The old mans longing for greatness negates any moral considerations he may have, though, until he realizes his own mortality, extends that into a feeling of equality with the fish, and the fishs body is destroyed by sharks. Then he understands what he has done: stripped the noble fish, his equal, of its pride. From that point on, he regrets his actions of betraying his brother.
Therefore, throughout a majority of The Old Man and the Sea, Santiagos desire to achieve immortal greatness overshadows the immorality of his actions, but when the sharks destroy the physical embodiment of this achievement, the fish, he realizes that the end does not justify the means; immortal greatness is not obtained. Santiago, who is nearing the end of his life, has a preoccupation bordering on obsession with greatness. He continually speaks and thinks of Joe DiMaggio, the embodiment of greatness in the form of a baseball player, and his roots as a poor fishermans son strengthen the attachment.
He dreams of lions, the kings of the jungle, enjoying their domain on a beach. Greatness is clearly on Santiagos mind. In addition, he longs for the type of greatness that transcends human life; he dreams of achieving immortality through the remembrance of his name in association with something great after his death. After battling the fish for many days, Santiago thinks, I am not good for many more turns. Yes you are, he told himself. Youre good for ever (Hemingway 70). His inner speech, particularly the last sentence, demonstrates his lofty, idealistic mindset.
He views his existence as eternal; thus, the type of greatness for which he yearns inferably fits this view and is therefore eternal as well. For Santiago, immortal greatness can only be achieved through fishing: You were born to be a fisherman and the fish was born to be a fish. San Pedro was a fisherman as was the father of the great DiMaggio (Hemingway 81). By extension, Santiago labels the rest of the subjects of the sentence as great due to the reference to DiMaggio, and because he specifically refers to his role in life (a fisherman) in this context, he believes it to be his means toward achieving this greatness.
What better chance does he have than to bring in the greatest fish of his life, alone and in old age? Therefore, the fish he catches in the story is his chance at immortal greatness. Early in the story, before Santiago has even seen the fish, he thinks, If he will jump I can kill him. But he stays down for ever. Then I will stay down with him for ever (44). This thought also illuminates the connection he feels between the fish and his glory: If he does not catch the fish and bring it home, hope for his immortal existence dies because this greatness depends entirely on the fish, this fish.
Throughout most of the novella, Santiago views the fish as beneath him, as something he is entitled to subdue. For example, he takes possession of the fish, the fish he thus believes he is destined to catch, by referring to it as his before anything even nibbles on his line (Hemingway 24). Also, during Santiagos battle with the fish, he thinks, But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able (Hemingway 47).
In the first half of this passage, he clearly places himself mentally above the fish; however, the second half introduces the respect Santiago holds for the fish, which brings into question his asserted feelings of superiority. In addition, he often refers to the fish as his brother, introducing a sense of kinship he feels with the creature (Hemingway 44, 47, 57, 71, 73). Yet the air of supremacy remains, despite these outward expressions of equality, because the old mans desire for greatness is so blindingly dominant.
Santiago speaks aloud: Ill kill him though, he said. In all his greatness and his glory. Although it is unjust, he thought. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures (Hemingway 49). In this quotation, Santiago recognizes the greatness of the fish and even contemplates the moral implications of his quest to kill it, but his conclusion that he needs to finish what he set out to do to prove mans dominance over the creatures of the sea, specifically his dominance to satisfy his hunger for greatness, overshadows his brief moral questioning.
Also, Santiagos references to the fish as a brother initially do not always signify kinship and equality. Once, he makes the claim that his two hands and the fish are brothers; the fish is only related to two small parts of his body (Hemingway 47). Albeit the hands are important parts to the fisherman, he still equates the fish to a portion of his body, not the whole self, which implies there is more to than man than to the fish. A little later, he calls the stars his brothers and expresses gratitude for not having to kill such great, distant beings (Hemingway 58).
This minimizes both the fishs greatness and supposed brotherhood because Santiago clearly longs to be one amongst the stars (immortal greatness), despite, or perhaps because of, their admittedly ungraspable nature, in addition to battling a mere mortal fish. For these reasons, throughout much of the novella Santiago puts the fishs greatness below the quest for his own, despite selected words to the contrary. When Santiago comes to terms with his own mortality, however, he truly recognizes his equality with the also mortal fish.
After days of battling the fish, his inescapable mortality rises to his mind for the first time: Fish, the old man said. Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too (Hemingway 70)? Here, Santiago realizes that more than the ability to obtain greatness lies in the hands of this fish; his physical existence also hinges on the fishs actions. This thought humbles the old man, and minutes later he thinks, You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a great, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother.
Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who (Hemingway 71). For the first time the word brother carries the weight it implies because Santiago sees both himself and the fish as mortal beings in a struggle for life. No longer does he assume superior rank over the fish; instead, he recognizes the nobility of both beings as equal in his expression of unconcern for which dies. Shortly after this realization, Santiago succeeds in landing the fish; however, only an hour later, sharks begin to attack the dead fish tied to the side of his boat, ripping flesh from bone, stripping it of its physical mortal greatness.
At this point, the question of the morality of killing the fish once again surfaces: You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive, and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more (Hemingway 81)? Because Santiago had previously established a kinship with the fish, he questions his pride-motivated actions, whether or not his obtaining of immortal greatness justifies killing a noble brother.
It soon becomes clear that these means are not justified. Santiago begins to apologize to the fish numerous times, first for the sharks that mangle its body, then for killing it in the first place (Hemingway 85). Eventually, Santiago says, I shouldnt have gone out so far, fish, he said. Neither for you nor for me. Im sorry, fish (Hemingway 85). In this quotation, Santiago laments his quest for greatness (I shouldnt have gone out so far¦) and asserts that it destroyed both him and the fish.
Therefore, despite the completion of his goal to catch a great fish, Santiago fails in his quest for immortal greatness because he realizes that killing a creature equal in greatness and nobility to himself, a creature he calls his brother, is ignoble. He even acknowledges this failure after he returns to shore, when he recognizes that nothing outside himself actually beat him in his quest: And what beat you, he thought. Nothing, he said aloud. I went out too far (Hemingway 93). Only his desire for immortal greatness defeated him and barred him from achieving it, that is, if it was ever possible for him to achieve it at all.
Therefore, in Ernest Hemingways The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago fails in his quest to acquire immortal greatness. He begins by thinking of the fish as his to take, the means by which he can obtain greatness, but after realizing his own mortality he understands the fishs equality to himself and regrets taking its life, which led to the stripping of its flesh, its physical greatness. Thus, the nobility of both the old man and the fish are ruined, and he certainly fails to seal his name as an eternal presence of greatness. Perhaps his quest was doomed from the beginning; immortal greatness was never possible for the old man.