Analyzing the Christian Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea

the old man and the sea

“But man is not made for defeat… man can be defeated but not destroyed.” These eternal lines of Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and the Sea reflect the powerful Christian motive of hope and resurrection present in the novel as a powerful undertone.The use of Christian symbolism raises the text to the level of an allegory, almost parallel to man’s indomitable will that manages to remain undefeated, even in the midst of earthly losses. Therefore, in the novel, God does not exist in the form of Immanent Will, neither benevolent nor malevolent, but it is man’s struggle in the fashion of the passion of Christ that commands the utmost meaning

The Christian symbolism that pervades throughout the text is aimed prominently at Santiago to delineate him as a contemporary Christ who keeps up with his faith in his fight. Indeed, Hemingway writes that the ancient guy is suffering from headache and spitting blood while struggling with the marlin that is extremely reminiscent of the pain of Christ during the crucifixion.In reality, his enthusiasm discovers a direct reference when the novelist says, “Oh… the rail passes through his side and into the wood…” This feeling is recreated when Santiago enters his bed with his “arms directly” and “palms of his hands up.” All these represent an endurance of Christ on the part of the ancient man and his transcendence to the awareness of life and existence on the ocean of “being.”

Even the fish forms a very legitimate symbol of Christ which bears the philosophy of the sacrificial phenomenon leading to the acceptance of the Trinity. Joseph Waldman observes, “the phenomenon closely parallels the Roman Catholic mass sacrifice in which a fusion of the priest-man with Christ takes place…”The repeated use of 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 Christ’s Passion over such a long period of time.

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

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

Many critics compared the period of the three-day struggle leading to Santiago’s apparent defeat to the Mystery of Redemption, especially when the old man carries the mast like the Crucifix–”Then he shouldered the mast and began to climb.” Even the reference that his left hand had always been a “traitor” reminds us that Judas was left to Christ during the Last Supper. Last but not least, Santiago receives a triumph in the midst of 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. Not only does he return physically to safety, but he also brings back a wealth of human endurance resources that lead to his mental and spiritual upliftment.

As Christ returned with His earthly ministry on Ascension Day, Santiago’s stay 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 too far” and meets a trial like the dragon battle and the Crucifixion and returns from the Promised Land like St. James. The hero endures the test like St. James who floated on the sea for many days as his return was hailed by the Holy Lord, and Santiago concludes his epic battle with his intrinsic recognition of the natural world-” I killed the fish that is my brother.

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

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