Narrative & Allegorical Aspects of The Old Man And The Sea

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The Success of The Novel

      Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is a great novel with regard to both its narrative and allegorical aspects. Both play significant roles and are equally important and win our deep admiration. Both the aspects show off Hemingway’s style and his mastery over his art. There are many other aspects contributing to the success of the novel but the two under discussion are most significant.

The Narrative and its Four Sections

      The narrative is tightly structured in the form of four sections. These four sections are similar to the acts of a drama consisting of prologue, rising action and climax, falling action and epilogue. The first section of the gripping text is the prologue where the Old Man, Santiago is introduced and the other important character Manolin, the boy too. From their conversation we are informed that the Old Man had taught the boy fishing, and they share a very close relationship between them, an attachment deep as a father and son relationship. The Old Man has been suffering from bad luck for eighty-four days. He has not been able to catch a fish for very long and the boy has also been forced to leave the Old Man and to go on another boat after his father declared the Old Man salao, the worst form of unlucky after forty fishless days. The second section, resembling the rising action, is the section describing how the Old Man goes far out and hooks a huge marlin and his struggle against him. This section begins with the Old Man voyaging far out and laying his baits with precision. Then he hooks a huge fish which thwarts his attempts at pulling it in rather swimming away pulling Santiago in his skiff along with him, from this point his long ordeal against the fish is shown describing his endurance and determination. The climax of the novel is at the moment when Santiago scores his victory, he harpoons the fish with all his remaining strength he had summoned and then lashing the fish, longer than his skiff, alongside and commences sailing homeward. The third section begins with Santiago and his fish being attacked by sharks. The action falls as Santiago struggles against the sharks which come singly, doubly or in packs, attacking the marlin biting at it until finally all the marlin’s flesh is eaten away and left with the Marlin’s skeleton. Finally, the epilogue or the fourth section describes the Old Man’s return to his village, exhausted and beaten his climb to his shack, and the boy, the villagers and other fishermen and some tourists’ various reactions to the old man’s feat and finally the Old Man and Manolin’s enthusiastic plans for fishing together in the future. The theme of the novel is Santiago’s battle with the marlin and his victory over it, then his battle against the sharks and loses his marlin but achieving moral victory in his defeat. The story is gripping and told in a fast paced manner, at the same time displaying Santiago’s extraordinary courage and heroism, and how in-spite of being beaten scores a moral victory.

Plot and Imagery

      Hemingway’s plot is deceptively simple, Santiago’s adventure with marlin and sharks at sea, but this simplicity is apparent over an intricately designed base which conveys the theme of the novel. Santiago himself and his adventure is described and related with minute detail. Hemingway pays great attention to even the smallest detail. In the beginning, Santiago says that the eighty-fifth day was going to be his lucky day with conviction and asks Manolin “How would you like to see me being one is that dressed out over a thousand pounds?” And he does hook a huge marlin that weighs more than fifteen hundred pounds. There are similar other anticipatory moments that point to the central action. For example, Santiago witnesses, the man-of-war bird circling, dropping, and attempting to catch the flying fish but failing because the flying fish were too big for him and were too fast suggests the Old Man’s resolute struggles against the marlin. Another such episode is that of the small warbler bird, exhausted and threatened by the hawks and other predatory creatures also suggests the Old Man’s exhaustion and his struggle with the sharks on his way home. Another is Santiago who himself saying at the end of the second day of his struggle with the marlin unless sharks come, ‘he said aloud, ‘If sharks come, god pity him and me’. Hemingway presents vivid images and yet his presentation of the action is not abstract but is in the concrete terms of the marlin and the shark when the Old Man is tired and surrounded by nothing but the dark sea, he draws strength from the images he dreams up of the golden and white beaches of Africa where golden lions play and frolic around in the sun and in this manner by remembering things of his past youth he counters the fatigue of old age. There is also the imagery of the left and right hand and the image of the crucification in narrating the Old, Man’s immense fatigue and his stoic endurance and calm acceptance of his suffering both during the struggle with the marlin and the struggle with the sharks. Memories of DiMaggio, the great baseball star who won many victories inspite of the pain of a bone spur, memories of his victory in hand wrestling over a huge Negro which had lasted for a day and a night, memories of the lions playing on the golden beaches of Africa which he had seen as a youth and thoughts of the boy Manolin who used to take care of him, are flashed flashes constantly through the text, are images that propel Santiago towards his goal, inspiring and, rejuvenating him.

Tight Construction

      The construction of the novel is tight, and the action moves at a fast pace and the details are exact. The construction is, therefore, perfect. The story moves on exciting and arousing reader's interest and arresting attention from point to point till the climax i.e reached as the marlin is killed and Santiago triumphs. A short breather the story races on again as the Old Man faces an onslaught from sharks the scavengers of the sea. Now the story leaving aside its exciting’s action brings forward the natural beauty of the text making it realistic and natural. Hemingway spends years fishing off the coast of Cuba himself and so the background of the novel is vividly realistic. The factualness and realism of the narrative is another aspect that enhances its beauty. However, certain critics may charge Hemingway of faking and imitating, the fact remains that he was an artist devoted to communicating the truth and the fact. His fame and reputation rests largely on this attribute. Most of his work is based on the actual experiences of his life. Hemingway’s task and objective in the novel, in his own words was to draw “a real old man, a real fish and a real sea.” And there is no doubt that he did succeed in attaining his stated aim and objective. The description of the Old Man itself is enough to stand as more than adequate proof.

“The Old Man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these sears were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.”

      This description is vivid in its picturization of an old professional Gherman, who has fished all his life and the moment comes he remaind Enable to catch fish for eighty-four days. This kind of Realism permeates through his description of the sea, the marlin, the sharks etc. The fantastic element in the story - a lone man fighting huge marlin bigger than one has seen or heard of and then battling numerous sharks defenseless and weaponless, the ordeal itself lasting three days and three nights, is rendered probable and the miraculousness is presented in realistic terms. This realism is an artistic triumph.

A Pattern and Symmetry in the Structure

      The narrative of the novel seems to follow a pattern pertaining to the natural order. This is another significant aspect that the Old Man’s story can be seen in the natural order and rhythm of life “everything eating or killing everything else”. The small fish eat the smallest plankton but are themselves eaten by the longer fish which in turn is consumed by bigger fish, like the dolphin, marlin etc. Here, the first such natural pattern of the victim and the victor turning into victim can be seen in the way the dolphin catches and consumes the flying fish and is itself caught and eaten by the Old Man. Similarly, the Old Man goes after the marlin and conquers him but again, is himself conquered. Hemingway writes, “Those who had caught sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cave where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their liver removed, their fins cut off, their hides skinned out and their flesh cut into strips for salting.” Later, he also writes that the fisherman uses shark liver oil for the benefit of their eyes from the community tank.

      Apart from the pattern of a natural ritual, there is also a certain symmetry in the story against the profit and loss. The story of Santiago’s triumph over the marlin is balanced by his awesome loss of his prize to the sharks and this enhances the aesthetic quality of the text.

The Allegorical Aspect

      Inspite of the brilliance of the narrative, the success of the novel does not rest on it alone. Another brilliant aspect of the novel is its allegorical aspect. At the mere level of the story, the narrative can be plainly admired for its theme, language etc. But then the story is not simply the story of an old man’s adventures. It allows various interpretations on an allegorical level. Hemingway’s achievement is in the fact that the story is open to not just one but several allegorical interpretations.

Allegory of Human life

      Santiago’s story can firstly be interpreted as the allegory of man struggling for life, his battle against opposing natural forces in order to carve out an existence. It represents the human struggle against unconquerable forces. A struggle where it is inevitable that man shall lose but by the manner in which he puts up a defense, fights against the forces and may score a moral triumph even in defeat. Seen as an epic metaphor a symbolism of the contest between man and the forces against him. The notion conveyed is that a man may fight and lose but for a man to lose is not a disgrace if he fights well, if he fights in the best way possible as according to his abilities and capabilities. There is an idea that man may go beyond, may transcend defeat, though defeat may well be his. He may do so by struggling against the odds showing courage, endurance, an indomitable spirit and indefatigableness. This can be clearly seen in Santiago who after having been declared salao and without catching a fish is still confident, how after hooking a huge marlin who goes against him and tows him away instead and tows him unslackingly for two days and two nights but he doesn’t give up. Alone, injured and exhausted he fights and he wins. And then later again, when the sharks attack he ultimately loses the fight, but he relentlessly fights first with a harpoon, then knife, then oar, club, and a broken tiller. Even when defeat faces him he fights against scores of sharks. This in itself is his victory. And this is the message that man can by his dignity, courage, heroism and faith can achieve victory, transcending all odds.

Allegory of the Artist

      At another level, the story can be read as Hemingway’s own story, a story allegorizing his struggle against his craft, his art of writing. It can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of Hemingway struggling to write his best, to prove himself as an artist and his resoluteness towards goal even when sharp critics attack him and tear his literary output to pieces. The various symbols are easily identifiable. Santiago, the fisherman is Hemingway, the artist. As Santiago approaches his craft, his profession with serious confidence, handles everything with precision, preferring to be exact so that he would be ready when luck came to favor him. This can be inferred from the lines describing how he laid his baits, “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.” Others let them drift with the current” this is also Hemingway’s own attitude towards his craft. Santiago, in battle against the marlin, says that he has to prove himself. So does Hemingway who was to prove himself as an author again. It is thousand times that he had proved himself earlier was not sufficient. Santiago is resolute and grimly determined to conquer the marlin whom he loves and respects. Hemingway also respects his art and is resolved to master it. The sharks stand for the critics who lashed Hemingway with a lot of unfavorable criticisms following the publication of Across the River and Into the Trees. Santiago’s firm and determined fight against the sharks symbolize Hemingway’s own stand against his critics finally, Santiago’s undefeated attitude and eager plans for the future with Manolin clearly indicate Hemingway’s stand to persist and be confident even in the midst of setbacks and odds inevitable.

A Christian Allegory

      Another interpretation of the novel is that it is a Christian allegory. Christian symbols and images of Christ and the crucification abound in the novel. Firstly, the virtues that Santiago embodies are Christian virtues-courage, humility, charity, compassion and love for one’s fellow creatures and a certain oneness with the elements of nature. The fish and birds are principal friends and the marlin is his true brother. There is the imagery of the left and the right hand. His right hand is injured and bleeding. His left hand is cramped and useless. Santiago says that his left hand had betrayed him in all his life and he could never trust it as he trusted his right hand. When the shark's attack Santiago cries ‘Ay’ which is a noise that a man may make on feeling the nail go through his hands and into the woods. On his return, he goes to his shack carrying the mast on his shoulder like Christ carried the cross, resting several times on the way. Then he falls asleep with his face down and his hands stretched out and his injured palms facing upwards. The image of the crucification scene here is vivid. There are further connections to Christian mythology in the use of numbers like after forty days, Manolin goes away, forced by his father to another boat, he struggles against the fish for three days, he harpoons the fish after the seventh attempt, he kills seven sharks etc.

Allegory of Age and Youth

      The Old Man and The Sea can also be read as an allegory of age and youth, of Santiago versus Manolin. Manolin the boy is a symbol of youth and, therefore, youthful strength, courage and stamina. During the old man’s prolonged ordeal, it is a constant refrain coming from his mouth that he wished he had the boy. He remembers and thinks of the boy throughout especially when he has to renew his efforts against the fish and by thinking of him he actually invokes his own inner strength and conviction and the stamina of his youth. Later as the old man admits towards the end of the novel that the boy keeps him alive, the symbolism becomes clearer. Manolin keeps him literally as well as figuratively alive. Thoughts of the boy rejuvenate him, similarly there are other symbols that are reminders of his youth. For example, the lions frolicking on the long golden beaches of Africa that he had seen as a young man, and which he frequently dreams about are a source of strength as they make him happy. Santiago also remembers past instances such as the time when he had defied a huge Negro after a day and night of hand-wrestling, which by reminding of how he could defeat anyone, anyhow, if he really wanted to win, helps him to strengthen his resolve to catch the marlin. It is an invigorating memory that makes him feel stronger inspite of his exhaustion.


      Thus, the novel has various different aspects contributing to its success. One cannot really describe which aspect is the most significant. The narrative the style and technique involved, the various meanings due to its complexity beneath a simple surface are all equally important, though its complexity of meaning has been one of the most debated aspects as different critics have interpreted the meaning of the text variously. But then one has to admit that the controversy, or rather the fact that the text is not limited to one meaning is one of its greatest features. And one would say that in this respect, the different allegorical meanings score over the narrative in the importance in degree in contributing to the novel’s success.

University Questions

The Old Man and The Sea has two important aspects contributing to its success, its allegorical aspects and its narrative. Elucidate discussing the significance of the both.
Critically examine the different aspects that make Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea a success.
Discuss the allegorical and narrative aspects of the novel Old Man and The Sea, with close reference to the text.

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