Christian Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea Christian symbolism, especially images that refer to the crucifixion of Christ, is present throughout The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway’s novel can be construed as an allusion to the Bible and the struggles of Jesus. Told simply and sparely, the contest between the old Cuban fisherman Santiago and a giant marlin is often seen as emblematic of human endurance and bravery against nearly overwhelming odds. A man can be destroyed but not defeated’, Hemingway maintained. Santiago’s story mirrors Christ’s insofar as both men suffer greatly and it is, primarily, through the use of crucifixion imagery that Hemingway creates a symbolic parallel between Santiago and Christ, an analogy that elevates Santiago’s trials. Hemingway seems to include small, yet noticeable details that allow the reader to relate the novel with the Gospel’s. “In the first forty days a boy had been with him.
But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky” (Hemingway 5). To the religious layman, the latter may represent nothing special; however, for those looking for representations of the Bible, this is viewed as the first example in The Old Man and the Sea. Along with the reference of a fish, which the novel is largely centered on, as an ancient Christian symbol, the number forty holds special meaning in holy writings.
Such examples of the number forty in reference to religion includes, the Great Flood of the Old Testament which lasted forty days, forty days is also “the length of time it took Christ to subdue Satan in the desert”, “fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter” lasts forty days for Christians (“Lent”). One can easily relate these examples to what occurs in the story. Santiago remains in the sea for forty days once with the boy and again without him, just as Noah did. Christians fast just as Jesus did for forty days which is meant to represent the forty days Santiago has gone without catching a fish since the boy left him.
Other numbers that Hemingway uses that are significant in the New and Old Testament are three and seven. “The Old Man’s trial with the great fish lasts exactly three days; the fish is landed on the seventh attempt; [and] seven sharks are killed”. All throughout the book the old man wishes for salt, a staple seasoning in the human diet. He is a fisherman, similar to Christ’s disciples. Hemingway says that Santiago is not a religious man, but he seems to have some faith as shown by his offers to say his “Hail Marys” and praises if he catches the marlin.
He also promises to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin De Cobre if he catches the fish. Pictures of both the Virgin De Cobre and the Scared Heart of Jesus are the only adornments in Santiago’s shack. The pictures were the relics of the late wife of Santiago. During the old man’s battle with the marlin, his palms are cut by his fishing cable. Santiago comments on this. “You’re feeling it now, fish…. And so, God knows, am I. ” When his hand cramps, he starts to worry about the possibility of sharks and his suffering is evident.
Given Santiago’s suffering and willingness to sacrifice his life, the wounds are suggestive of Christ’s stigmata, and Hemingway goes on to portray the old man as a Christ-like martyr. This image of his bleeding hand, in conjunction with his suffering at sea, recalls the image of the hand of Jesus Christ bloodied by the nails used to crucify him. As soon as the sharks arrive, Santiago makes a noise one would make “feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. ” And the old man’s struggle up the hill to his village with his mast across his shoulders is evocative of Christ’s march toward Calvary.
Santiago’s mast, and the cross carried by Jesus are strangely similar in appearance and seem to be synonymous for most critics of the novel: “[Santiago] started to climb again and at the top he fell and lay for some time with the mast across his shoulders”(90). Santiago would fall four more times before reaching his home; an eerie similarity to the struggle Jesus went through while carrying his cross to Golgotha, the place of the skull. Even after his three days of brutal fishing the old man dutifully carries his mast on his back, Christ-like, before reaching his shack and falling into a deep sleep.
One of the final correlations, of Christ’s crucifixion with Santiago is the position Santiago takes in his bed once returning from his quest on the sea: “[Santiago] slept face down on the newspapers with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up” (91). One can see a similarity between Santiago’s body position in bed and that of Jesus’ on the cross. When the boy walked into Santiago’s shack the next day, “he saw the old man’s hands and started to cry” (91). This situation corresponds to how the women and Apostles wept when they saw the holes in Jesus’ hands after he had risen from the tomb.
Crucifixion imagery is the most noticeable way in which Hemingway creates the symbolic parallel between Santiago and Christ. Hemingway employs these images in order to link Santiago to Christ, who exemplified transcendence by turning loss into gain, defeat into triumph, and even death into life. In order to suggest the profundity of the old man’s sacrifice and the glory that derives from it, Hemingway purposefully likens Santiago to Christ, who, according to Christian theology, gave his life for the greater glory of humankind.
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