The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea Theme of Memory and the Past
Memory is a dominant theme in The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago may be old, but he can recall the strength and prowess of his youth. At first we wonder if such elements have faded from his character over time, but we're left with a sneaking suspicion that the old man has definitely lived up to the heroic image we see portrayed in memories of his younger self.
We also see that memory is overlaid with current action—the past can be used to comment on the present (compare the old man’s struggle with the man in Casablanca to his battle with the fish). The old man’s memory of the lions is a constant motif, as he implicitly compares his own abilities to their prowess and pride. We wonder what Mufasa would have to say about that.
Questions About Memory and the Past
- What’s up with the lions? When does the old man dream about them, and what is the significance of the fact that they are from his past. He’s not making this stuff up.
- How do the old man’s specific memories create a commentary on the present? For example, there’s the arm wrestling struggle as compared to the battle with the marlin.
- Does the old man’s past represent a better time in his life?
- How is the boy’s relationship to the old man dependent on their past together?
Chew on This
The old man’s man memories are harmful to him, a painful reminder of the strength, prowess, and respect he no longer has.
The old man’s memories are beneficial for him, encouraging him to fight against the marlin beyond all reasonable measures in order to regain what he once had.