A Different Outlook on Christian Symbolism in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea

May 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

A Different Outlook on Christian Symbolism in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea The ideas revolving around Christian symbolism in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea have run rampant ever since the novella was first published in 1952 (Wilson 1). Since then, there has been plenty of time for these ideas to assimilate into concrete theories that readers widely accept. As noted in class, these theories are in direct correlation to Santiago’s battle at sea acting as a parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. However, if this is true, then why did Hemingway write a letter to critic Bernard Berenson saying that “there isn’t any symbolism” in The Old Man and the Sea (Plath 67)? In his letter, written the same year that The Old Man and the Sea was published, Hemingway told Berenson “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit” (“World of Quotations”). If what Hemingway states is true, that all of the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea is, in fact, “shit,” then all of the Christian symbols that have been discerned are also “shit” (Plath 67). But are we to believe such a line? It would seem that the evidence for Christian symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea is too strong to just disregard. However, by taking another look at Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, one can argue whether Christian symbolism does actually exist in the text. It would seem that if Hemingway had intended for The Old Man and the Sea to be interpreted in a Christian context that his main character would be a man who relies upon his religious faith; yet, Santiago’s personal religious beliefs could only be considered dubious. Though Santiago goes through the motions of praying to both God and saints, his foundation for doing so is clearly hollow (Plath 70). Santiago’s religious practices are done “mechanically” and when he finds himself unable to recall the words of a prayer he “say[s] them so fast that they… come out automatically” (“Old Man” 65). If he can only recite his prayers “automatically” then he must consider them to be only words, a means of hope he does not wish to leave untried (Wittkowski 9). Likewise, his prayers provide him with very little satisfaction, and once he finishes praying he finds himself “suffering exactly as much, and perhaps a little more” (“Old Man” 65). Santiago admits to himself, “I am not religious… I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it,” (“Old Man” 64,105). Clearly, these are neither the actions nor the words of a devout man. Hemingway does not give us a man that relies on religion, but a man that relies on America’s favorite pastime—baseball (Plath 71). Baseball is something that Santiago can understand, unlike religion (Plath 71). Santiago does not seek to gain “Christ-like perfection,” rather, he wishes to be “worthy of the great DiMaggio” (Plath 71). Before Santiago leaves for his fishing trip he does not tell Manolin to have faith in God, but to have “faith in the Yankees” (“Old Man” 17). Santiago is a simple fisherman; he does not have the mind to comprehend the intangible; it is much easier for him to grasp what can be seen and felt (Plath 71). For Santiago, baseball has become something of a “replacement” religion (Plath 72). In 1962, Carlos Baker dramatically changed the way critics interpret Christian symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea (Wittkowski 2). Baker accomplished this when he proposed that Santiago achieves a “Christian mentality” when humility and love take the place of Santiago’s pride upon his defeat of the marlin; but this is not so (Wittkowski 2). Pride is such a fundamental part of Santiago’s character that to say his pride disappears, or even dissipates, is akin to blasphemy (Wittkowski 2). Above all else, it is Santiago’s pride that drives him forward in his battle with the marlin and all that he does (Wittkowski 2). Pride is the force that causes Santiago to continue uselessly battling the many sharks after the marlin has been desecrated by the initial Mako shark (“Old Man” 101). Pride is also the force that causes Santiago to haul the mast of his boat up to his shack (“Old Man” 121). He could very easily have rested before doing so or had someone assist him, but he chose do it himself the moment he arrived on land because of his pride. Pride is certainly not in the “mentality” of a Christian, rather, it’s one of the seven deadly sins (Wittkowski 9). In association with this, Baker’s interpretation of Santiago’s pride turning to “humiliation” is inaccurate (Wittkowski 1). “Humiliation” in the Christian sense might also be deemed as “gentleness” (Wittkowski 5). Santiago could be considered “gentle” in his associations with Manolin, the marlin, and the other creatures he deems to be his “brothers” but Santiago does not fit “gentleness” in the sense of Christian tradition (Wittkowski 5). Santiago only loves and shows “gentleness” to select individuals while he detests others, like the jellyfish and sharks (Wittkowski 5). Discerning stark differences between the ordeals of Santiago’s fishing voyage and Christ’s ending moments are a simple matter. To be sure, we might compare Santiago’s ordeal with that of Christ’s crucifixion (Hovey). But there have been many whose suffering has been worse, in both fiction and in life; yet, these occurrences are not always associated with crucifixion (Hovey). True, both Santiago and Christ obtain injury to their hands, but the nail in Jesus’ hand pierced all the way through his palm and Santiago’s fishing line only cut into his skin. As a fisherman, and a fighter, it is completely logical for Santiago to be concerned with injury to his hands (Wittkowski 14). It is also logical for Hemingway, illustrating that fact that “man is not made for defeat,” to have his protagonist be hampered in some way in a vital area (“Old Man” 103). Santiago hauls his mast up the hill to his shack, but a mast is hardly cruciform (Hovey). Santiago only falls down once when carrying his mast, all other times he merely sits down to rest (Hovey). Christ was noted to have fallen many more times than Santiago when he climbed to Calvary (Hovey). In accordance with this, Santiago’s worst suffering happens before he carries his mast up the hill, while Christ’s is sure to be after he bears his cross (Hovey). It doesn’t appear to be disputable that the final position we see Santiago in, sleeping “face down… with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up” symbolizes Christ’s position mounted on the cross (“Old Man” 122). However, it would make perfect, logical sense to want to spread your limbs out straight after being cramped up in a small rugged boat for three whole days (“Old Man” 86). Likewise, it is disconcerting that Santiago lies “face down” if Hemingway was truly trying to imitate the pose of Christ’s crucifixion (Hovey). If we are going to make this jump in interpretation then it would make just as much sense, maybe even more so, to say that Santiago’s position is an imitation of a fighter who assumes the “face down” position in order to protect himself, “conceal his pain,” while having every intention to “gather strength, get up and continue to fight” (Wittkowski 15). Of course, there is one line in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea which can be interpreted in no other way but in a Christian context: “’Ay,’ he said aloud… perhaps it is a noise a man might make… feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood,” (“Old Man” 107). However, it seems silly to interpret the entire novella in a Christian context solely because of this sentence. The Holy Bible is the greatest piece of literature the world has ever known. It is so well known, that multiple authors, in every century, have made allusions to it in their works because the majority of civilization has some knowledge of it. This makes any reference to the bible a useful metaphor. Perhaps that is all this sentence contains, a metaphor, and not the basis of the entire interpretation of the novella. Hemingway states, “all the symbolism that people say is shit” (Plath 67). It doesn’t seem logical for Hemingway to say that symbolism in his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, is “shit” if it isn’t factual (Plath 67). For certain, Christian symbolism in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea raises a number of interesting theories concerning the message which Hemingway wishes to unveil. However, while it is possible to argue for the existence of Christian symbolism in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it is equally easy to argue against it. Word Count: 1,505Works CitedHemingway, Ernest. Letter to Bernard Berenson. 13 Sept. 1952. The Columbia World of Quotations. Ed. Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, and Michael Seidel. N.p.: Columbia UP, 2006. eNotes.com. 2006. 23 Mar. 2008 . Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. 1952. New York: Scribner, 2003.Hovey, Richard B. “The Old Man and the Sea: A New Hemingway Hero.” Discourse: A Review of the Liberal Arts IX.3 (Summer 1966). eNotes.com. 2006. 25 Mar. 2008 . Plath, James. “Santiago at the Plate: Baseball in The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway Review 16.1 Fall 1996): 65-82. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. 14 Mar. 2008 . Wilson, G. R., Jr. “Incarnation and Redemption in The Old Man and the Sea.” Studies in Short Fiction 14.4 (Fall 1977): 369-373. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. 14 Mar. 2008 . Wittkowski, Wolfgang. “Crucified in the Ring: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.” Hemingway Review 3.1 (Fall 1983): 2-17. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. 21 Mar. 2008 .

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