Symbolism in the Novel The Old Man And The Sea

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Hemingway's Symbolism in The Old Man And The Sea

Santiago An Artist

      Like all Hemingway novels, symbolism is an important element in The Old Man and The Sea, too, there is a dense network of symbols working in the novel. Santiago himself is a symbol. He stands for an artist in his professionalist approach to his struggle with the marlin and then the sharks. Santiago in this regard also has shades of Hemingway himself. In much the same way, Hemingway as an artist has to prove himself again and again to his reading public so does Santiago. That he has done so many times in the past is of no relative significance. Every day is a new day, a new dawn and Santiago has to prove himself every day. Depending on how lady luck smiles or frowns on him, he shall come face to face with his quarry. His adversary may prove to be extremely exclusive and tricky. And responding to it he must keep his potency and has to fight with exactness and precision and be willing to fight against all the odds and take his suffering as it came but not to allow it to overcome him. Santiago expects pain and physical torture as part of his fight to achieve his goal and his ideal, Similarly, an artist has to undergo excruciating pain and suffering in order to give birth to a work of art. Therefore, as much as Santiago rouses our sympathy and then our admiration through his relentless struggle, his determined fight - through which he refuses to give up. Hemingway also rouses our admiration for having produced such a great work of art.

The Title and Its Symbolism

      The title, The Old Man and The Sea itself admits of symbolical interpretations. The idea suggested is of man, thrown against the vastness and the huge forces of sea. This is a metaphor for man pitied against the forces of nature and thus stands for the human conditions. The sea is on vast possibility, with more things hidden from the human eye than are revealed. So is human life. God has planned and hidden from human view an endless array of possibilities. The Old Man, on the one hand, suggests man and the sea stands for the natural world, the universe. And man has to take his chance against this universe as Hemingway has put it in the Old Mans mouth, Take a good rest small bird, he said. “Then go in and take your chance like any man or bird or fish.”

The Struggle Against the Marlin and its Symbolism

      Santiago hooks a huge marlin, bigger than any he had ever heard of or seen. He thus meets adversary who is more than worthy to fight against. Now, as he battles against the marlin, he goes into a. struggle which is symbolic of man’s endless struggle for survival. Not just physical survival or a bare minimalistic survival but an existence with dignity and self-respect in a broader respect a life of beauty and richness. A life which is not mere a meaningless survival. Later, Santiago himself states his reasons behind his relentless pursuit of the marlin and why he was to kill him. Santiago tells himself. “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for good, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman.” Thus, Santiago has to kill the fish in order to maintain his self-respect and his pride. Looking at the struggle, The Old Man and the fish, from this point of view, the marlin becomes a symbol of man’s achievement, a symbol of what “a man can do and what a man can endure.” And unless a man can show this, and the qualities he possess in order to prove it, his life shall be meaningless. Santiago is referred to as the Champion because of his triumph over the Negro in his hand wrestling match and by showing on similar fortuitous, determination and resolution in his fight against the sharks and by scoring a victory through calling on all the reserves of strength he possessed and more, Santiago again proves that he is the Champion and his triumph is a triumph over life. He may be beaten but he is not defeated. In losing his hard won prize he suffers no loss of pride in fact, he gains in stature in his relentless defence of his prize. Santiago’s struggle, his loss, defeat, and the cycle he undergoes are a metaphor of how in life what you do and how you do it is more important than straightforward wins or losses.

Symbolism of the Shark and in Killing the Shark

      The sharks that attack Santiago’s hard won prize, the huge marlin, stands for the evil that exist in the world. The sharks that live by coverings symbolize the kind of evil that exists for itself and not as the result of anything. They also symbolize the enemies and adversaries that confront man and prevent man from triumphs and place handicaps in man’s pursuit of his goals. From a personal point of view of Hemingway, the sharks may imply those critics who so severely lashed him and pronounced his end as a literary artist after the publication of his novel, Across the River and into the Trees. The sharks can also be seen as symbols of other evils such as drink, women, sex, money, fame and too early success that can ruin a man. That Santiago struggles to conquer over the sharks with all the means is insignificant as they can be, such as the tiller, he has, and he struggles all he can though he has crossed the limit of exhaustion but doesn’t ever think of giving up can be seen as implying man’s usually futile but relentless struggles to conquer all the evils existing in the world.

The Symbol of the Marlin

      The marlin stands for many things in the novel. Traditionally he has been regarded as a symbol for Christ as he embodies Christian virtues of courage and endurance etc. The marlin also stands as a symbol for man’s vision of the ultimate reality that he seeks. On the other hand, the marlin is Santiago’s true brother. There is much in the character of the marlin that is also in Santiago. The marlin is a worthy adversary that Santiago has to kill in order to fully prove that he is the best fisherman and therefore, he is what he was born to be. Later after killing the marlin, when the sharks attack, Santiago eats the flesh of the marlin and then seems to have come across a new found resource of strength, courage, endurance and resolution as though the marlin’s spirit had entered him.

Manolin, DiMaggio the Lions

      There are other significant symbols in the novel. They all stand for youth and strength that the Old Man calls up through his thoughts on them. Manolin is the most potent among the three. The boy is a source of inner strength. Whenever Santiago feels the need for an extra boost to his confidence and Energy in his epic struggle against the marlin and later, the sharks, he thinks of the boy. He wishes the boy were with him and psychologically feels better everytime. Further, the boy is the Old Man’s descendent. He receives the symbol of the legacy, the spare of the marlin and this is again symbolic of Manolin’s commitment to the fishing profession and all that he has learned from the Old Man. DiMaggio, the great baseball star that the Old Man admires also serves the same purpose. He stands for as the symbol of professional perfection that Santiago wishes to achieve. And whenever, Santiago faces a problem he remembers DiMaggio and tries to think what he would do and behave accordingly. Similarly, the lions which he had seen as young man on the beaches of Africa. These lions are seen constantly appearing in Santiago’s dreams as great big cats rolling and playing in the sun. They have a soothing effect on Santiago. Whenever he dreams of the lions he is relaxed and happy. Carols Baker has pointed this out, drawing our attention to how thoughts of the boy and DiMaggio rejuvenate and instigate the Old Man to keep his struggle on whereas dreams of the lions rejuvenate and relaxes the Old Man.

Santiago and the Turtle Symbol

      In the book Hemingway writes in connection with Santiago and the turtles that: “He had no mysticism about turtles although he had gone in turtle boats for many years. He was sorry for them all, even the. great trunk backs that were as long as skiff and weighed a ton. Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the Old Man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs. He ate the white eggs to give himself strength. He ate them all through May to be strong in September and October for the truly big fish.”

      This passage, wherein Santiago and his heart is made similar to that of the turtles, acquires significance only towards the end of the novel. During Santiago’s tremendous battle with the sharks where he loses all his weapons and he fights the sharks with such insignificant weapons as his club and tiller, clubbing the sharks to death, Hemingway writes that the Old Man felt something strange in his mouth. “It was coppery and sweet and he was afraid of it for a moment.” Later he tells the boy that he had felt something break in his chest. All these evidence point to a symbolic death. That the Old Man had died while he was fighting the sharks and like a turtle, only his heart was beating. Thus, the passage on the turtles and then Santiago’s constant statement that he would fight till he died acquire a symbolic meaning. He has died fighting. That he is shown as dreaming about the lions at the end of the novel creates a fiction that Santiago shall survive. In fact, he is already half dead and shall shortly die. Hence, the boy’s tears and his humoring the Old Man by keeping his allusions of future fishing trips together alive.

Santiago - A Christ Like Figure

      Throughout the book, Hemingway has painted Santiago in such a manner that parallels to Christ. The Son of God as a human cannot be missed. Firstly, there is the constant references to the treacherous left hand and the faithful and injured right hand. In the New Testament, Christ is crucified with two other men. The man on the left is insulting and scolds Jesus whereas that on the right defends. The Christian gospel says that the right hand is association with goodness and the left with treachery. Hence, Hemingway’s symbolism is apparent. Santiago’s right hand is injured but it is his good hand. He has relied on it all his life. On the other hand, his left hand is cramped and useless and Santiago constantly berates it for its uselessness. He has been let down by his left hand all his life and it has never been trustworthy. Later, when the shark attacks, the symbolism of Santiago being crucified is again evident.

‘Ay’, he said aloud. “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.”

      Another example that illustrates Santiago as a symbol of Christ or Christian martyrdom is towards the end of the book. Santiago has lost the marlin to the sharks and only the skeleton remains. As Santiago furls the sail around the mast and starts climbing up towards his shack with the mast on his shoulders, it greatly resembles Christ journey up the hill of cavalry. Like Christ, Santiago carries the mast cross-like on his shoulder. As Christ rested along the way, so does Santiago rest five times before reaching his shack. Christ not a dog, Santiago sees a cat passing by “on the far side going about its business” oblivious in much the same way as the dog was of Christ’s suffering. Upon reaching home, Santiago lays down on his bed, face down with his arms stretched" out and his palms facing upwards in the manner of Christ.


      In conclusion, Santiago stands as a symbol of Man’s lonely existence in the world. He is an Old Man, who fishes alone in a skiff in the gulf stream. He goes out hoping to need his adversary in the deep sea. He struggles to catch the biggest marlin ever seen or heard of single handed and then fights the sharks attacking the marlin single-handedly too. He is an isolated individual drifting on the vast sea, and thus stands for the essential human loneliness in the vast sea of humanity and his elevation. Hemingway has brought out through Santiago how man is alone, even at all crucial moments of his life and how there is no remedy for man’s suffering. Men are essentially lonely creatures who can only grit, grin and bear the sufferings thrown his way like Santiago does and who cannot take the luxury of complaining. In Santiago, again Hemingway has portrayed a recurring theme “Winner Take Nothing”. And this is again relevant to all humans for man in the modern world has to depend on his own resources and struggle for life but because God no longer exists, man achieves nothing.

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