Both Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock feature similar protagonists, in that both Santiago and Prufrock are middle-aged to elderly men past their prime, but they convey different themes of masculinity, and by extension, definitions of the modern man. Santiago is forced to acknowledge his dwindling physical strength, and his battle against the marlin represents a man vs. nature conflict; Prufrock is lamenting his old age and how he no longer feels to be included within society, representing a man vs. society conflict. Thus, despite the similarities in the age and gender of their protagonists, the two texts have significant interpretations of what defines the modern man. Santiago represents the loss of physical strength, while the social element of the modern man presented in his story relates to his relationships with other men, in regard to his reputation and social standing; Prufrock represents a dwindling societal reputation, with much of the societal implications coming from the lack of attention he receives from women.
The Old Man and the Sea begins with Santiago being in the middle of a dry spell, having gone eighty-four days without catching a substantial fish. In this society, the ability to fish is seen as a way to provide for others, and connects with the theme of the modern man. Santiago is unable to catch fish, and is therefore seen as not being a provider. This has social implications, as even his assistant, Manolin, has been told by his parents to no longer fish with Santiago. Santiago and Manolin spend time each evening bonding over topics such as sports and cooking, both of which also convey shared masculinity between the two: a fondness for sports is often associated with masculinity, as is being able to provide food (Pendergast 37). Manolin therefore represents a younger version of Santiago; however, Santiago has become old, and is no longer able to bring in any fish.
From here, the novel becomes about Santiago’s determination to catch a sizable fish, in order to prove to himself that he is still physically able to do so, while also proving to the village that he still has value as a provider. The fish he ultimately encounters is a giant marlin, and the plot focuses on the testament of wills between the two. Santiago is so desperate to catch the marlin that he holds onto the line for over two days. He begins to respect the marlin, due to the marlin’s great strength. His admiration for the physical strength of the marlin reveals how Santiago respects strength, in the same way he believes men are also respected for their physical strength.
Santiago is eventually able to kill the marlin, but sharks begin circling the water. Santiago then must fend off numerous sharks, and although he is successful at killing many of them, they are able to eat the marlin’s carcass, rendering the catch essentially useless. If the sharks are a metaphor for masculine behavior, we can see how this represents how Santiago must constantly fend off younger, aggressive competitors. Santiago eventually makes it back to shore, but his prized marlin has been completely eaten and only a skeleton remains. In the end, Santiago must face the fact that he is aging, and that he does not possess the strength of a younger man.
In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Prufrock similarly worries about becoming older, but his worries tend to be based on how society has begun to view him differently. The references and metaphors for age are numerous throughout; the poem begins with Prufrock acknowledging a walk during the evening, then talks about a fog that rolls against a house in October, before the approaching winter. He mentions how there is a bald spot forming in his hair, and worries about how women will comment that his hair is thin; he thinks about being well-dressed, which is another signifier of the modern man, but he acknowledges that his arms are much thinner than before. He identifies later in the poem that he has grown old, and when he imagines walking on a beach, he imagines that the mermaids, symbolic of women, will not call out to him. He talks about how women constantly come and go, paying him no mind. The entire poem is therefore about Prufrock’s fears that he is no longer valued by society (Smith 52).
When the theme of the modern man is applied to the poem, we can see how Prufrock believes masculinity to be defined by success and wealth, but also the ability to attract women. Prufrock no longer has any of these things, which is the source of his sadness; while Santiago must come to terms with the loss of his physical strength, Prufrock must come to terms with his loss of social influence. He is no longer the center of attention, and he fears that he will soon be forgotten over time.
The modern man in The Old Man and the Sea and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock therefore have different interpretations of masculinity: for Hemingway, the modern man is defined by his physical prowess and ability to provide, while for Eliot, the modern man is defined by his social influence, with power determined by looks and wealth. The two novels therefore offer different takes on masculinity, and what ultimately constitutes the modern man in the twentieth century.