© 2002 Sean M. Donnell
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has engendered some
lively debate in literary circles. Critics
have concentrated on everything in the novella from the verity of Rigel’s
early evening appearance over Cuban skies in September (Weeks 192) to William
Faulkner’s judgment that Hemingway discovered God while writing The Old Man
and the Sea (Bradford 158-62). Yet
the most insightful commentary has gravitated invariably toward biblical,
natural, and classical imagery in the novel.
These images turn an otherwise simple fishing tale into a sublime
narrative of human endurance. A
reading that examines these images will serve to clarify the hidden significance
in Hemingway’s novel.
Biblical imagery literally
abounds in The Old Man and the
Sea. The name “Santiago”
itself is a biblical allusion. Donald
Heiney informs us that “Santiago is simply the Spanish form of Saint James,
and James like Peter was a fisherman-apostle in the New Testament.
Santiago de Compostela is the
patron saint of Spain and is also greatly revered by Cuban Catholics” (86).
Sam Baskett enhances this image by indicating that Saint James “was
martyred ‘with the sword’ by Herod” (278).
In the novel, we see Santiago entrenched in battle with a swordfish,
and, if we are to believe Baskett, he eventually dies after the struggle (269).
In a sense, Santiago, like James, is martyred “with the sword.”
Santiago’s battle with the fish produces myriad biblical images, and
while the most obvious are Santiago-as-Christ, others exist as well. Arvin Wells, for example, provides a Santiago-as-Cain
analogy: “Repeatedly, [Santiago] addresses the fish as ‘brother’. . . Yet,
at the same time, he is relentlessly determined to capture and kill the marlin,
as Cain killed his brother” (59). Wells
furnishes another provocative analogy by equating the fish as Christ and Santiago as the crucifier.
During the battle, Santiago exclaims, “Christ . . . I did not know he
was so big . . . I’ll kill him though . . . in all his greatness and his
glory” (66). He states,
“Significantly this is the only place in the story where the expletive,
Christ, is used, and the echo in the [last] sentence is unmistakable--’for
thine is the power and the glory forever’“ (Wells 59).
John Hamilton further illustrates this point by equating the fish with
the Christian acronym , or Ichthus
(Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior): “it is inconceivable for one as widely
read and travelled in fishing and Christian circles as was Hemingway . . . not
to have become familiar with the fish as a God-Man symbol” (142).
When Santiago finally kills the fish, he thrusts the harpoon into “the
fish’s side just behind the great chest fin” (94), thus reminding us of
Christ’s side being pierced while on the cross.
Finding insightful commentary on the Santiago-as-Christ image is
problematic at best. For instance,
Joseph Flora’s judgment that “The Old
Man and the Sea illustrates the essence of Christian discipleship and does
so in strictly biblical terms” (147) confirms perfectly the point that too
many critics have overanalyzed the image of Santiago-as-Christ; this is far too
reductive a statement to encompass the whole scope of Hemingway’s superb
novella. Yet we must acknowledge
two facts about the Santiago-as-Christ imagery.
First, the wounds that accumulate on Santiago’s hands and back from the
rope during his contest with the marlin definitely remind us of the passion of
Christ. When Melvin Backman states
“Suffering and . . . wood blend magically into an image of Christ on the
cross” (256), he finds the pith of the Santiago-as-Christ image during the old
man’s ordeal with the fish. Second,
when Santiago eats of the fish’s body, the Christ-imagery intensifies.
As Wells indicates, the three most powerful images of Santiago-as-Christ
all occur after the old man eats some of the marlin’s flesh (61).
When Santiago first spots the galanos
(immediately after his consumption of the fish), he cries “Ay.”
Hemingway states that “There is no translation for this word and
perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the
nail go through his hands and into the wood” (107).
This first image suggests the beginning of Christ’s crucifixion, and
from it, we know that any transference of Christ-imagery from the marlin to
Santiago is complete.
The second image comes after Santiago turned to view the marlin’s
skeleton during his climb up the beach from his skiff:
He started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay
for some time with the mast across his shoulder.
He tried to get up. But it
was too difficult and he sat there with the mast on his shoulder and looked at
the road . . . Finally he put the mast down and stood up.
He picked the mast up and put it on his shoulder and started up the road.
He had to sit down five times before he reached his shack.
Through a lack of punctuation, Hemingway creates a fast-paced, breathless
prose to underscore Santiago’s effort with the mast.
We see in this passage the image of Christ laboring with his cross to
Our final vision of Santiago-as-Christ unfolds as the old man reaches his
hut after climbing the hill from the beach and stowing his mast:
Then [Santiago] lay down on the bed.
He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and then over his back and legs
and he slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the
palms of his hands up. (121-2)
Finally we behold the ruined Christ with a blanket as a shroud and a hut
for a sepulchre. With these three
powerful images, each occurring after the old man partakes of the fish’s
flesh, Hemingway solidifies the transference of Christ-imagery upon Santiago.
While critics like Hamilton, Wells, and Backman offer some of the best
analyses of biblical imagery regarding Santiago and the fish, they stop short of
a complete inquiry. If we ask why
Santiago went to sea seeking the God-Man (as Hamilton calls it), must we not
draw the conclusion that he wanted Christ’s promise of eternal life? Santiago claims that September is “the month when the great
fish come” (18). September is
also the first month of autumn--the season in which, according to Archetypal
criticism, we are preoccupied with death. Santiago
also thinks of the fish as one that can “keep a man all winter” (111)--the
season in which death and chaos rule. Santiago
tastes momentary triumph over the God-Man, but it is short-lived; his hopes to
last through the winter are dashed by the sharks. In the end, Santiago’s partial victory is lost.
In this sense, Santiago’s battle with the fish is the valiant struggle
of an old man against the inevitability of death--the fight is noble, but, in
the end, vain.
While not always as frequent in the novel as biblical imagery, we can see
through Santiago’s treatment of other creatures, especially the marlin, how
images of natural harmony figure into The
Old Man and the Sea. Throughout
the novel, Santiago enters into an increasingly intimate bond with the creatures
of Nature. From the playful
porpoises, to the small warbler resting on his line, to ultimately the marlin,
the old man shows a blossoming affection for life.
“[Santiago],” states William Handy, is becoming “a being among the
beings of the sea, a human force among the forces of the natural world” (106).
Leo Gurko explains Santiago’s evolution as,
A sense of brotherhood and love, in a world in which
everyone is killing or being killed, [that] binds together the creatures of
Nature, establishes between them a unity and an emotion which transcends the
destructive pattern in which they are caught.
Santiago, like the other creatures of the sea, must kill or be killed.
Because he is joined literally to the marlin through the fishing line,
his struggle indelibly joins the two in spirit. His efforts to kill the marlin or be killed by him form a
bond of spiritual brotherhood between the old man and the fish:
You are killing me, fish, the old man thought.
But you have a right to. Never
have I seen a greater, 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. (92)
Santiago’s spiritual bonding with the fish during their struggle
represents an important image of natural harmony in the novel.
Through Santiago’s dependence on fish for food in the novel, Hemingway
illustrates another image of natural harmony.
His dependency upon the sea for sustenance places it and its denizens in
high esteem for Santiago. Claire
Rosenfield emphasizes the relationship “between the eater and the eaten.”
She asserts that Santiago “must fish to eat and eat to fish” (43).
Rosenfield draws the analogy that, because of the marlin’s social and
spiritual value to Santiago, it becomes a “totem animal” in the novel (44).
Because of the fish’s importance, Santiago not only personifies the
marlin, but also he epitomizes its characteristics throughout the novel.
In essence, Santiago’s defeat is mirrored by the marlin’s
“desecration by scavengers” (Rosenfield 44).
This interrelationship between fish and man reflects another image of
natural harmony in the novel.
A final image of natural harmony materializes when Santiago kills the
marlin. At noon of the second day
at sea, Santiago finally plunges his harpoon into the fish.
Noon is the moment when the sun begins its descent in the sky.
As Bickford Sylvester indicates, midday signifies both a victory and
defeat for the sun. The sun has
succeeded in reaching the zenith of its orbit, but has been defeated
simultaneously because it must begin its decline toward the horizon (90).
Like the sun, many events contain contrasting elements of both victory
and defeat. For example,
Santiago’s triumph over the marlin is, from the fish’s perspective, a
definite defeat; and later, when the sharks attack the marlin, while a defeat
for Santiago, it is a victory for the sharks.
If we examine both events as a whole, we see how Santiago’s eventual
defeat was foretold by the defeat of his spiritual brother, the marlin.
In a similar light, we can presage Santiago’s impending death at the
novel’s conclusion. Hemingway
tells us that “the fish came alive, with his death in him” (94) when
Santiago pierced his heart with the harpoon.
Sylvester notes a similar trend in Santiago at the end of the novel:
Yet even at the end of the story, as he tells the boy of
his broken chest, he undergoes a resurgence of life and plans another trip.
He, too, comes alive “with his death in him.” He will die. That
is why the boy is “crying again” as he leaves the old man sleeping.
Death is the final concomitant of life in a champion’s combat with
While we cannot be as certain of Santiago’s fate as Sylvester and
Baskett, we must admit that, at best, the old man looks on a grim future; and
that Santiago’s death, when viewed as an image of natural harmony, would
certainly seem more congruous than if he made a miraculous recovery.
Classical imagery in The Old Man
and the Sea is nearly as common as biblical imagery.
DiMaggio’s bone spur invokes classical images of Oedipus.
Keiichi Harada clarifies the significance of the athlete’s bone spur to
[The] bone spur . . . has made DiMaggio . . . a symbolic
significance to . . . the old man. To
him DiMaggio symbolizes a man who both endures sufferings and achieves greatness
. . . He has become not only a source of Santiago’s strength and vitality but
also an absolute criterion and directing source of action.
Santiago compares his pains against DiMaggio’s bone spur many times in
the narrative. He even wonders if
his mutilated hands are equal in injury to the athlete’s handicap (75). In this sense, the bone spur can be seen as Santiago’s
motivating factor to endure against the hardships imposed by the fish.
Yet the significance of DiMaggio’s bone spur beyond being a driving
force for Santiago’s valor lies in its classical image.
DiMaggio’s type of injury creates an interesting analogy to Oedipus,
who also had an ankle injury. As we
know, Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and bedded his mother, but these
factors by themselves were not hubris. Oedipus was ultimately punished for daring what mortals
should not: to change his fate. At
the end of Oedipus Rex, after blinding
himself, Oedipus says that only now could he truly see.
Similarly, Santiago has an epiphany over his loss at sea: “And what
beat you, he thought. ‘Nothing,’
he said aloud, ‘I went out too far’“ (120).
Santiago realizes at the end of the novel that he went beyond the mortal
boundaries to find his great marlin; that like Oedipus, he had committed hubris.
“It is as if,” Edwin Moseley asserts, “[Santiago’s] final
struggle has led to the kind of wisdom that an Oedipus, for example, reaches
only through protracted experience and struggling” (207).
Philip Young comments,
If all this sounds a little “classical,” it is because
this tale of courage, endurance, pride, humility and death is remarkably so.
It is classical . . . in its narrow confines, its reduction to
fundamentals, the purity of its design and even in [its hubris] (for Santiago exceeded his limits and went out too far) . .
. It is much in the spirit of the Greek tragedies . . . in that as the hero
falls, one gets an unforgettable glimpse of what stature a man may have.
For Santiago’s attempt to go beyond the realm of mortals, he is doubly
punished by first being allowed to taste victory and then having it viciously
snatched from him.
The sharks provide a final classic image in the story. Like the Furies, they relentlessly pursue Santiago until
divine vengeance is wreaked upon him. Clinton
S. Burhans comments that “the sharks [are] not a matter of chance nor a stroke
of bad luck . . . They are the direct result of the old man’s action in
killing the fish” (75). The
sharks leave Santiago with nothing but the stripped carcass of his hollow
The images presented in Hemingway’s The
Old Man and the Sea are, by themselves, interesting allegories, but only
through a unified reading can any sense be made of them.
Yet many critics either refuse or fail to find a cohesive view of imagery
in the text. For example, Heiney
concludes that “The Old Man and the Sea
. . . oscillates between . . . two poles of Christian symbolism and quasi-pagan
oneness with nature” (87). Undoubtedly, Christian and Natural imagery are employed by
Hemingway, but the idea that only two images exist in the text is absurd.
Equally ludicrous is the notion of oscillating imagery.
Since many of the images in The Old
Man and the Sea apply across several categories of interpretation, viewing
them as mutually exclusive from one another would only be reductive. Hemingway’s true genius lies in the manifold applications
of each individual image. Only when
we realize the interconnectedness of imagery in The
Old Man and the Sea can we truly appreciate its literary value.
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the Sea.” The
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