The Old Man and the Sea as an Allegory

The Old Man and the Sea as an Allegory

The Old Man and the Sea as an Allegory


According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an allegory is “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence” Since the nineteen-forties there had been an increasing emphasis on Hemingway’s use of symbolism and allegory in his novels. The view has been gathering strength that Hemingway’s work should be studied on the symbolic as well as on the story level for a full appreciation of its art. And of all Hemingway’s books, The Old Man and the Sea demands most to be studied on both levels.

Based on the Great Abstractions

The Old Man and the Sea is a very good Hemingway story. It is swiftly and smoothly told; the conflict is resolved into a struggle between a man and a force which he scarcely understands, but which he knows that he must continue to strive against. Furthermore The Old Man and the Sea while reasserting the set of values, the philosophy which permeates all of Hemingway’s work, is built upon the great abstractions-love and truth and honour and loyalty and pride and humility and again speaks of the proper method of attaining and retaining these virtues, and of the spiritual satisfaction experienced by one who possesses them.

Christian Allegory and Symbols

Christian religious symbols run through the story. These are so closely interwoven with the story as to suggest an allegorical intention on Hemingway’s part. Santiago is a fisherman and he is also a teacher: he has taught the boy not only how to fish- that is, how to make a living- but how to behave as well, giving him the pride and humility necessary to a good life. During the trials with the great fish and with the sharks his hands ache terribly: his back is lashed by the line; he gets an eye-piercing headache; and his chest shrinks and he spits blood. He hooks the fish at noon, and at noon of the third day he kills it by driving his harpoon into its heart. As he sees the second and third sharks attacking, the Old Man calls aloud, “Ay,” and Hemingway comments: “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.” On landing, Santiago carries his mast on his shoulders and goes upward from the sea toward his hut; he is forced to rest several times on his journey up the hill, and when he reaches the hut he lies on the bed with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up.” All these details are obviously reminiscent of the Biblical account of Christ’s crucifixion.

As he climbs the hill to his hut, he stumbles under the weight of the mast and cross-tree he is carrying, and collapses finally on his bed with his arms out straight and the palms of his lacerated hands upwards. In short, this book may be read as an allegory of human life.

From Man To Fish, And Back To Man

The Christian symbolism so evident here shifts from man to fish back to man throughout the story. This apparent confusion is consistent not only within the Hemingway philosophy as an example of the sacrifice-sacrificed phenomenon but within formal Christianity as well, if the doctrine of the Trinity be accepted. Furthermore, the phenomenon itself closely, parallels the Roman Catholic sacrifice of the Mass, wherein a fusion of the priest-man with Christ takes place at the moment of Transubstantiation.

Symbols of Numerology

Along with the Christ symbols is a rather intricate numerology which while reinforcing the symbols, depends on them for its importance. This numerology is not formalized, but it is carefully set forth. Three, seven, and forty are key numbers in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Christian religion, and Hemingway makes a judicious use of them. The Old Man, as the story opens, has fished alone for forty-four famine days and with the boy for forty more. The Old Man’s trial with the great fish lasts exactly three days; the fish is landed on the seventh attempt; seven sharks are killed; and although Christ fell only three times under the Cross, whereas the Old Man has to rest from the weight of the mast five times, there is a consistency in the equal importance of the numbers themselves.

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An Assertion of Manhood

The Hemingway hero sometimes prays to God at a moment of crisis, but he never depends on God’s help and never really expects it. Thus we have Jake Barnes in the cathedral at Pamplona on the eve of his great trial praying for everybody he can think of, for good bull-fights and good fishing, and as he becomes aware of himself kneeling, head bent, he regrets that he is such a rotten Catholic, realising that it is a grand religion, and wishing that he felt religious. And thus, too, we have Santiago who, after twenty-four hours of his monumental struggle have passed as heavenly aid mechanically, automatically, thinking, “I am not religious”, and “Hail Marys are easier to say than Our Fathers.”

Rules Applied to Life

Hemingway’s philosophy of manhood is a philosophy of action: a man is honest when he acts honestly, he is humble when he acts humbly; he loves when he is loving or being loved.

Rules Applied to Bull-Fighting

The procedure is most clearly evident in Hemingway’s treatment of the bull-fight. Death in the Afternoon is devoted to an evaluation of the manhood of various bull-fighters on the basis of their ability to obey the rules. War, fishing, hunting, and making love are some of the other celebrations by means of which Hemingway’s religio-philosophy of man is conveyed. But the hull-fight is the greatest because, besides possessing a procedure, it always ends in death. The bullfighter is in a sense a priest performing the sacrifice for the sake of the spectator as well as for his own sake. The bull fighter recognises the possibility and nearness of death when he steps into the arena, and he must face it bravely.

Rules Applied To Fishing

The rules, the ritual, the sacrifice dominate the details of The Old Man and the Sea as they dominate those of “The Undefeated” and The Sun Also Rises. This is evident how Santiago performs his function as a fisherman, how he prepares for the expected struggle. We are told how he hooks the fish and secures the line, waiting in suspense for the fish to turn and swallow the bait, then waiting again until it has eaten the bait well, then striking “with all the strength of his arms and the pivoted weight of his body” three times, setting the hook, then placing the line across his back and shoulders so that there will be something to give when the fish lunges, and the line will not break.

A Parable on The Theme Of Fighting

When the book was published, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece. On the purely literal level, this story of an old fisherman’s single-handed fight with a huge fish in the Gulf Stream north of Havana is a wonderfully-written narrative, direct, intense, and spell-binding. But most readers found an extra quality in it, namely, that the story was a parable on the theme of fighting the good fight. It is in fact a beautifully-executed essay in Dantesque allegory. Every action and motif may be interpreted allegorically, and the literal and symbolic meanings operate continuously and consistently. It is possible to say that Hemingway never wrote a more closely-organised book. It was the peak of his work as a craftsman.

A Double Allegory

Hemingway himself said of this book:

“I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.”

It is possible to interpret the book as a double allegory, of the nature of man’s struggle with life, and of the artist’s struggle with his art.

Biblical Allegory

The Old Man and the Sea has the flavour of Biblical allegory. There are other subtle undertones of the Christian scriptures as for instance, in Santiago’s almost Franciscan communion with the fish and the birds of the Gulf Stream and in the similarity between Santiago’s voyage and the episode pertaining to Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno. In Dante the voyage of Ulysses ends in shipwreck, and the episode is usually interpreted as symbolizing the disaster of a thirst for scientific knowledge uncontrolled by humane and religious feeling. Santiago also sails out beyond his proper limits, and his voyage too ends in material disaster. “Half-fish,” he says. “Fish that you were, I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.”

“But man is not made for, defeat.” Santiago said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

“It is silly not to hope,” he thought. “Besides I believe it is a sin”

Hemingway’s exploration of the vices and the heroism of humanity is guided by compassion and respect. That is the reason why he gives a different meaning to his parable.

Symbolism in His Previous Novels

Hemingway had made some use of a very limited kind of symbolism before. The rain that repeatedly portends disaster in A Farewell to Arms is one example. Another example is that the physical mutilations of Jake Barnes and Harry Morgan symbolise, at a deeper level than the literal, the emotional and economic crippling of these two types of the hero. In the same way, the heroines of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls may be regarded as symbols of home and peace in the midst of foreign wars: both Catherine and Maria refer to their surroundings as home, Catherine in the hotel in Milan, and Maria in the cave on the Sierra de Guadarrama. In Across the River and into the Trees when Renata dreams that the Colonel’s split hand is the hand of Christ, the symbolism is working at a further remove from the actual; while the symbolic meanings of the portrait of Renata in the same novel are many and complex.


A number of ingredients in this novelette have obvious allegorical significance in relation to Hemingway’s practice of his art as a novelist. These ingredients include the fisherman’s respect for the giant marlin, his resolute struggle to master it, his mounting confidence when he realizes that he is “learning how to do it”, his fight against the hungry sharks that seek to destroy the beauty and glory of his prize, and the undefeated courage and hope which even in failure will take him out to sea again.

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