The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Dialectic of Imagery

© 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.  (121)

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 Golgotha. 

            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.  (378)

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 nature.  (91)

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 Santiago:

[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.  (272)

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.  (22)

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 victory. 

            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.  

Works Cited

Backman, Melvin.  “Hemingway: The Matador and the Crucified.”  Baker 245-58. 

Baker, Carlos, ed.  Hemingway and his Critics.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.

Baskett, Samuel S.  “Toward a ‘Fifth Dimension’ in The Old Man and the Sea.”  The Centennial Review 19.4 (1975) 269-86.

Bradford, M.E.  “On ‘The Importance of Discovering God:’ Faulkner and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.”  Mississippi Quarterly 20.2  (1967): 158-62.

Burhans, Clinton S.  The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway’s Tragic Vision of Man.”  Jobes 72-80.   

Flora, Joseph M.  “Biblical Allusion in The Old Man and the Sea.”  Studies in Short Fiction 10 (1973): 143-7.

Gurko, Leo.  “The Heroic Impulse in The Old Man and the Sea.”  The English Journal 44 (1955): 377-82.

Hamilton, John B.  “Hemingway and the Christian Paradox.”  Renascence 24 (1972): 141-54.

Handy, William J.  Modern Fiction: A Formalist Approach.  London: Feffer & Simons, 1971.

Harada, Keiichi.  “The Marlin and the Shark: A note on The Old Man and the Sea.” Baker 269-76.

Heiney, Donald W.  Barron’s Simplified Approach to Ernest Hemingway.  Woodbury: Barron’s Educational Series, 1965.

Hemingway, Ernest.  The Old Man and the Sea.  New York: MacMillan, 1952. 

Jobes, Katharine, ed.  Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 

Moseley, Edwin M.  Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel: Motifs and Methods.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962.

Rosenfield, Claire.  “New world, Old Myths.”  Jobes 41-55.

Sylvester, Bickford.  “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and the Sea.”  Jobes 81-96. 

Weeks, Robert P.  “Fakery in The Old Man and the Sea.”  College English 24 (1962): 188-92.

Wells, Arvin R.  “A Ritual of Transfiguration: The Old Man and the Sea.”  Jobes 56-63.

Young, Philip.  The Old Man and the Sea: Vision/Revision.”  Jobes 18-26.

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