Hemingway’s novel “The Old Man and the Sea” sample essay
Hemingway’s late novel “The Old Man and the Sea” lends itself readily to allegorical and religious interpretation; indeed, myriad critical texts exist wherein “solutions” to the novel’s extensive and haunting symbolism crowd the pages until the reader begins to doubt the efficacy of any single interpretation. The complexity of Hemingway’s “fish” story demands as wide an appraisal as can be summoned by the reader and critic, forfeiting claims to any single or final statement on the novel’s specific religious connotations.
Without a doubt, traditional components of Roman Catholicism (as well as ancient pagan religious imagery and themes) form a vibrant part of the novel’s theme. For example, the concepts of sin (and original sin) rise as central to the tension, suspense, and character development of the novel. Santiago, the novel’s protagonist undergoes two seemingly separate battles during the course of the novel: first against a gigantic marlin he hopes to catch while fishing alone, far at sea; the second battle he wages – against sharks who “steal” his prize – leads to a pyrrhic victory. Along the way, both external events blend with Santiago’s internal monologues, which indicate an inner, spiritual struggle, one which first intimates itself and then clearly reveals itself to be universal, rather than personal, in nature.
By creating a deeply sympathetic character during the first third of the novel, and extending this reader-identification through the more morally ambiguous and treacherous parts of the story, Hemingway allows for universal reader sympathy. Santiago’s portrayal is one of honor, courage, compassion, and humility. These aspects of his character align him with a state of “purity” or sinless-ness, as though his world mirrors that of the “pre-fallen” Eden.
After killing the great marlin and then losing this trophy to a feeding frenzy of sharks, Santiago embodies the original sin of all men, women and, in fact, Satan Himself, as described by traditional Catholicism. The sin, stated simply is: pride. A more complex interpretation: that Santiago by traveling far out to sea beyond where any other fisherman would go and in attempting to catch a bigger fish than any fisher man could catch alone, demonstrates Santiago’s will toward individualism and – so – a will against his hitherto modest station in life. When the sharks attack, Santiago construes them as a punishment for what he has done, by venturing out “beyond all people. Beyond all people in the world.”
During the first night of his fight with the marlin, Santiago starts to feel a sense of guilt for what he is doing. “I am only better than him through trickery,” he thinks, “and he meant me no harm.” Previously, Santiago believed that fishing for food was a noble act, at sea, fighting the marlin, he begins to believe differently. His self-directed comment about trickery parallels the idea of the Tree of Knowledge and original sin. Mankind’s pride in intelligence leads to senseless destruction, fueled not by need, but by vanity.
Santiago’s plight brings upon intense reader-sympathy and the inner-struggle described through Santiago’s monologues helps introduce and sustain the spiritual catharsis Santiago experiences, also in the reader. One perceives that an act of vanity or pride carries deep repercussions even if it may seem trivial: a fisherman who fishes not for food but for fame will wound and destroy beauty. At the end of the novel all that is left of the great fish is a skeleton washed away in the tide. Santiago’s sin is that he should have loved and not hunted and killed the great marlin, but in falling prey to his vanity he enacted a universal, human urge, which ultimately produced tragedy and then … wisdom, rather than mere “trickery.”
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