Biblical Symbolism In Old Man Essay, Research Paper
Classics of World Literature
April 24, 2000
Biblical Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway’s novels were adventurous, colorful, and romantic, as was his personal life. In fact, many critics have concluded that his dramatic life was Ernest Hemingway’s finest work, and it was the experiences he had along his restless and often violent journey that provided the literary world with some of American literature’s most influential novels. Like all great writers, Hemingway used his life as the varied landscape for his novels. Though the protagonists were, indeed, fictional, their emotions and observations were pure Hemingway. As with any other artist, his personal experiences were interwoven in his work, and offer the only true glimpse anyone will ever have of the real
Ernest Hemingway, as opposed to the roguish bon vivant often portrayed by the media.
Hemingway continued to view himself as a youthful adventurer despite his official entry into middle age. However, by the 1950s, he could no longer deny the presence of “father time,” and decided to confront the issue head on in the medium with which he felt most comfortable, fiction. The result was the 1952 novel, The Old Man and the Sea, a brief novel with a subject matter representative of the epic tradition of Greek philosophers and biblical scholars. As Hemingway himself was about to begin the slow journey towards old age, many believed his life was the inspiration for the Cuban fisherman Santiago, who seemed to have been left behind by life. Incredibly, the story of The Old Man and the Sea is contained within a three-day and three nighttime periods. The protagonist is a man on a solo journey, fighting a battle while still maintaining his own moral creed. Hemingway sets the solitary tone of the story with his simple opening lines, “He was an old man who fished alone” (1). That singular line spoke volumes about Santiago, whose pride would not be in any way diminished by the passage of time.
Santiago has been out on his fishing boat for 84 days without a catch. He believes he is destined to live out his life cursed by bad luck. His only companion is a young boy, Manolin. Despite his parents’ entreaties that he work for another fishing boat, Manolin refuses to leave Santiago, confidant that one day, his “fish will come in.” Santiago knows that time is no longer on his side, and each trip out to sea for that ever-elusive catch might represent his final journey.
After the first night, something begins to take the bait. Santiago recognizes that this is no ordinary fish, but a huge marlin. The contest becomes a battle of wills between the tired old man and the vigorous fish. Finally, the marlin is close enough to harpoon, but the mako sharks get to it at the same time, ripping off a quarter of its meat. Santiago has only the immense skeleton to show for his toil, but becomes the talk among his fellow fisherman, who have never seen such a large skeleton. The old man has successfully met the challenges of the elements, and at least temporarily, his ongoing race against time. Although the fish remains an unattainable prize, Santiago’s restored dignity is a victory of deeper moral value.
Although on the surface, it would appear that Santiago is the incarnation of the aging Ernest Hemingway, many critics believe that although the story may have personal significance, there are many spiritual connotations which are evidenced by the biblical symbolism which is ever-present in The Old Man and the
Sea. Hemingway would frequently argue that, “No good book was ever written that had symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in” (Gagne 1996). However, he did acknowledge that once the words were arranged on the page, they could take on a symbolism which the author never intended, but is nevertheless powerful.
There can be no denying of the similarities between the old fisherman, Santiago, and Jesus Christ. First, Christ was the spiritual teacher of his disciples just as Santiago was teaching the boy, Manolin, life’s lessons in morality. Hemingway is specific in describing Santiago’s streak of bad luck as lasting for 40 days, which is identical to the 40 days when Christ wandered through the wilderness, with his journey ultimately culminating with his Sermon on the Mount. Is this merely coincidence, or is Hemingway conveying a subliminal comparison to his readers?
Next, Hemingway specifically limits the time-frame of The Old Man and the Sea to three days and three nights. It is during this three-day period that Santiago’s physical stamina and mental endurance is tested as it never has been before. He recognizes that his time on this earth is coming to a close, and that he may never again be blessed with an opportunity to reel in “the big one.” Similarly, Jesus was put the ultimate test of perseverance when he was placed on the cross for a period of three days. He endured his suffering with astonishing calm and dignity, realizing that there was much more at issue in this struggle than the life of one man. As Santiago was alone with only his thoughts for company on those nights at sea, he realized that there was much more at stake in this human contest than merely one of a fisherman attempting to make a catch. There was a man’s honor and spiritual integrity which was ultimately at issue.
The physical injuries incurred by Santiago also had biblical implications. As Santiago’s enfeebled hands attempt to strong-hold the fishing lure, the flesh from his hands is painfully torn, much in the same way as Christ’s was when he by the nails on the cross. Also, Santiago suffers a serious lash to his back from the fishing line. This seems to correspond with the lashing of Christ shortly before his transport to Calvary. During Santiago’s three-day encounter with the great fish, he is also forced to withstand a blinding headache similar to the head pain endured by Christ which was a result of the thorny crown forced upon him by the Romans when they labeled him as King of the Jews.
Another similarity occurs with the timing of Santiago’s killing of the fish. It occurs on the third day of his conquest at approximately noon which is the time when a Roman soldier pierces Christ with a spear. Almost defiantly, Santiago wields his boat’s mast much in the same way as Christ carried the cross upon which he was to die. When Santiago finally collapses in his bed after his physically and emotionally exhausting ordeal, so, too, does Christ as he finally allows death to overtake him.
There is also evidence that the symbol of Christ shifts from Santiago to the fish at the climax when he kills the fish. As most bible students are undoubtedly aware, a fish has always been a predominant symbol of both Christ as well as the Christian religion itself. This is evident during Catholic Mass when the priest or fisherman becomes united with the fish which represents Christ. When The Old Man and the Sea reaches its inevitable pinnacle, when Santiago is in a one-to-one struggle with the fish for survival, they, in essence become one. They are both vigorously fighting for the same thing, and at that moment where only one of them can emerge victorious, it is impossible to distinguish between the two. They are both virtually dangling at opposite ends of the fishing line, with their lives both hanging in the balance.
The most compelling piece of biblical symbolism is the spiritual journey that Santiago takes on his boat while waiting to catch the fish. He is a man who has suffered more than his share of disappointments. Santiago’s setbacks have defined the man more completely than his successes ever could and have reinforced his sense of resolve. Santiago is the personification of the adage, “If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Christ’s life was never easy from his birth in a stable to his eventual death as a martyr on a cross. His struggles did not extinguish the moral fire which burned within Christ; instead, it blazed with even greater intensity.
Santiago is at war not only with the elements but with himself. Santiago must constantly wage war with the weather, his own aging body and the sharks who have a similar appetite for the marlin and the physical strength to wrest the prey away from him. For the makos, the fish was nothing more than tasty morsel
with which they could temporarily satisfy their hunger pangs. For Santiago, it defined his very essence not only of his manhood but of his moral fiber.
Christ was constantly being subjected to temptations of the
flesh and of the soul. At times he needed to exhibit self-control which would have toppled other mortal men. Christ never lost sight of the spiritual issues which defined his life, and refused to give in to momentary pleasures. These represented merely fleeting diversions which were lacking in significance when one is focused on the complete picture of humankind and the fortitude with which men and women must be imbued in order to tackle adversity. Christ was very much a fish who constantly needed to force himself not to retrieve the bait of temptation which was frequently flashed before him.
The one difference between Santiago and Christ is that Santiago is first and foremost a human being, a man with flaws who has made mistakes. He is not a god, but rather, an imperfect man who struggles to retain his individuality in an equally imperfect world. Most devout Christians believe that Jesus Christ was selected to be the son of god prior to his birth. He is seen in their eyes as more of a God than a man. In other words, his divine selection has ensured his perfection, whereas Santiago needs to wrestle with the great marlin to finally become the man of perfect moral integrity, which Christ possessed all
Over the years, the term Jesus Christ has been used synonymously with God. To many Christian fundamentalists, they are one and the same. Santiago doesn’t have a god complex and does not initially appear to have anything in common with either god or Jesus. In fact, although it is implied that being Cuban, Santiago must also be Catholic, the reader gets the impression that he is not particularly religious. All of his energies must be concentrated on making a living; he has no time to read the Bible and ruminate about Christ’s teachings. However, Santiago is also an honorable man. It is not until he begins his friendship with the young Manolin that Santiago not only confronts his own mortality but sees his life in moral terms. The impressionable boy believes in Santiago despite his failures in much the same way as Christ’s followers continue to believe in him. Santiago’s eventual triumph was a lesson that would
invariably remain with Manolin for the rest of his life.
Literary critic and scholar Clinton Burhans regards the biblical symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea in naturalistic and ethical terms. Burhans wrote, “Out of (his) concern with action and conduct in a naturalistic universe, Hemingway has not evolved new moral values; rather, he has reaffirmed man’s oldest ones-courage, love, humility, solidarity, and interdependence. It is their basis which is new-a basis not in supernaturalism or abstraction but hard-won through actual experience in a naturalistic universe which is at best indifferent to man and his values . . . Through perfectly realized symbolism and irony, then, Hemingway has beautifully and movingly spun out of an old fisherman’s great trial . . . a pragmatic ethic and its basis in an essentially tragic vision of man; and in this reaffirmation of man’s most cherished values and their reaffirmation in the terms of our time rests the deepest and the enduring significance of The Old Man and the Sea” (Burhans 201).
The biblical symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea is too rampant to be denied. Santiago’s struggle on the raging seas echoes the ordeal of Christ on the cross. The sharks who eventually secure the physical prize are no different than the Romans who demand Christ’s pound of flesh to assure the continuation of their empire. As the marlin struggles against the fisherman’s line as well as the mako sharks, he, too, resembles Christ who is virtually alone as he incurs the wrath of his Roman adversaries and endures the betrayal of those in whom he had placed the highest trust. The shark and the marlin are both fish by definition, yet both are engaged in a “survival of the fittest” battle in which only one can succeed intact.
The Old Man and the Sea is widely regarded as the last great novel of Ernest Hemingway. Regardless of whatever his original intentions may have been, the book has taken on a life of its own. The tale has withstood the test of time because a tale of a man finding inner strength by relying upon his moral integrity is virtually timeless. Although Hemingway was often viewed as an atheist by his contemporaries, The Old Man and the Sea clearly proves otherwise. Hemingway could have been referring to either Santiago or Christ when he once remarked, “There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very costly, and the only heritage he has to leave” (Mitran 1996).
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