by Rachel Spreng
“Hemingway’s greatness is in his short stories, which rival any other master of the form”(Bloom 1). The Old Man and the Sea is the most popular of his later works (1). The themes represented in this book are religion (Gurko 13-14), heroism (Brenner 31-32), and character symbolism (28). These themes combine to create a book that won Hemingway a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and contributed to his Nobel Prize for literature in 1954 (3).
“Santiago’s ordeal, first in his struggle with the big fish, and then in fighting against the sharks, is associated by Hemingway with Christ’s agony and triumph,” (Bloom 2). When Santiago sees the second and third sharks coming, he shouts “Ay,” and Hemingway notes: “There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just such a noise as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hand and into the wood” (Waldmeir 28).
“Santiago is often regarded as a Christ figure, and his love for all living creatures and forbearance in physical pain are attributes that support this idea.
However, Santiago shares few traits with Christ (Brenner 38). In his book The Old Man and the Sea: Story of a Common Man, Gerry Brenner states:
Christ is a fisher of men, but Santiago is merely a fisherman; Christ is a figure with a divine mission, Santiago one with a secular mission (to bring back an oversized fish); Christ is a martyr who willingly but reluctantly dies for his convictions, Santiago is a persevering champion who is willing to die only to win a battle with a fish; Christ is a teacher of spiritual and ethical wisdom, Santiago is a professional with skill and slogans to impart (38).
The Hemingway hero is often religious, but their religion is rarely central to their lives (Gurko 13). Santiago is Cuban, at once devout and credulous (13). However, neither his religion nor his superstitious beliefs play a role in his ordeal with the great marlin (13).
God is sometimes prayed to by the Hemingway hero in a time of crisis, but He is never depended upon (Waldmeir 29). When Santiago says his prayers, he also says, “I am not religious,” even as he says his prayer (29). After forty-five hours of struggle have passed, Santiago says, “I’ll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Mary’s. But I cannot say them now.” (Waldmeir 29-30) For those who see this as evidence of Santiago’s Christ symbolism, one must suggest that his not saying the promised prayer provide contradiction to that interpretation (Wagner
It is difficult to disentangle Santiago and Hemingway, and it can render a reader quite uncomfortable (Bloom 2). Hemingway, like Santiago, denies his religious values (Linck 1). Hemingway, however, did not turn religious to write The Old Man and the Sea (Waldmeir 33). He has always been religious, although his religion is not of the orthodox variety (33). He celebrates, and always has celebrated, the Religion of Man (33).
Along with the Christian symbols woven throughout the novella, numerology also adds to the religious symbols in the book (Waldmeir 28). As the story opens, we are told that Santiago had gone eighty-four days without catching a fish (Wilson 119). If we add this to the three days covered by the book’s action, we get a span of eighty-seven days.
Shortly after, the boy recalls, “…remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”(119) “In this way, Hemingway establishes two separate time spans of eighty-seven days that are important in the old man’s life.” (119)
There is also a more intricate form of numerology in the novella (Waldmeir 28). Three, seven, and forty are key numbers in the Old and New Testaments of the
Bible (28). As the story opens, Santiago has fished forty-four unsuccessful days
alone and forty more with Manolin. The great ordeal with the marlin lasts three days; Santiago catches the fish on the seventh attempt; seven sharks are killed; and the old man rests seven times from the weight of the mast.
“To be a hero means to dare more than other men, to expose oneself to greater dangers, and therefore more greatly to risk the possibilities of defeat and death.” (Gurko 15) As a heroic character, Santiago battles against the great forces of the sea, the marlin and the sharks, in addition to his own physical limitations (Brenner 31). While Santiago is not a ‘conventional’ hero, he is consistently heroic (Timms 162).
After World War I, the traditional hero disappeared from literature (Gurko 18). They were replaced by modern protagonists, but Hemingway has miraculously brought back the “hero lost in the twentieth century.” (Gurko 18-19)
Santiago is the first of the code heroes to have grown old (Young 74). “He is a fighter whose best days are behind him, who is too old for what his profession demands of him.”(74) He still dares, and will not quit when he is down. He is
undefeated, and refuses to let the marlin defeat him; therefore his loss is in itself a victory (74).
“Santiago is the clearest representation of the hero because he is the only major
character in Hemingway who has not been permanently wounded or disillusioned
(Gurko 16). By going out too far into the sea, Santiago identifies himself as someone who braves the unknown and takes risks (Brenner 31). He once defeated a humongous Negro at the hand game in Casablanca and was afterwards referred to as El Campeon (Gurko 16). Santiago’s determination to conquer the marlin reveals his heroic impulse (Brenner 31).
In his old age, Santiago has little time left, but he has trained Manolin to follow in his footsteps (Gurko 17). “The master-pupil relationship between them suggests that the heroic impulse is part of a traditional process handed down from one generation to another.” (17) Manolin has a hero- worship for Santiago (Gurko 16). He always wants to fish with the old man or help him with his chores when he cannot fish (16).
“Orville Prescott of the New York Times objected that Santiago was more a symbolic attitude toward life than a man, a character whose poetically rendered thoughts border on artificiality.” (Brenner 16) His tender sensitivity towards and wish to relieve others’ stress is matched by his nurturance (33). “ Santiago displays the compassion and nurturance commonly associated with a parental-even maternal-figure.”(33) Santiago feels a deep love for the marlin that he eventually hunts and kills, the magnificent creature, which he must catch for pride
and for physical need. (Burhan 47). Throughout his battle, he grieves that the marlin must go without food and wishes he could feed it (Brenner 33).
Santiago’s parental instinct is the basis of his “saintliness” (Brenner 32-33). He treats Manolin as his equal, where as the fisherman whom Manolin later works for treats him as an “inferior” (32-33). When Santiago states, “There are three things that are my brothers, the fish and my two hands.” He also associates Manolin as his brother. The boy’s name translates to ‘small hand’, figuratively meaning ‘little brother’ (32-33).
As the title suggests, the sea is the central character in the novella (Elizondo 1). The majority of the story takes place on the sea, and the old man identifies with it and it’s creatures; its inhabitants are his brothers (1). “Santiago refers to the sea as a woman, and the sea seems to represent the feminine compliment to Santiago’s masculinity. The sea might also be seen as the unconscious from which creative ideas are drawn.” (1)
The Old Man and the Sea is one of Ernest Hemingway’s most famous works (Bloom 1). This may be because Santiago, in addition to being the Hemingway hero, symbolizes Hemingway himself (Elizondo 1). The three themes (religion, heroism, and character symbolism) come together to create an award winning book that will be read for generations to come (Brenner 3).