Social, Moral & Religious: Purpose Behind The Old Man And The Sea

Also Read

The Purpose of Art

      It has been observed again and again that all art should have a social, moral and religious purpose. But all are not agreed and state that art is not required to have any purpose as art, in any form whatsoever has its own existence. This is following the theory that art should exist for arts sake as art is created in order to satisfy the natural creative instinct of the creator. These two opposing views are to be closely examined with reference to The Old Man and The Sea.

      On the surface the novel is the story of an old Cuban fisherman who after eighty-four days of bad luck hooks a huge marlin on the eighty-fifth day and his subsequent battle against it and then against the sharks who come to eat the marlin. The story is grippingly told and action is packed and, therefore, moves fast catching and holding the reader’s attention till the very end. The story is filled with factual details that on the one hand it contributes to its realism and on the other hand, provides the reader with a practical handbook on the sea, its creatures and deep sea fishing. More than that the novel also provides the reader with knowledge on human nature on the one hand, and a fisherman’s thoughts and his skills and techniques on the other. And most importantly it has been observed that at a deeper level the novel does pose a didactic intent showing a deep social, moral and religious purpose over and above its many meanings.

Social Purpose

      Though the story of the novel deals with a single man, in isolation battling against natural forces single-handedly, the novel is not without a larger social milieu, neither is it devoid of social significance. As critics disagree and debate over other points so are I they in argument over this point also. Some have expressed the opinion that in Hemingway’s novel from the very beginning the reader is squarely confronted with a world in which man’s isolation is the most insistent truth. A critic has even gone to the extent of saying that The Old Man and The Sea marks the culmination...of Hemingway’s long search for disengagement from the social world and total entry into...the natural one. “This view or supported by the fact that the Old shown as going “Far out” - and “beyond all people in the world” and his single handed battle. However, this view of the novel goes against the view that the novel has social significance. But in Santiago’s story, we find that not just with the features of the sea but his fellow villagers and especially the boy Manolin and the baseball star DiMaggio, who extended a deep attachment and a relationship directly or indirectly based on give and take that shows the deep social concerns of the novel. The real theme of the novel, therefore, is the inter-dependence of man with man and man with the creatures of the sea. Santiago is alone at sea but in reality he is never alone. He is at one moment filled with the awareness of his loneliness but at the very next moment, he is made to see that no man is ever alone on the sea. Santiago may haye ventured far out into the sea beyond all people but in his heart and mind, he is always close to his social relations, he is also thinking about the boy Manolin, or else DiMaggio or his exploits as a youth amongst people. The thoughts of these social relationships are always his constant companion and eventually he returns to his village and is happy that others were concerned over his long absence. The notion of social significance in the text opens up another thread. All along Hemingway had written about the alienated man or woman, the protagonist struggling in isolated existence or trying to establish an isolated world. But there had always been an underlying notion of advocating a return into society and Hemingway’s thoughts after 1937 have been moving towards a renewal of social contacts in terms of oneness and an interdependence. In The Old Man and The Sea, the theme of interdependence is indicated in every relation. Santiago’s relation to the boy Manolin is the most obvious example. Santiago and the boy share a deep love and attachment. Santiago had been the boy’s tutor in fishing since he was only five years old. The boy, his disciple was now also his companion. Santiago during his long ordeal against the marlin, is shown as constantly wishing for the boy’s presence. The boy would have been a companion, someone to talk too. He would have helped the Old Man in many ways, he would tied the reserve coils, he would have rubbed his cramped left hand, he would have wetted the coils so that it did not burn Santiago’s hands etc. The boy is the one person who keeps the Old Man alive figuratively as well as literally, by giving him food and drink and by looking after his other material, needs apart from being his companion, and he is the source of strength. Santiago is also dependent on others and shares close relationships with them too. The restaurant owner occasionally gives him food and beer and newspapers to read and for this he is suitably thankful. He drinks shark liver oil from the community tank, towards the end we read how he wonders whether anyone had missed him and he concludes yes, he lived in a good town. Then there is his dependence on DiMaggio, a star and champion in the world of baseball who led his team to great victories inspite of the pain of a bone spur. Santiago draws comfort and inspiration from him that invigorates and rejuvenates him. Therefore, it is clear that though the picture presented in the novel is of a lone man, there lies underneath the whole social structure. The notion of social ties and the need for social inter-dependence is clearly conveyed. Thus, the novel’s social significance cannot be denied.

The Moral Purpose

      As much as the novel emphasizes the need for social interdependence, it does the importance of certain moral values. These are the virtues of love and compassion, humility without loss of true pride, courage, endurance, determination and an indomitable spirit. Santiago’s spirit is the indomitable and of the indefatigable variety. He is undefeated even when physically defeated. He, therefore, is a representative of the human spirit that defies defeat. He is man who stands against all the trials and tribulations thrown at him and with his stoic endurance and calm in surmount ableness remains undefeated and undaunted. He proves clearly “what a man can do and what a man endures” and thereby stresses how man can achieve a heroic stature. Santiago stands firm and resolute against the marlin and with even more determination in more trying conditions against the sharks. Hemingway portrays how a man may be destroyed but not defeated and he thus shows the invincible nature of man. He may score a moral triumph even in the face of physical defeat. Santiago is, therefore, a man not to be crushed, he is a man, who puts more efforts and struggles valiantly and relentlessly to achieve his goal, or for that which he believes in. This aspect forms the more important moral significance of the text. Santiago shows great love and compassion for the creatures of the sea. The birds are his principal friends. They give him company as well as point him towards fish. He is sorry for the small birds who have a hard life as against the big birds and the cruel sea turtles, hawkbills etc who arouse his love by their elegance and speed and their value. The porpoises play, joke and love one another. For this he loves’ them too, and feels they were brothers like the flying fish were. He has great love and respect for the marlin he has hooked. The fish was his true brother and afterward he pities him and wishes he could somehow feed him. Santiago’s compassionate nature is again brought out in the episode involving the small warbler, who comes and perches on his line. He knows that the bird was tired and exhausted due to his attempting to escape the hawks, and he says, “Take a good rest, small bird”. ‘Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish.’ Then he adds “Stay at my house if you like, bird, I an sorry, I cannot hoist the sail and take you in with the small breeze that is rising. But I am with a friend.” This episode also reveals that Santiago’s compassion comes from the notion that all living creatures have to withstand the forces of nature in order to survive and he does establish a kinship, and oneness with all the creatures of nature. This notion of love, compassion and oneness with nature is another aspect of the novel’s moral significance. Last but not the least, the virtue that adds to the moral significance of the text is Santiago’s humility. He has been unable to catch any fish for eighty-four days. He is down on his luck and he doesn’t even have bait for the next day. Manolin offers to bring him fresh baits and he humbly accepts his offer. Then Hemingway writes of his humility:

Thank you, the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.

      Santiago’s humility is such that it draws out our respect and admiration, these are, therefore, the various virtues that Hemingway portrays and advocates thereby rendering the text one of great moral values.

The Religious Purpose

      The novel, apart from the social and moral, purpose has a religious purpose too. But this is presented more in terms of Santiago’s attitude to God, the fish, the fight of the good men for the good against the evil. Hemingway was not a religious man and neither does he show Santiago to be a religious orthodox man. In fact Santiago himself claims “I am not religious” but Santiago is seen as possessing a belief in the existence of a supreme being, a controlling force. After Santiago has hooked the marlin and is being towed by it, he promises God to say the Hail Marys, and ten our Fathers and to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre that he may catch the marlin. Then he begins to say his prayers mechanically, even forgetting what he had to say somewhere along the way. This shows that Santiago’s religion is not orthodox and his prayer is mere convention, but then one can not ignore the significance of these prayers. The idea conveyed is that man should have faith in the being above who ordains everything. Another point of religious significance is Santiago’s psychological debate without, as to whether it was a sin to kill the marlin or not. He is troubled by the dilemma he was in. He keeps wondering and thinking and pondering over the question of sin. After he had won a victory over the fish and was going homewards with it, he was attacked by the sharks and stands in danger of losing his hard won fish. He wonders whether he had committed a sin in killing the fish. This implies that he had some notion of belief in sin and punishment. The feeling of guilt persists in his mind:

“I have no understanding of it and I am not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is a sin. Do not think about sin.”

      Finally, he tries to rationalize his guilt, by telling himself: “You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

      Santiago’s reflections on sin raise our own doubts. This shows the strength of Hemingway’s art. There are other aspects of the religion that Hemingway has portrayed. 'There is to a very large extent, a religious intent in Santiago’s struggle against the sharks the good man is fighting evil. Further, there is also a Christian imagery underlying the struggle and an imagery of the crucification that draws attention to the message that a man may face innumerable trials, problems and disasters but if his essential faith remains unshaken he may yet emerge victorious over all the odds. The Christian imagery present in how the Old Man’s left hand is cramped and useless and the right hand injured and the Old Man’s trust in it and his expression that he had never been able to trust it, then comes the imagery of the crucification in the passage describing his feelings on being attacked by the sharks. He says ‘Ay’ a word which is only called a noise such as made by a man who feels the nail goes through his hands and into the wood, finally his carrying of mast cross-like on his shoulders and laying to sleep with his arms stretched out, his injured palms facing upwards. The purpose of this religion-based imagery is to strengthen the element of martyrdom in Santiago’s story and to remind everyone of Christ story and finally to give the message through indication that human life is a struggle but faith can move mountains.


      The text, The Old Man And The Sea therefore, has a didactic purpose in its social, moral and religious purposes. Though, it is not a necessity for art or literature to have a didactic purpose, all great art does and enhances its greatness. We can conclude the same for The Old Man and The Sea.

University Questions

Discuss critically with examples the social, moral and religious purposes behind Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and The Sea.
Discuss critically, whether The Old Man and The Sea is didactic in intent or not.

Previous Post Next Post