Allegory & Symbolism in The Old Man And The Sea

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The Substance of the Story

      Hemingway based the novel The Old Man and The Sea on an actual incident. He had used this incident in an article published in 1936 in the Esquire on deep sea fishing, Hemingway's basic idea was gleaned from the following passage:

      Another time an Old Man, fishing alone in a skiff, hooked a great marlin that on the heavy sash cord handline pulled the skiff far out to sea. Two days later, the old man was picked up by a fisherman sixty miles to the eastward, the head and forward part of the marlin lashed alongside. What was left of this fish, less than half, weigh eight hundred pounds. The Old Man had stayed with him a day, a night, a day and another night While the fish swam deep and pulled the boat. When he had come up the old man had pulled the boat up and on him and harpooned him. Lashed alongside the sharks had hit him and the old man fought them alone in the gulf stream in a skiff...He was crying in the boat when the fishermen picked him up, half-crazy from his loss, and the sharks were still circling the boat.

      Hemingway had this incident in his mind for a long time and when the ultimate the novel took shape, it was imbued with all his new experiences. Experiences in his personal life as well as those in handling the symbolic devices which he had in writing his previous novels.

Dantesque Allegory

      Hemingway won immediate literary and critical acclaim as soon as the book was published. Critics referred it as his masterpiece. Though on a purely simplistic level, the novel is about an old Cuban fisherman who single-handedly captures a huge marlin, the biggest he had ever seen or heard of and then fights with scavenger sharks to protect his prize is beautifully written. It is direct, intense and extremely riveting. However, readers are quick to note that the story seems more a parable of men fighting evil to protect the good. It is thus a Dahtesque allegory, beautifully executed. Every action and every motif in the story allows for allegorical interpretations moreover, there are numerous literal as well as symbolic meanings operating through the text consistently. Hemingway's art reached its peak of maturity with this work and deservedly won the Noble Prize for it.

Symbolism and Double Allegory

      Symbolism in Hemingway's work was unrecognized in his earlier work. It was only later after Carols Bober in the 1930's brought it to public notice that it began to be widely discussed. Hemingway himself made limited use of symbols in his earlier fictions. For example, rain is the only potent symbol in A Farewell to Arms. Then in almost all his works, some kind of injury based on his own war injury serves as a deeper symbol. For example, in Harry Morgan, Jack Barnes, Robert Jordan, their wound stands for a psychological, emotional and economic crippling. Similarly heroines such as Catherines Barkley, Maria serve as symbols of peace and love. Catherine can convert even a hotel room to a hospital and room to a home. The same can be said for Maria who makes the cave on Sierra de Guadarrama feel like home. In Across the River and into the Trees, Renata the young misteress dreams that the colonel split hand has become Christ hand. There is a symbolism working here too. In A Farewell to Arms, the mountains and the plains also work as a symbol of peace and war respectively. The Old Man and The Sea shows Hemingway making extensive use of symbolism. Hemingway himself said "I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things". Hemingway's use of symbols therefore, was deliberate and to a purpose. The allegory inherent in the work can be interpreted in two ways. One it can be seen as symbolizing man's struggle for existence in a hostile world and secondly, it can be seen as a symbolization of Hemingway’s personal experience. His struggle with his art and his stand against the hostile critics who severely condemned him for his book Across the River and into the Trees as continued. On the course of his struggle, Santiago strives to justify his relentless struggle to prove himself as a professional fisherman. Hemingway writes: "The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it."

      Thus Santiago justifies his fight but the words are also indicative of Hemingway having to prove his literary skills yet again and the struggle he had to go through is in order to achieve it. Hemingway has never apart from this ever expressed himself more openly than this.

The Fight with the Marlin

      Santiago is an old Cuban fisherman who has spent eighty-four luckless days without catching a fish. A young boy, Manolin, had been accompanying him for the first forty days (a Biblical allusion) but his father had ordered him to go on another boat, declaring the old man to be finally and definitely salao, the worst form of unlucky. The boy, however, did not desert him and continued to look after the old man who was his teacher. He looked after the old man's food and drink, sardines for bait apart from carrying his fishing equipment and providing companionship. On the eighty-fifth day he sails far out into the gulf stream confidently that his big fish was waiting somewhere. He lays his lines with clear precision. Around noon, he felt something hugging at the line. He knew that a fish was nibbling at his bait. He handles it very carefully and he is successful in hooking the fish. It turns out to a big fish as he begins to tow the skiff and moves northwest. Santiago is towed by the fish but he is the towing bitt. For two days and two nights, the old man continuously struggles as the fish tows him continuously. Starved, thirsty and exhausted he hangs on. He eats some raw fish to keep his strength. His right hand is injured and his left hand is cramped, and his back is sore and aching. Suddenly the fish begins to jump, he has to hang on for his life as the fish thrashes about. He wishes that the boy were there to help him. But it is not so, he waits for the fish to begin circling. As the fish does so, he sees it and cannot believe its size. It is two feet longer than the skiff. The old man musters up all his strength and power he never knew he possessed and harpoons the fish. He cannot bring the harpoon on to the skiff and so he lashes it alongside and begins to sail for home.

Attacked by Sharks

      As he is sailing homewards, the blood from the harpoon wound attracts the sharks. Two hours later a huge shark attacks and then more and more come. The old man first loses his harpoon, then with his knife he fights with the sharks. He then kills the sharks using his club and later tiller. The marlin is now reduced to nothing. Only its skeleton remains and yet the sharks continue to come and the. old man now without his club either, uses his tiller and continues to fight even when he cannot see, hitting at what he could feel or hear. He comes to the shore and starts making his way homeward with the mast on his shoulders. He has to take rest five times before he reaches his shack and there he goes to sleep face down on his bed with his arms stretched out, palms facing upwards. Next day, the boy finds him so and looking at his injured hands begins to weep. He has already seen the skiff and the skeleton. He tends to the Old Man carefully bringing him coffee and baring anyone from disturbing him. He is now determined that he shall accompany the old man in the future and bring good luck with him. The old man sleeps dreaming of the lions and is happy.

Scriptural Allegorism

      Hemingway's prose style in many ways reminds us of the Biblical style in its simplistic nature. There is also a subtle allegorism in the text and can be seen in many instances. For example, Santiago's relationship with the birds and fishes of the sea is at the level of a communion and reminds us of Saint Francis, his birds and animals. There is also an underlying similarity in Santiago's voyage and Ulysses' voyage in Dante's Inferno which, however, ends in shipwreck. Ulysses voyage is usually taken as a symbol of disaster, the danger resulting from man's uncontrollable thirst for scientific knowledge. The similarity is seen in how the old man goes beyond his limits-far out into the gulf stream, and beyond his endurance. His voyage does not end in shipwreck but he also ends up losing his hard won prize, his only material gain, "Half-fish". He says "Fish that your were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both" however, Hemingway's parable of struggle does not end in defeat and disaster. There is a twist that takes a different turn-victory even in defeat. Hemingway writes "But man is not made for, defeat," Santiago says, ”A man can be destroyed but not defeated." And later "It is silly not to hope," he thought. Besides I believe it is a sin. Thus, the parable acquires a different meaning as Hemingway's approach itself is different. He looks at man's struggle for survival, the virtues, and vices through the eyes of compassion, respect and love.

Santiago a Christ-Like Figure

      In the first place, Santiago is endowed with Christian virtues. As he talks to the boy who offers to bring sardines and bait for the old man knowing he has none, the old man gracefully accepts and Hemingway comments that: "He was too simple the wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no true loss of pride." Santiago is a humble and simple man like a true Christian. He has love and compassion for all the weak and beautiful creatures of the sea. The birds are his principal friends and the fish is his true brother. Throughout his ordeal he remains morally strong and though in the end, he is beaten but he is not defeated. Apart from being endowed with Christian virtues there is much in Santiago that is paralyzed to Christ and his crucifixion. In the first instance, his right hand is injured and his left hand cramped and useless. He says that he had never trusted his left hand as it had betrayed him all his life and he rules on his faithful right hand. But this hand is cut and bleeding. Then, as the shark's attack he says "Ay" and Hemingway says, it is ‘just such a noise as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.’ Further, on his climb towards to his shark, he carries his mast on his shoulder like Christ his cross, and he has to rest five times on his way as did Christ on his climb-to-Cavalry. And the imagery is unmistakable. Santiago goes into an exhausted sleep face down with his arms stretched out and his injured bleeding palms facing upwards.

A Parable of The Artist

      The Old Man and The Sea is a parable pertaining to a large number of different things. For example, at one level, critics read it as a parable of the artist struggling with his art and craft. A close parallel is drawn between Santiago, his marlin and the sharks and Hemingway, his art and his critics. Mark Schorer has called the novel not just a moral fable but a parable. Schorer says "It is aii Old Man catching a fish, yes; but it is also a great artist in the act of mastering his subject, and more than that of actually writing about the struggle. Nothing is more important than his craft, and it is beloved, but because it must be struggled with the mastered, it is also a foe to all self-indulgence, to all looseness of feeling, all laxness of style, all soft pomposities." Thus, Hemingway, it has been interpreted, was battling with his art in his old age and the critics who had severely criticized and torn apart his book prior to this novel, Across the River and into the Trees. The thousand times he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it. Thus, “the parable” a slightly different view is presented by Harvey Brit, "defuse, under a sustained pressure, the opposits elements of experience and vision, of prosaic event and dramatic or poetic insight. Hemingway has attempted to annihilate the shadow which falls between the idea and the reality, between the essence and the descent.” In The Old Man and The Sea; the mystique of fishing, with its limited triumphs and tragedies, it transposed into universal condition of life, with its success and shame, its morality and pride and potential loss of pride. Thus, the idea is that though the meaning of the text can be read as pertaining to the craft of fishing, a deeper meaning can be seen as the particular transcends into the universal in Hemingway's work. So, the craft can be Hemingway's art or any other craft or any human occupation upon which man relies for his existence.

The Actual Story and the Symbolic Story

      The Old Man and The Sea needs to be read on both the level actual and symbolic, in order to fully appreciate its art. The actual story is a beautifully told good story. It is smooth and fast paced. The Old Man is facing a problem, which gives rise to a conflict between man and fish which becomes a struggle against an immense immeasurable force. The Old Man knows that he must fight this force and fight relentlessly though he knows defeat is inevitable. However, this defeat is only on t|ie surface as Santiago remains unbeaten and anyway what matter is neither defeat nor victory but the knowledge that man can fight, has fought and fought well. As for the symbolic story, it is based on Christ's crucifixions and various Christian symbols run through the text. Like, Christ was a teacher of Christian virtues, Santiago here is a teacher to his disciple Manolin. He has taught Manolin the art of fishing and thus taught means to earn a living but he also teaches Manolin, the basis of leading a virtuous life, love, compassion, kindness, pride and humility. His life and the manner in which he lives is itself an open textbook for the boy to read and learn. Human being learns from the life of Christ. As Christ struggled through his life to attain his goal so does Santiago and the adversary is huge, bigger than he had ever seen or heard of and yet he battles on entering all pain and suffering. His hands are injured, his right hand is bleeding and his left hand is cramped. And as Christ succeeded but was killed, so Santiago succeeds but the next moment the shark's attack and then the pictures of Christ's crucifixions permeate the imagery. Santiago utters "Ay", "it is just such a noise as a man might make involuntarily feeling the nail go through his hand and into the wood. Still he fought but now nothing can be done. And from this point, Santiago in shouldering his mast resembles Christ carrying his cross and ultimately his falling into an exhausted sleep with his face down, arms stretched out, and his bleeding palms upwards, clearly is an image of Christ on the cross. The novel is thus also a parable of Christ's suffering and so a Christian Allegory.

A Christian Allegory

      The above instances clearly indicate how the story admits its interpretation of a Christian allegory. This interpretation has another aspect to it. The fish is as another symbol of Christ. And so in the text it can be seen that the Christian symbolism shifts from man to fish and then from fish to man.

Numerology to Emphasize Symbols

      Hemingway has used a system of numbers to emphasize the Christian symbols in the text. These numbers depend on the symbols for its significance. The numerology that Hemingway uses is not a formal system but, nevertheless, it is carefully and meticulously presented. In the Old and the New Testament, the numbers like three, seven and forty are key numbers and have an important place in the Christian religion. Hemingway has used these numbers discretely to the point and emphasized the Christian symbolism in the text. In the story, the Old man had been accompanied by the boy, Manolin for the first forty fishless days and has fished alone for the next forty-four days without any luck. The Old Man's battle against the marlin lasts for three days and three nights. He tries seven times before he is successful in harpooning it. He kills seven sharks. He rests five times with his mast on his shoulders on his way home, though Christ rested only three times. Hemingway thus uses numbers consistently to reinforce the crucifixions image.

Allegoric Comment on Work

      The book is, therefore, allegorical at various levels. At a third level, it can be studied as an allegory of the author's own art and his previous novels. If it is to be understood so then all his other religious comments in his earlier works can be seen clearly. It can be understood that his philosophy of manhood as expressed earlier was all leading up to this religious expression and Hemingway suddenly acquired religious overtones which he decided to take up in this novel.

A Further Look Into Hemingway’s Christianity

      In order to understand this concept of Hemingway's essential Christian philosophy, we need to understand several other. aspects of his entire oeuvres. Firstly, we need to study Hemingway's concern of man and in his relation to this world and the other world. Though, God seems to be present, God or religion doesn't seem to have anything significant to do with the thoughts, sentiments and emotions of Hemingway's central characters. These characters are portrayed as accepting the fact of God's existence, rather as unwilling to deny the fact but they are reluctant, adamant in not admitting the existence of God as a supreme being, kind or otherwise. He may remember God once while facing trouble but he shall never call upon God to help him or expect that God shall show him the way out of it. Thus, Frederic Henry says, "I am not religious" and yet when Catherin Barkly is about to die he prays friendly to God, he says, "Oh, God, please don't let her die. I'll do anything for you if you won't let her die. Please, please, please, dear God, don't let her die. Dear God, don't let her die. Please, please, don't let her die. God please make her not die." And so he prays. Then in The Sun Also Rises, Jack Barnes can be seen praying in the Catheral at Pamplona on the eve of his great trial. He prays for everyone and everybody that he can think of, he prays for good bull fighting, he even prays for good fishing. But the moment he realizes that he had been kneeling and praying he regrets his lack of religion. He knows he is not feeling religious and calls himself a "rotten catholic." He appreciates religion, calls it a grand religion even but he cannot feel it. Similarly, we have Santiago. He invokes God and Christ quite frequently in his attempt to catch the fish. After struggling against the fish for a day, a night and half a day, Santiago says, "I am not religious”, he said. "But I will say ten our Fathers and ten Hail Mary's that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise. Then he begins to pray mechanically, adding that "Hail Marys are easier to say than our Fathers." Later, when the fish starts coming so beautifully, God help me to endure. I'll say a hundred our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now. He thought, I'll say them later." The irony is further emphasized when after having successfully harpooned the marlin and lashed it alongside, the Old Man finds his prize being attacked and destroyed by sharks. He then rationalizes and he tells him that "nothing" had beaten him. He had only gone too far out. Thus Hemingway is concerned with the man and his relation vis-a-vis with the world. His belief is that man was not made to rely or depend upon God at times of crisis. His philosophy decrees that man should depend upon himself and solve his own problems. No one can help him in asserting his own manhood. He should accomplish it himself and only when he can independently assert his manhood, overcoming all obstacles, insurmountable or otherwise, is his existence justified and his life finds meaning. This is why, Santiago has to fight on. Even in the face of apparent defeat he has to go on and this is why he fights the sharks even at the moment when he knows its uselessness. Similarly, all Hemingway heroes must face their trials and tribulations alone, cannot expect help from others or any other outside agency. And in this attempt they are exempt from considerations of blame, sin or any moral wrong.

      The second aspect to be considered in regard to Hemingway's Christian philosophy is the rules and regulations that Hemingway strongly advocate his heroes to follow in their quest and assertion of manhood. The rules that he has formulated are strict and rigid but not less rigid than religious rules. Man has to follow these rules through an elaborate procedure. If a man is humble he acts humbly, if a man is rash he acts rashly, if honest, honestly and so on. Hemingway makes his heroes essentially aware of these rules and then concerns himself primarily with the presentation of man following the application of the rules.

The Rules and Its Application

      The application of the rules can be seen in Santiago's fight and more clearly in the bull fights in Death in the Afternoon. This novel’ is a study of how various bull fighters manifest their manhood and an evaluation of the degree to which they obey and follow these rules in their assertion of manhood. Hemingway usually conveys his religion based philosophy through the elaboration of war, fishing, hunting, sex etc. Bull fighting is one of the best means of evaluation at Hemingway's disposal as it is a elaboration of a game that usually ends in death. The bull fighter is almost akin to a priest performing a sacrifice. A bull fighter, as he steps into the arena he realizes that he is facing death almost and very possible death. He has to face it and he does so with courage and bravery and he performs the sacrifice with dignity and respect. The killer and the victim are both aware of death and also accepted. This knowledge and acceptance is mandatory. But the bullfighters, ultimate search is to understand how the important thing is neither dying nor killing but the act itself and the manner in which one conducts oneself through it.

      These rules are clearly being applied to Santiago in his ordeal against the marlin and the sharks. They are also applied in The Sun Also Rises and Hemingway’s short story The Undefeated. The ritualistic adherence to the rules can be seen in Santiago’s stick precision in laying his baits:

"Before it was really light he had his baits out and was drifting with the current. One bait was down forty fathoms. The second was at seventy-five and the third and fourth were down in the blue water at one hundred and twenty-five fathoms. Each bait hung head down with the shark of the hook inside the baitfish, tied and slowed solid and all the projecting parts of the hook, the curse and the point, was covered with fresh sardines.

He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dart of the water. He kept them straighter than anyone did, so that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there."

      Later we read how Santiago delicately holds the line waiting for the fish and how the fish is hooked, he waits with a lot of suspense for the fish to be beaten and swallow the bait and then waiting for it to take the bait well. Then he "struck hard with both hands, gained a yard of line and then struck again and again, swinging with each arm alternately on the cord with all the strength of his arms and the pivoted weight of his body." He held the line across his back and shoulders so that there will be something to give when the fish feels hungry, and the line will not break. The fight that Santiago fights is the same as of the bullfighter. Santiago is also aware that he has to kill as much as the marlin knows and fights back. Santiago also knows and accepts that he might be killed. "You are killing me, fish...Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills whom." And he goes about fighting with dignity and self respect though knowing fully well that death was as possible for him the sacrificer as it was for the marlin the intended sacrificial object.

The Christian Aspect

      Hemingway himself was not as a confirmed Christian as his use of Christian symbols are in the novel. However, the Christian symbols are clearly indicative of a Christian allegory. Though Hemingway did not turn religious in order to write the novel, he had always been religious in an organized kind of way. His view of the world is not just a philosophy or an ethic but a celebration of the Religion of Man. The Old Man and The Sea celebrate of Man, emphatically and forcefully in Santiago's assertion of his manhood and in his realization of the rules and their proper application. The Novel elements show Hemingway's philosophy to the level of religion through the use of religious allegory.


      The text is such that when it is read as an allegory of Hemingway's, it enables the reader to understand his work from the point of view of religion. From a specific point of view, the book may also be read as an allegory of the artist grappling with his art and his materials and finally his unkind critics. One can see Hemingway himself and his accuracy and precision in Santiago setting his baits and waiting. His failure till now to land a big fish may be paralleled to Hemingway's failures with his previous novel Across the River and into the Trees. Santiago thinks "Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for." This clearly reflects Hemingway's own attitude as an artist and writer. There are other aspects to support the theory. His hooking a huge marlin but unable to catch it is Hemingway's inability to attain success though having a great project in mind. His struggle is the artist struggling, Santiago's respect for the fish, his fight and his confidence, all reflect Hemingway’s point of view. The attack of the sharks, tearing his fish to pieces is reminiscent of the critics attacking and tearing his work to pieces and finally, the Old Man's resolute determination to fight is how Hemingway himself was determined to fight back, never admitting defeat.

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