The Mako Constructed as a Foil for the Shovel-nosed Sharks: The Old Man and the Sea

In the novella by Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway expresses the characteristics of different types of sharks through the eyes of Santiago, the main character, using the foiling method. In this case, the Mako Shark is used as a foil for the Shovel-nosed Shark.

Towards the end of the book, Santiago encounters many sharks that come to eat away at the marlin he caught. Among these sharks were two types of sharks: the Mako Shark and the Shovel-nosed Shark. Santiago describes both kinds in great detail, so the conclusion that the author used a foil does not come from the fact that one is described more than the other, but instead because one kind shows up much more often. Out of the ten sharks Santiago encounters, only one is a Mako. The Mako Shark was also the first one to show up, therefore it can be concluded that the first shark is used simply as a foil in contrast to the Shovel-nosed Sharks that are going to appear throughout the rest of the book.

One thing that is very clear throughout the book is that Santiago has much respect for all creatures, especially the ones in the ocean. However, the Shovel-nosed Shark is one major example where this is not the case. One might presume that he would think badly of any sharks that try to eat his marlin, but this is not true. We can see through Santiago’s thoughts and words that he sees a great distinction between the two sharks.

The first distinction Santiago makes is that of carelessness vs. bravery. Although both kinds of sharks perform somewhat similar actions when confronting Santiago, he interprets their actions very differently. This is how Hemingway describes Santiago’s view of the Mako Shark: “He had come up so fast and absolutely without caution…(Santiago) knew this was a shark that had no fear at all.” (pg 100, line 6 and pg 101, line 9) Santiago considers this acting “without caution” bravery but describes the same action of the Shovel-nosed Shark this way: “…in the stupidity of their great hunger…” (pg 107, line 13)

The second distinction made by Santiago between the Mako Shark and the Shovel-nosed Shark is the one of cruelty vs. nobility. Although Hemingway describes the Mako Shark as “cruel” with just that one word on page 103, line 18, he does not emphasize that point nearly as much as with the Shovel-nosed Sharks. As the first set of Shovel-nosed Sharks approached Santiago, Hemingway says this about them: “It was these sharks that would cut the turtles’ legs and flippers off when the turtles were asleep on the surface.” (pg 108, line 3) In contrast, Hemingway describes the Mako Shark as “noble” on page 106, line 2.

The third distinction, similar to the first, has to do with the sharks approach to the skiff and the marlin. Here is a citation supporting this distinction: “They (The Shovel-nosed Sharks) came. But they did not come as the Mako Shark had come.” (pg 108, line 10) In the Mako’s approach, Hemingway states, “The shark closed fast astern.” (pg 101, line 21) implying that the Mako Shark had a technique in the direction of its approach. Meanwhile, this is said about the Shovel-nosed Sharks approach: “He came like a pig to the trough.” (pg 111, line 18) There is obviously a distinction in intelligence, which is a characteristic used to describe the Mako Shark on page 103, line 18, but is not used to describe the Shovel-nosed Shark.

The fourth distinction between the Mako and Shovel-nosed Sharks was that of their scent tracking. This feature is directly part of a shark’s natural instinct, but apparently, more so in some than others. Even with some disclaimers, Hemingway describes the general pattern of the Mako Shark’s scent tracking. “Sometimes he lost the scent. But he would pick it up again, and he swam fast and hard on the course.” (pg 100, line 11) Compare this description to that of the “Galano” (Shovel-nosed Shark) “They had the scent and were excited and in the stupidity of their great hunger they were losing and finding the scent in their excitement…they were not even quartering on the scent.”(pg 107, line 13 and pg 112, line 21) 

The fifth distinction is one that Santiago makes and expresses through his actions, words, and thoughts. It is more of an attitude than a distinction. Santiago’s attitudes toward the Mako Shark and Shovel-nosed Sharks upon their arrival are very different. When the Mako Shark approaches, Santiago does not expect an easy win. He knows the determination of the shark. “When the old man saw him coming he knew that this was a shark that…would do exactly what he wished.”(pg 101, line 8) He also knew he could not keep the Mako Shark completely away from the marlin. “It was too good to last he thought.”(pg 101, line 16) On the contrary, Santiago couldn’t wait for the Shovel-nosed Sharks to get close enough for him to beat them to death with his hand crafted harpoon. “Ay,’ the old man said. ‘Galanos. Come on Galanos”(pg 108, line 8) 

This respect for the Mako Shark and resentment of the Shovel-nosed Shark can also be noticed of Santiago immediately after he kills them. After slaying the Mako Shark, Santiago thinks a lot about whether or not it was a sin to kill the Mako Shark. Although he regretted it, he justified himself by saying, “I killed him in self defence.” (pg 106, line 3) He thought to himself just before that, “But I killed the shark that hit my fish.” (pg 103, line 8) However this question did not even occur to him after killing the first two Shovel-nosed Sharks. As one was sinking to the bottom, he shouted, “Go on Galano. Slide down a mile deep. Go see your friend, or maybe it’s your mother.” (pg 109, line 19)    

The seventh distinction is simply a list of some other character traits given to both kinds of sharks, but especially to the Mako Shark. One is described as a scavenger as the other is not. “Scavengers as well as killers.” (pg 108 line 1)    That quote refers to the Shovel-nosed Sharks. “He (The Mako Shark) is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are..” (pg 106, line 1) The Mako Shark was described as “able” (pg 103, line 18) and “beautiful” (pg 106, line 2) The Shovel-nosed Sharks were described as “hateful sharks” (pg 107, line 24) and “bad smelling” (pg 108, line 1) These traits and qualities of both sharks aid the foiling method used by Hemingway in the book.

The descriptions and comparisons between the two creatures make it obvious that Hemingway is intending to show what a good shark looks like so when the bad ones come along, the unethical characteristics become escalated to the point where it has an even greater effect on the reader. It also shows that many creatures in the world are special and not necessarily the same as others related to it. Some sharks are “cruel,” “hateful,” and eat out of “the stupidity of their great hunger.” Others “live on the fish as you do” without killing unnecessarily. Either way, both the Mako Shark and the Shovel-nosed Sharks kill and eat to survive, some just on a greater scale than others.

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