Allegory of All Humanity in The Old Man And The Sea

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The Literal Story

      The story of The Old Man and The Sea, is about an old Cuban fisherman, who fishes alone and catches a huge marlin and then alone, exhausted and weaponless battles numerous sharks in order to defend his hard won prize, the marlin. The story is wonderfully told in a fast paced narrative. Structured like a modern drama - prologue, rising action, climax, falling action and epilogue with close-knit action the story of Santiago is beautifully told.

Various Allegorical Interpretations

      The text itself, apart from its literal story, admits of various allegorical interpretations. First, it has been interpreted as an allegory of the artist struggling with his material and his hostile critics, equating Hemingway with the Old Man, his art with the marlin and the hostile critics with the scavenger sharks. Second, it is interpreted as a Christian allegory, because of all the Christian symbolism and the image of the crucification that is evident in Santiago’s struggle. The points we are concerned with is the interpretation of the text as an allegory of man’s life, a parable of humanity in this world. The theme, therefore, reduces to fighting for good against the evil. The novel is a metaphor for life, human life which is a struggle for existence wherein over and above existence, the important thing is the struggle itself. The manner of fights relegates even the question of right or wrong to a secondary place, The Old Man and The Sea represents human life as a parable of the struggle against the unconquerable hostile forces, wherein one achieves victory by the manner of one’s courage and endurance. Hemingway’s earlier novels were marked, by pessimism and bitterness and despair but here the mood is entirely different. It is in fact, a jubilant mood celebrating life and revering the struggle that is life. Santiago is a simple man and yet capable of an incredible heroism and through his extraordinary courage, strength and dignity achieve a moral victory even in defeat.

Santiago’s Struggle and His Moral Victory

      The Old Man has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish. On the eighty-fifth day he goes far out into the sea believing that it would be his lucky day and a big fish would be waiting for him and he does hook a huge marlin, bigger than he had ever seen or heard of. For two days and two nights, the marlin tows him farther out into the sea and the Old Man, cramped, injured, and physically exhausted due to lack of sleep and food, hang on fighting with all he had, ultimately harpooning the fish on the third day. The fish is two feet longer than the skiff so he lashes it alongside and he sails homewards. But great sharks attack the marlin and though the Old Man relentlessly fights them, he loses the battle. The marlin is finally reduced to its white skeleton and Santiago comes in with it. He goes home to his shark bearing his mast cross-like on his shoulders and falls into an exhausted sleep.

Santiago: The Dignity, discipline and Indefatigableness

      Santiago is an old fisherman, skilled and very professional but who had somewhere attained humility without loss of pride. He believes in his work and he is confident of himself. He believes in doing what he was born for to the best of his ability. He, therefore, demonstrates how even in everyday life heroism is necessary and how real heroism is. It is not mere a word or an invisible quality. Like earlier heroes, he doesn’t have to go through love, war, death etc. His is an unglamorous job and yet in it he shines and is, therefore, even more attractive and luminous than the other Hemingway heroes. He is a solitary fisherman and, therefore, apart from his own resources there are no other things on which he can rely on. But, he goes far out confident and determined and he fights on against the biggest fish he had ever come across and even when he is exhausted, tired to the bones, he fights on. Not for a single moment he thinks about giving up the fight. He draws inspiration from his memories of the boy, the great DiMaggio and the lions and he relentlessly pursues his quarry. He admits his love and respect for the fish but he also says that he would definitely kill the fish whatever could, be the outcome. Santiago is battling a worthy adversary and this knowledge is also partly responsible for sustaining his strength, resolution and will to fight the marlin, this resolution is strengthened the moment he sees the marlin the enormous size of the fish which spurs his determination. The Old Man’s determination is evident in the statement: “I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures.” And when he does so he shall have proved his worth and also given the proof to other men that life is a struggle worth struggling for and that man can do it, he can endure all kinds of suffering and pain, he can even die in order to achieve his victory. The struggle is kin and exhausting. The Old Man says: “You are killing me, fish. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater or more beautiful or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.” Though the Old Man is more tired than he has ever been and he actually sees dark spots in front of his eyes he goes on fighting. He felt faint and sick and he could not see well but he has won the fight.

The Best Code-Hero

      Santiago is the ultimate example of the code-Hero. He exemplifies all the admirable values and virtues of the Hemingway code. This code of life, was one that Hemingway proposed and valued all his life and in all his works. Hemingway glorified courage, endurance and stoic determination. He, also treasured the virtues of honor, dedication, respect, etc. In Santiago’s story, Hemingway shows how a man may become old, and become extremely luckless, but still possesses courage and goes on fighting and by the nature of his struggle may secure a moral victory even in defeat. The Hemingway code-hero must also be a man who never forgets the rules for living and for attaining and asserting manhood. Moreover, he must not forget the way and the procedures of the application of these rules and the skills and the technique needed for the proper application of these rules. In this respect, Hemingway’s Santiago is the ultimate of the Code-hero. And all that he possesses in term of virtues and all that happens to him are applicable to human life as a whole. Human life is a struggle against heavy odds, any kind of goal can be achieved only through hard and sustained labor and even if the possibility of defeat manifest itself one cannot lose hope and must continue striving for. In human life there may be many prizes such as represented by the marlin and many opposing forces as represented, by the sharks. Human life comprises of more of relentless striving and effort, less of pleasure and the joy and victory of human life. Therefore, even if life ultimately ends in tragedy, such as in Santiago, whose hard-won prize is ultimately reduced to mere skeleton, the consciousness that one has to fight with and fight to the best of one’s ability and with as much heroism as one is capable of rather than sinking into despair, one shall exult with the joy of victory. Santiago is comparable to a Hamlet or a Lear in his heroism and his tragedy, and how as a winner, he takes nothing.

The Symbolism of the Marlin

      The huge marlin, in the parable of man’s life represents, that distant almost next to impossible to achieve goal and killing the marlin signifies the attainment of that goal. The hardship and the pain and suffering that Santiago undergoes in his bid to capture the marlin implies how in the journey of life, how fought with problems and difficulties is the process towards the attainment of one’s goals. However, the idea and the search for a goal is an idea and noble search and, therefore, the person in quest of a "designated goal is fired by passion, resolution and the will to achieve the goal. Man’s purpose fires him and doesn’t allow him to side track from his proposed trajectory. The Old Man’s injured, bleeding hand signifies the pain that man has to pass through, his cramped left hand, his sore and aching back and muscles all signify or symbolize the suffering that man has to endure in order to attain his goal. On the other hand, the marlin refuses to be defeated. The Old Man has to struggle with him for three days and two nights and thus the marlin itself signifies the enormity of man’s task and how difficult and full of dangerous risk it is to attempt to achieve a high goal. Finally, the Old Man, through grit, determination and persistence and also depending on the various fishing tricks and techniques, captures the marlin. And man in his struggle needs the help of these virtues and these qualities in order to attain success.

Man’s Need for Inner and Outer Strength

      Man in his struggle against life and in his struggle to attain some kind of goal needs both an inner and an outer source of strength and stamina. This is because the goal is a high objective. So high that it is awe inspiring as much as the marlin’s beauty and dignity drew the love and respect of the Old Man. For the Old man there are many sources from which he draws strength and inspiration. The boy Manolin reminds him of his youth, his youthful energy and the lions frolicking on the golden beaches of Africa, make him happy and energize him, the baseball star DiMaggio born of a poor fisherman, who had accomplished many great things in spite of pain of above bone spur and led his team to victory also inspires the Old Man to go on fighting. His own experiences as a young man, like the time he had defeated a great Negro at hand wrestling after twenty-four hours which inspires him and fills him with the hope and the confidence that he can still be the champion. These examples are necessary to illustrate the fact that though man is necessarily alone and that he has to fight for his life on his own, he needs certain other things. Man needs some sort of companionship what the boy provides. He cannot be an alienated individual staying in isolation. Earlier Hemingway had portrayed a Frederic Henry, happy in isolation and desolate and unconcerned with society. Here, Santiago fully expresses his need for the boy and ultimately it is when he is in the midst of people again that he is happy. Thus, here Hemingway clearly states the need for society and in another respect, the need for a companion to draw strength from.

      Again, for outer strength Santiago forces himself to eat the raw tuna, later the raw dolphin and finally the flying fish and the shrimps. He doesn’t particularly enjoy them but he forces himself to eat in order to keep his strength. Similarly, man should compromise in life if he wishes to stay strong enough to achieve his goals.

      Finally, Santiago also draws strength from God. He prays to God, invokes the help of the Virgin Mary promising to say ‘Our Father’s’ and ‘Hail Mary’s’. Santiago is not religious but this promises show a belief in a superior power controlling the universe and this should be every man’s dogma in life. Man should believe in power, a being that controls his life and to whom he can appeal and thereby draw spiritual strength.

The Symbolism of the Sharks

      Santiago achieves victory over the marlin. As he sails homeward with the marlin lashed to side of his skiff, sharks smelling the blood come and attack the marlin. Santiago puts up a valiant fight against the sharks but he ultimately loses his hard-won prize. But his loss doesn’t mean that he has been defeated, because by virtue of his indomitable courage, fortitude and will he fought the sharks, even when he knew defeat was inevitable, even at the moment when he was weaponless and even at the moment he could no longer see but hear the sharks he achieves a victory. He says, “Man is not made for defeat. A Man may be destroyed but not defeated.” Later, he tells himself, “It is silly not to hope. Besides I believe it is a sin.” further he says, “I’ll fight them until I die”. These utterances bring out the Old Man’s indomitable spirit, he knows he has been beaten but not defeated. This is in a way the ideal behavior that every man should strive to follow. The sharks on the other hand, symbolize all the opposing forces that combine to threat man’s plans or to destroy his dreams and achievements. But that the Old Man even in the face of these forces, never losing hope but drawing strength and inspiration by thinking of his youth, the lions and the boy etc. which are symbolical of how man through his will and spirit can stand firm against the onslaught of these forces. Thus, the novel affirms the spirit of man and shows how man, every individual can exist in this world.

Santiago a Christ-like Figure

      Santiago at various points in the novel has been painted in the imagery of Christ. Santiago’s pain and suffering is paralleled to that of Christ. His right hand is injured and bleeding and his left hand is cramped and useless. Later, he feels as though the nails are going through his hands and into the wood. And finally, he goes home bearing the mast on his shoulder like the cross. There are other similarities in the character too. For example, he has attained humility without loss of pride, he is full of love and compassion and he suffers like Christ in his suffering and loss a martyrdom comparable to Christ. These aspects are again to be applied to notion that the story is a parable of man’s life on earth, because Christ Himself was the ideal man and all man should strive to follow His examples.


      The novel, therefore, is a parable of the human effort and shows how man may strive and succeed even when he is defeated, it clearly illustrates Hemingway’s statement that “A man may be destroyed but not defeated.”

University Questions

The Old Man and The Sea is an allegory of man’s life on earth. Discuss.
The Old Man and the Sea is a parable of all humanity. Comment.
“A Man may be destroyed but not defeated”. Comment on Hemingway’s concept bringing out its inherent truth.
The Old Man and The Sea discusses the theme of the story of man on his own. Elucidate.

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