they all mean something too. But what exactly? How do we show students that simple words really can lead to complex emotions and thoughts?
One of the easier ways to understand and teach the book is to take the obvious and run with it. The old man is exactly that: an old man. Emphasis on "old" and "man." So we know immediately that we should be thinking about how the old man is testing his masculinity against the limits of his age. Students might not get this immediately if only because they're not old enough yet to care about such limitations, which is why Hemingway gives us two characters accessible to younger readers: the boy and the sea.
The boy gives us another way of thinking about manhood and masculinity: he's right on that cusp of adulthood and, like many kids, is already fully capable of taking care of himself and the old man (at least he seems to think so). That's exactly how so many kids feel: that they actually can do more than adults think they can. Hemingway's genius is to get us to understand and feel for the old man even as the old man begins to realize that he might need the young boy, that the young boy might be more capable than his youth leads the old man to think.