Santiago as the Hemingway Code Hero by Chloe Lizotte

The prolific author Ernest Hemingway once defined courage as “grace under pressure.” This best describes a specific breed of protagonists known as the Hemingway Code Hero. A Hemingway Code Hero is a character who must conduct his life with a certain code of living when faced with the prospect of his own mortality.

The qualities of courage, humility, and dignity in the face of defeat define a Hemingway hero. These same qualities also define Santiago, the main character of Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea. Barely a shell of a man, living in poverty and without catching a single fish for eighty-four days, Santiago sets out to hook a massive marlin in order to support himself and his noticeable scarcities. The voyage tests Santiago’s physical and emotional strength – he tightly clenches his morals and his values in the face of danger so as to persevere through the epic struggle. As a Hemingway Code Hero, Santiago proves time and time again throughout the novella that external obstacles are not as important as one’s internal courage and dignity when it ultimately comes to one’s survival. A vital component of the old man’s personality that proves crucial to his survival is his youthful energy and spirit.

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From the exterior, Santiago does not appear to be heroic. Hemingway introduces him as “an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish” (9). A wiry old man with “deep-creased scars [on his hands] from handling heavy fish on the cords” (10), at first glance, Santiago seems to be quite fragile and far from the ideal, picturesque hero. However, his appearance is the only area in which Santiago has lost his youth, as “everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated” (10). This single line allows readers to glimpse Santiago’s major heroic qualities.

While his body may seem to be broken and defeated, his eyes are resilient and triumphant, much like his soul. Without this spirit, Santiago would lack the energy to be persistent in the conflict with the marlin. While the handicap of his aging body becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses, what with his fading strength and injured palms, Santiago’s inner strength prevails and provokes him to “fight until [he] die[s]” (115). While the definition of a Hemingway Code Hero differs greatly from that of a stereotypical “hero,” a common trait that all heroes share is bravery. Throughout the struggle with the marlin, Santiago continually displays courage and fortitude in the face of pain and suffering. For instance, Santiago’s fishing line cuts deeply into his hand as he attempts to reel in the marlin.

Santiago “felt the line carefully with his right hand and noticed his hand was bleeding” (55-56). Despite the tremendous physical pain, Santiago faces his suffering valiantly. Hemingway Code Heroes maintain dignity in the midst of suffering and defeat, so the unspoken code requires Santiago to proceed further into the struggle. Santiago “was comfortable but suffering, although he did not admit the suffering at all” (64) – the response an ideal Code Hero would have to a situation such as this. Without such strength, the motivation to succeed and press on until the end of the fight would deplete with the onset of any major hindrance.

One would find it impossible to accomplish anything with willpower as weak as this. Santiago later comments that “pain does not matter to a man” (84) as he examines his injured right hand, the mentality a true Hemingway Code Hero possesses. Throughout the story, Santiago exhibits the value and worth of humility in a Code Hero. Early on in the story, Hemingway reveals that Santiago “was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride” (13-14). While Santiago takes pride in his emotional strength in that he constantly refuses to admit defeat (as his moral code dictates), he does not possess foolish pride in the sense of rank.

Santiago does not believe he is better than anyone else, and realizes the importance of humility in life. His tremendous humility becomes even more visible during his battle with the marlin. Santiago notes that he and the fish have different strengths – Santiago carries the gift of human intelligence, yet the marlin is “more noble and able” (63). He struggles with the question of whether or not the fish is worthy of being killed and eaten, deciding “there is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behavior and his great dignity” (75). Santiago does not regard himself as any better off than the fish; rather, he thinks of the marlin as an admirable opponent, a “brother” (59).

Yet, he never loses sight of the true fight – he is always focused on the task at hand (catching the marlin) and perseveres, following the code in order to accomplish what he intended to. Santiago’s humility keeps him grounded, allowing him to remain morally well-rounded as he fights to reel in the marlin. Santiago’s numerous challenges and triumph over adversity appear continually throughout the work. Santiago’s seeming lack of physical strength almost convinces him he cannot continue, however, Santiago reminds himself that “man is not made for defeat…a man can be destroyed but not defeated” (103). This statement reflects the true sentiment of the Hemingway Code Hero – never backing down in the midst of defeat while ensuring that one’s moral code remains intact. The heroic nature of Santiago comes alive when he seems to be most defeated.

While he may appear unsuccessful externally as the novella draws to a close, his internal dignity never wavers. He constantly stays true to his code in the face of adversity – in the face of death he reaffirms his life and worthiness in the universe. Santiago illuminates the basic essence of the Hemingway Code Hero, the knowledge that triumph is associated with internal strength and dignity in the center of a chaotic, suffering world.