Christian Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea

February 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

“But man is not made for defeat…A man can be defeated but not destroyed”. These eternal lines from Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea reflect the strong Christian motif of hope and resurrection that is present as a strong undertone in the novel. The usage of Christian symbolism elevates the text to the level of an allegory, almost parable on the indomitable will of man that manages to remain undefeated, even in the midst of earthly losses. Therefore, God exists in the novel not in the form of Immanent Will, neither benevolent nor malevolent but it is the struggle of man in the fashion of Christ’s passion that commands the utmost significance and not the outcome of that quest.

The Christian symbolism that pervades throughout the text is directed prominently at Santiago to delineate him as a modern day Christ who keeps up with his faith towards his struggle. In fact, Hemingway writes that the old man gets on suffering from headache and blood spits while struggling with the marlin which is highly reminiscent of Christ’s pain during crucifixion. In fact, His passion finds a direct reference when the novelist says, “Ay…feeling the rail go through his hand and into the wood…” This sentiment is recreated when Santiago reaches his bed with his “arms out straight” and “palms of his hands up”. All these reflect a Christ-like endurance on the part of the old man and his transcendence to the knowledge of life and existence on the sea of “being”.

Even the fish forms a very legitimate symbol of Christ which bears the philosophy of the sacrifice-sacrificed phenomenon, leading to the acceptance of Trinity. Joseph Waldman observes, “the phenomenon closely parallels the Roman Catholic sacrifice of the mass, wherein a fusion of the priest-man with Christ takes place…” The repeated use of the numbers three and seven and forty, like the old man goes without a catch for eighty seven days reminds the readers of such key numbers in the New Testament, revealing the Passion of Christ in such duration of time.

The reference to forty days finds a parallel in the Christian liturgical calendar where the intervening period between Ash Wednesday to the Ascension Thursday if forty four days. This actually points out to the extreme struggle that Santiago has to undergo, almost as in the Pentecost, but he finally emerges as the undefeated. The time span of the “salao” phase of eighty seven days followed by three weeks of fruitfulness (upon catching the Marlin) for Santiago suggests the liturgical mystery of Incarnation as it commemorates Christ’s claim as the son of God. Similarly, in Hemingway’s parable, Santiago claims himself as the hero incarnate – “I may not be as strong as I think…But I know many tricks and I have resolution”.

It seems distinctly that Manolin’s faith in Santiago is founded on the three weeks of miracle, which he refers to as the “great record” just as Christ’s life on earth, as portrayed in the Gospels. The old man responds to this praise of Manolin by saying, “It could not happen twice”, underlying the uniqueness of his incarnation. The importance of all this is to be found in the theological concept that only through the Incarnation of Christ can his sacrifice have redemptive value for mankind. In Hemingway’s parable, the “great record” is juxtaposed with the three days of struggle of Santiago on the sea, followed by his spiritual triumph that lends more meaning to his earlier redemptive virtues.

The period of the three day struggle leading to the apparent defeat of Santiago has been compared by many critics to the Mystery of Redemption, especially when the old man carries the mast like the Crucifix – “Then he shouldered the mast and started to climb”. Even the reference that his left hand had always been a “traitor” recalls the fact that Judas sat left to Christ during The Last Supper. Finally though, Santiago receives a triumph amidst apparent defeat like Christ, as he triumphs over the dentuso without diminishing his individual heroism. Like Christ himself, Santiago returns to his disciple Manolin to describe his heroic deed. He not only returns to safety physically but also brings back a plethora of resources on human endurance which results in his mental and spiritual upliftment.

As Christ returned with His earthly ministry on the Ascension Day, Santiago’s sojourn is completed by his message of redemption. Joseph Campbell described Christ as the “hero with a thousand faces” and Santiago goes through the same pattern of discovery when he realizes, “I went out too far”, and meets a trial like the dragon battle and the Crucifixion and returns from the Promised Land like St. James of Galilee. The hero endures the test like St. James who floated on the sea for many days, as his return was hailed from the Holy Lord, and Santiago concludes his epic battle with his intrinsic recognition of the natural world- “I have killed the fish that is my brother”.

Thus, Santiago comes across as the hero, who achieves meaning of his Incarnation by full commitment to his world and his relationship with the world’s creatures. Even Manolin is recognized as the diminutive of St. Matthew who acts as Christ’s redeemer. In fact, St. Matthew had to “leave his father” in order to follow the spiritual faith of Christ, much like Manolin who went against his own biological parents to accompany Santiago in his fishing expeditions and also bring him food and other necessities much to their objection. In conclusion, Santiago, with his disciple’s commitment if finally able to become one with Nature and as Wilson notes, it is a triumph that brings about a redemptive message for all.

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