“Show Him What A Man Can Do:” Language of Gender and Attempted Re-masculinization in The Old Man and the Sea


Leonard Bopp

In the American literary imagination, the figure of Ernest Hemingway carries a certain machismo mythos. Hemingway himself projected a quintessentially masculine image: he liked bullfighting and fly fishing, was a soldier in the First World War, and had an unbeatable tolerance for cocktails and whiskey. This aura of masculinity tended to cross over into his writing. Hemingway’s novels had no patience for the glossy romanticism of Fitzgerald or the philosophical inclinations of Steinbeck; his were stories of war, of sexy Spanish macho-men squaring off with the bulls, and his crisp, matter-of-fact writing, though sometimes sentimental, leaves little time for overt emotion.

The Old Man and the Sea, one of Hemingway’s most beloved novels, is no exception. This is the tale of an aging fisherman named Santiago who, after a long unlucky streak without catching anything, finds himself locked in a three-day-long battle with a massive marlin. On the surface, it’s a story about strength and will, an epic battle between man and nature. But things are more complicated than that, for as I shall show, this narrative is caught up in the language of traditional gender orthodoxy, the one-size-fits-all, he-she binary that language predicates.

Let me explain. From the novel’s first sentence, it emphasizes the old man’s feelings of alienation. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff on the Gulf Stream,” it reads, accentuating the man’s isolation out on the water. If he had one companion, it was Manolin, the young boy who fished with him. Their relationship is special – the narrator writes that “the old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.” As we learn in the next few sentences, though, the old man has been so unlucky lately that the boy’s parents have made him fish with another boat, leaving the old man completely alone. But the old man is not merely alienated from the rest of the world; rather, the novel indicates that Santiago experiences a sense of alienation from his own body. The narration calls his body “old” and “strange,” for instance, and later, when he develops a cramp in his hand while battling the fish, the old man actually engages in a dialogue with his hand, treating his body as if it were an external being. “Be patient, hand,” he says; “let the cord go, hand, until you stop this nonsense.”  The old man treats his body, it seems, as an independent object, separate from himself.

This sense of alienation from his body seems related to an anxiety over the diminishing strength that comes with old age. While he’s dealing with this cramp, the old man tells himself an anecdote from his past about the time he beat “the great negro from Cienfugos,” who was the “strongest man on the docks,” in an arm wrestling match, earning him the nickname El Campeón, the champion. Santiago is also acutely focused on the ability to maintain one’s strength despite pain – he constantly idolizes Joe DiMaggio, the famous Yankees baseball player, saying “I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel,” and he tells himself he must continue to fight the fish despite the cramping in his hand. But the old man laments that he is no longer as strong as he once was, or as strong as he imagines himself to be. “I may not be as strong as I think,” he admits, indicating that the state of his body no longer aligns with his perception of himself. Indeed, the diminished strength that comes with age has made the old man’s body feel strange and foreign to him, like a suit that doesn’t quite fit.

But the novel goes on to equate this concern about strength and old age with a concern about masculinity. It must be noted that many of the traditional indicators of manliness – strength and perseverance through pain, for example – tend to diminish as one progresses into old age. The title itself demonstrates this – Santiago is not just a man on the sea, after all, but an old man, with the adjective “old” acting as a qualifier on his masculinity. Santiago’s battle with the fish, then, becomes an attempt to prove his enduring strength and reclaim his masculine identity. “I’ll kill him,” he says of the marlin, “in all his greatness and his glory. I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.” When the novel equates old age with a loss of masculinity, the whole thing boils down to an attempted re-masculinization narrative. After all, if the old man is so concerned with proving his continued manliness in his old age, it makes sense that he constantly compares himself Joe DiMaggio – in his time, DiMaggio was seen as the the ideal American man: incredibly athletic, strong, a World War Two veteran, and dating beautiful women (he and Marilyn Monroe, famously, were seen as one of the great celebrity romances of the 1950’s.) This might also explain the old man’s feeling feelings of kinship with the young boy, since boyhood, similar to old age, presents a certain qualification of masculinity – young boys have higher voices than grown men, for example, and are not yet as built and muscular, giving them fewer distinguishing characteristics than their female counterparts. The difference, of course, is that the boy still has the prospect of traditional masculinity before him; Santiago, however, fears that his days as a real man are behind him.

Let’s get back, however, to the battle with the marlin. The characterization of the marlin itself is revealing about the nature of gender in this novel. Throughout the book, the marlin is uniformly assigned male pronouns. Describing the fish, Santiago states that he could picture the fish “swimming in the water with his purple pectoral fins set wide as wings,” and asks “I wonder how much he sees at that depth.” He says he “will show him what a man can do,” and will “kill him in all his strength and glory.” There must be something curious about this, of course, because the old man, having not actually seen and inspected the fish, cannot actually know its biological sex. Seemingly unconsciously, the language of masculinity is projected onto a character whose actual sex is unknown. It must be that the novel designates the fish as masculine based only on the threat its strength presents to the old man’s masculinity. But the old man not only characterizes the fish as masculine – moreover, he aligns himself with the fish, he calls it his brother. Indeed, there is a sense in which the old man identifies with the fish for its masculine qualities – the fish becomes a manifestation of the masculinity the old man hopes to obtain.

Similarly, the other prominent character in the novel, the sea, is, like the marlin, characterized in gendered language, as we see in the following passage:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even as an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine as as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

There are a few important things to note about this passage. First, we must state the obvious: to the old man, the sea is decidedly feminine; he thinks of the sea as la mar for her feminine qualities – lovely, sensuous, susceptible to patterns of the moon. The other important thing to note, however, is that the old man aligns himself with the sea in much the same way he aligned himself with the marlin. Those younger fishermen, after all, are the ones who think of the sea as a “contestant” or an “enemy” – but the old man is decidedly not like those young men. By juxtaposing the male characterization of the sea by the younger fishermen with Santiago’s female characterization of the sea, the novel shows that Santiago must think of the sea not as a contestant or enemy, like the younger fishermen, but as a partner or a friend. He admits as much in the next paragraph when he writes that he was “drifting with the current” and “letting the current do a third of the work” – as if he were one with the la mar, the feminine sea.

Indeed, if the novel casts the marlin as the manifestation of the man’s desire for masculinity, then the sea is a manifestation of his feminine leanings. This, it seems, is the central conflict of the novel’s gender narrative – that Santiago, the old man who feels alienated from his body, aligns himself with both the feminine sea and the masculine marlin. In presenting this conflict, the novel solidifies the old man as gender-queer, neither fully male nor fully female, stuck somewhere in between. The funny thing about re-masculinization narratives, after all, is that they must inherently admit that the gender of the de-masculinized character isn’t all that settled to begin with.

The other vital thing to notice about this passage, though, is that the novel becomes self-conscious of the problem of gender construction – it acknowledges a degree of Nietzschean anti-essentialism when it comes to gender, letting different people assign opposite genders to the same object, an object that has no biological sex itself. It admits that gender is unsettled and ambiguous, constructed by forces external to the object itself. Nietzsche tells us that this is bound to create some level of anxiety, for “only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency” (Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” 1873). Anti-essentialism, however, wants us to transcend this anxiety – it wants us to learn to embrace this ambiguity. Having become aware the anxiety of ambiguity, then, its up to the novel, in its resolution of this conflict in the gender narrative, to say whether or not it thinks the transcendence of gender is possible.

The climax of this conflict comes at the end of the old man’s battle with the marlin. Here’s the passage:

The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it.

Maybe you already see where this is going: the narrative of gender takes an erotic twist, with the language of sexuality tacking itself onto the image of the harpoon stabbing the fish. The old man lifted the harpoon and “drove it down with all his strength,” “felt the iron go in” and “drove it further,” pushing all his weight against it. The phallic image of the harpoon stabbing the marlin transforms the killing of the fish into a homoerotic act, since the marlin had already been constructed as the old man’s masculine counterpart. But if the iron rod of the harpoon becomes a manifestation of the old man’s masculinity, then a gender reversal occurs: the marlin, as the recipient of male penetration, is feminized.

In feminizing the marlin in the moment of the man’s victory over it, the novel temporarily allows the old man to reclaim his masculine identity – he even says “I think the great DiMaggio would be proud of me today.” Those of you who know the novel, though, know that the man’s victory is doesn’t last. As the old man heads back to the shore, his fresh kill in tow, the marlin is continually attacked by sharks, who eat away the flesh from its bones. At first glance, this seems to be yet another threat to the man’s masculinity by another masculine figure – sharks, after all, are strong, scary, seemingly unbeatable creatures who, at least in the traditional cultural imagination, are able to kill almost anything in their path (especially humans, in the style of Jaws.) But careful attention to the language here reveals the sharks not as masculine in their own right, but as products of the feminine sea. “The shark was not an accident,” the novel reads; “he had come up from deep down in the water,” creating an image of the sharks emerging from the sea’s hidden depths. In a way, the sharks are cast more as a cruel trick of the sea than as an enemy in and of themselves. But add to this the defining feature of sharks, which is, of course, their teeth – as the novel describes it, the “clicking chop” of their “thrusting, all-swallowing jaws.” When the novel portrays these toothy creatures as being products of the feminine sea, it seems to be conjuring up an image of the vagina dentata – the vagina with teeth. The result, of course, is female penetration, which masculinizes the feminine figure. Almost instantaneously, then, the novel experiences another gender reversal, the feminine sea becoming masculine. Furthermore, the image of the vagina dentata connotes a fear of male castration, which constitutes a de-masculinization of the male figure – which, in this case, is the old man, whose masculinity is once again under threat. After all, having been feminized by male penetration, the dead fish had became a symbol of the man’s masculinity; but when the sharks begin attacking the marlin, the novel states that, to Santiago, “when the fish had been hit it was as though he himself were hit.”

The novel’s resolution of the old man’s conflicting gender identities, then, is two-fold. First, in instantaneously reversing the genders of both the fish and sea, the novel admits that there is nothing concrete about gender, as the gender characterizations of the sea and the marlin are fluid, able to change. If the sea and the marlin can be either male or female, then it must be that they are at once both and neither. The novel allows them qualities of both masculinity and femininity without fully committing to either identity. This results in the dissolution of gender entirely, as the novel, having blurred its gender characterizations of the fish and the sea, affirms that gender identity is not intrinsic to an object itself. The secondary result, then, is that the old man, now unable to identify with either the gender-less fish and sea, is unable to reclaim his masculinity. The re-masculinization narrative is left nullified, unfulfilled. By the time the old man returns to the shore, after all, the marlin, which had been the symbol of his masculinity, has been completely eaten by the sharks, reduced to merely its skeletal remains, no longer identifiable as male or female.

While the novel does succeed in the dissolution of gender, it does so not triumphantly, but tragically. It laments the defeat of the old man’s masculinity. As he rows back to shore, trying to fend off the sharks, the old man seems to lose his motivation to fight – “I hope so much I do not have to fight again,” he thinks, his surrendering to the sharks indicating that he has finally surrendered his masculinity. Indeed, the novel portrays the old man as having been defeated; “they beat me,” he says to Manolin, telling him that he is “not lucky anymore.” Ultimately, the novel is unable to transcend the insecurity that comes with anti-essentialism, opting instead to portray the dissolution of gender as the end of life, the end of personhood, leaving the old man in a state of non-existence and non-identity – for as the man pulls back to the shore, re-entering the world after his battle at sea, the novel states that “he felt that perhaps he was already dead.” In the end, the novel grants the man no security in his non-masculinity; instead, he goes back to his bed and sleeps for days, “dreaming about the lions” – popularly thought of as the “king of the jungle,” a symbol of masculine domination over nature. Although the old man now knows he cannot be masculine, it seems the novel does not let him accept it.

But although the novel does not celebrate the deconstruction of gender, providing no vision of transcendence, it does reveal itself to be highly critical of gender essentialism. The novel systematically projects the language of gender and sexuality onto its inhuman objects, and designates its main character as the non-binary center of gender conflict; and in the end, it resolves this conflict not in a triumphant affirmation of traditional gender orthodoxy nor in the celebration of its transcendence, but deems the conflict tragically irreconcilable, leaving main character trapped in non-identity. Indeed, it turns out that one of American literature’s favorite wise-old-men turns out to be not so comfortable with his gender identity – and the novel’s claim seems to be that if he cannot conform to the gender binary, then he cannot continue to exist. But perhaps the narrative’s saving grace might be that it doesn’t treat its non-binary object as an outcast to be ridiculed, as many popular narratives tend to do – you’d need, say, Silence of the Lambs for that. No, this narrative treats it’s non-binary figure as a tragic protagonist, a victim of external forces whose downfall is no fault of its own. Indeed, one of the reasons the old man is such a beloved character is that readers tend to be sympathetic towards the old man in his struggle and ultimate plight – they feel sorry for him, maybe even empathetic. Given the novel’s gender narrative that we’ve just uncovered, though, in which the plight of the old man is the result of his status as non-binary, I don’t think its much of a stretch to suggest that if your average American reader feels sympathy for the old man, it must mean that your average American reader, whether or not they recognize it, doesn’t actually believe in, or maybe is even opposed to, the very construct of the gender binary.