I began to read The Old Man and the Sea recently. I'm reading a paperback but for the question I'm using the link to Gutenberg.

Soon after I started to read the book, I found I did not understand what the "him" and "He" refer to in the following dialog in which the old man and the boy were chatting about the plan for the next day:

"Tomorrow is going to be a good day with this current," he said.

"Where are you going?" the boy asked.

"Far out to come in when the wind shifts. I want to be out before it is light."

"I'll try to get him to work far out," the boy said. "Then if you hook something truly big we can come to your aid."

I re-read from the beginning a few times but still couldn't figure out who or what the "he/him" refers to.

Earlier in the conversation, Santiago, the old man, said to the boy, "I can still row and Rogelio will throw the net." Google shows "Rogelio" is a male name so I think the "he/him" here may refer to Rogelio. At the beginning, I thought this makes some sense because the boy said "...if you hook something truly big we can come to your aid." In my imagination, the boy was suggesting the following:

  1. In the next day, the boy would go finishing with Santiago the old man and Rogelio. The three people would be on the same boat.
  2. Santiago must be responsible for something that I haven't learned about by reading so far, but Rogelio would throw the net as the old man said.
  3. If a really big fish would be caught, the boy and Rogelio would help the old man to deal with it. The "we" here refers to the boy and Rogelio.
  4. When this conversation was happening, the boy had been required to work on another luckier boat, so, usually, the boy would not be able to work on the same boat as the old man. However, when the boy suggested fishing together the next day, the old man said "No. Go and play baseball." So I'm guessing the "next day" was a rest day for the fishermen and the boy would be able to do some recreational activities such as playing baseball. In other words, the boy would be free to do anything. This is why he was able to offer to go fishing together.

So far so good, until I went on reading and saw the later part of the conversation:

"He does not like to work too far out."

"No," the boy said. "But I will see something that he cannot see such as a bird working and get him to come out after dolphin."

"Are his eyes that bad?"

"He is almost blind."

"It is strange," the old man said. "He never went turtle-ing. That is what kills the eyes."

The old man asked "Are his eyes that bad?" It sounds like the old man didn't really know much about Rogelio, but if the old man and Rogelio had been working together, the old man should kind of know him. Besides, if "him" refers to Rogelio, what does it mean by "get him to come out after dolphin"? Get Rogelio to come out after dolphin?

Anyway, I'm confused by this "he/him". Appreciate if anyone could help me clarify.

  • Who thinks I'm being harsh to suggest this Question belongs not here in Literature but rather to SE English Language Learners? Feb 2, 2022 at 21:31
  • @RobbieGoodwin Nah, not harsh at all. In fact, I thought about asking this question in ELL but then I thought: If I were a native speaker, I may still get confused by what "he/him" refers to. So I kind of think this is not a question about the language itself but a question that teachers may ask in a literature class.
    – yaobin
    Feb 3, 2022 at 21:18
  • Could you go back to explain both how you see the difference between "he/him" in general and how that changes "I'll try to get him to work far out" in The Old Man and the Sea? Alternatively, why not accept this is about simple language, not at all to do with literature. If that's really difficult, why not explain how you see the difference between language and literature? Feb 5, 2022 at 23:51
  • @RobbieGoodwin I think because, as the accepted answer says, Hemingway wrote this way deliberately to "give the narrative a realistic effect". He could have written in a more clear way so readers like me wouldn't be confused, but he chose not to. A writing skill is involved. In other words, in general, people could figure out what "he/him" refers to by simply looking back at the previous text. But here, looking back is not enough. The reader must think from the perspective of the characters. It's beyond the scope of simple language and has something to do with literature analysis.
    – yaobin
    Feb 7, 2022 at 16:51
  • Not for extended discussion, and if you'd put that much analysis into the text, we would be here. The actual Question might be why anyone would doubt Hemingway wrote thus for "a realistic effect". If he'd written in a more clear way so readers like you wouldn't be confused he might still be well known, but because of the different writing skill involved he would not have become Hemingway. Feb 8, 2022 at 14:53

1 Answer 1


The first sentence makes the situation clear, I think:

He was 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. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.

So the boy used to work on Santiago’s boat, but now he works on another, luckier, boat. However, the boy is still fond of Santiago. He reassures the old man:

“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”

and offers to help Santiago catch sardines and even to steal a bait-fish for him. So in this passage:

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“Far out to come in when the wind shifts. I want to be out before it is light.”

“I’ll try to get him to work far out,” the boy said. “Then if you hook something truly big we can come to your aid.”

we understand that boy’s plan is to convince “him” to fish in the same waters as Santiago, so that if Santiago gets into trouble the other boat can assist. So “him” must refer to the owner of the lucky boat on which the boy is currently working.

The other named character, Rogelio, is not the same as the owner of the lucky boat. This is clear because Santiago says that Rogelio will be helping him catch sardines, whereas the owner of the lucky boat would be catching his own sardines, not helping Santiago. Also, Santiago’s surprise at the poor eyesight of the owner of the lucky boat shows that the two fisherman are not very close.

This dialogue is not easy to follow, but that is surely a deliberate choice on Hemingway’s part, because it gives the narrative a realistic effect. The two characters are talking to each other about matters which are common to them, not explaining things to a reader. The boy knows that Santiago knows who he means by “him”, and doesn’t need to explain it for our benefit. It would not be realistic for him to say, “As you know, Santiago, we will be going out in two different boats tomorrow.”

  • Thanks! Your answer surely makes a lot of sense to me. But Heminway surely could have had the boy say "I'll get my Captain to work far out" which I guess is more realistic and makes it easier for the readers to follow. But maybe "captain" is not the appropriate way to call the owner.
    – yaobin
    Jan 30, 2022 at 4:46
  • 3
    @yaobin I'm suggesting that Hemingway deliberately made this dialogue difficult to follow, in order to create the effect of eavesdropping on a conversation where you have to work hard to figure out what the participants are saying. Hemingway was a skilful writer who could have made it easy to follow if he had wanted to do that. Jan 30, 2022 at 12:24
  • @GarethRees I'm suggesting Hemingway did nothing of the kind and the fact is, that dialogue is not difficult to follow. If you insist it is difficult, why not explain some of the difficulties? Feb 5, 2022 at 23:22
  • @RobbieGoodwin The difficulties are the ones encountered by the OP and set out in the question. Feb 6, 2022 at 17:25
  • @GarethRees The difficulties set out in the question fit the level of language. If the topic belongs in SE Literature, what won't? I think you're misleading Yaobin and Hemingway didn't deliberately - or at all -make this dialogue difficult to follow, in order to create the effect of eavesdropping on a conversation where you have to work hard to figure out what's being said. Rather, he kept it simple, in order to create the effect of realism. If you have to work hard to figure it out, that skilful writer who could have made it easy to follow if he had wanted to, got it wrong. Feb 8, 2022 at 15:10

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