Critical Interpretation of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea

Albert Camus in Le Mythe de Sisyphe summed up human existence on earth by drawing a parallel with the myth of Sisyphe. Sisyphe, cursed by Zeus, constantly fails despite his incessant attempts to keep the stone on the hill-top, whence they are sliding down. Though this is a typical existentialist approach to life and can never be applied to The Old Man and the Sea, the main outlines of the myth comprise an archetype which has been exploited by writers since the times of the Greek tragedians. The philosophical explanation for the crux of the matter is that man is compelled by necessity to struggle for existence—to launch himself/herself into some kind of action, which at some plane is transformed into an ambitious project. This innate human tendency to achieve the impossible does not care for the limit of human capacity, drawn by the universal laws of nature. This tendency ultimately leads to fall or defeat. Hemingway conceived of and wrote The Old Man and the Sea with this awareness of the tragic process, but he altered the conclusion into a moral victory, a victory which is realised on the highest spiritual level of thought, where the glory and indomitable courage of human soul shine supreme.

The story begins with a description of the hero, Santiago, from which the reader gets the impression of some sort of classic grandeur of tragic personality, an anticipation of the kind of situation the famous tragic protagonists like Oedipus, Prometheus or Lear find themselves in. Santiago is driven by circumstances to overcome the salao phase, and he tries to do this by going far out into the sea. All alone he hooks a marlin which turns out to be two feet longer than his skiff, therefore, too big and too strong to bring it to the shore. From this point of view the struggle begins and the reader finds that the stuggle of Santiago is in part seen in relation to the struggle of the fish. But Santiago never lets the fish take the upper hand; rather he says to it with love and respect, “I will kill you before the day ends.” These words come forth from a heroic heart, which does defy the limit of strength. However, from this new awareness of what he has to fight against, Santiago becomes aware of of what he inside him, the spirit of proving worth against a worthy adversary.

In this movement of the story, Hemingway presents a double vision of man through the character of Santiago. Hemingway’s belief was that there must be a resemblance in the nature of things, between Jesus Christ in his human aspect as the Son of Man and those countless and nameless thounsands in the history of Christendom who belong to the category of “good men” whatever the professed degree of theri Christian commitment. Santiago shows certain qualities of mind and heart—essential gallantry, the staying power, the ability to ignore pain—which are all closely associated with the character and personality of Jesus Christ. Again, the suffering, the gentleness and the wood, it is noted, “blend magically into an image of Christ on the Cross.”

Besides, Santiago gains appeap and sympathy of the reader by didn’t of certain tender and mellow human qualities like humility, natural piety and compassion. His humility is of that kind which can co-exist with pride. And when he finally outfights the marlin, his pride is gone for a long time—forced out through the openings in the sieve of his suffering. Moreover, he is a pious man and the piety appears unobtrusively in his constant accepted and questioning awareness of supernal power at once outside and potentially inside his personal struggle. This is why he is never out of touch with nature and her creatures and he is even more closely allied to God’s creation with his birds and fish than Saint Francis with his animals and birds. Here one is reminded of Coleridge’s ancient mariner who comes to share with Santiago a quality of compassion. But whereas Coleridge’s mariner must achieve it through an ordeal, Santiago owns it as a natural gift. In Coleridge’s poem, the broken circuit, the failure of spiritual electricity, leads immediately and sequentially to the ordeal, which is bu hunger and thirst, cold and heat like Santiago, but chiefly an ordeal by loneliness. This sense of solidarity—“no one is ever alone in the sea”—with the visible universe and the natural creation is another of the factors which ehlp to sustain Santiago through his long ordeal.

On the psychological level, Santiago may be said to prove the mystical theory thus put forward by Yeats in his Vision:

“There is for every man some one seen, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, and this...if he would but brood over it his life long, would lead his soul.”

For, with all the symbolical elements, there are the presence of the great baseball player, Dimaggio, the lions on the beaches of Africa in his dreams and the boy, Manolin—all of which relate themselves to the spirit of heroism in a pleasant obsession in Santiago’s mind. Like many other ageing men, he finds something reassuring about the overplay of the past upon the present. Through the agency of the boy, Manolin, he tries to recapture in his imagination some strength and confidence of the past adolescence or beginning of the youth, which is compared to the stamina of a lion. That is why during the struggle with the marlin and the sharks, the refrain, “I wish I had the boy”, plays across his mind.

In the second movement of the story, with the arrival of the sharks begins a tragedy of deprivation. So after the decimation by the sharks, ther is nothing left of the great marlin except the skeleton, the bony head and the vertical tail. And Santiago’s experience becomes a form of martyrdom. Tried out through the ordeal of endurance, comparable to a crucifixion, he earns by virtue of his valiance a form of apotheosis. But his humility and simplicity do not allow any conscious entry to martyrdom. He says at one point:

“Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, not defeated.”

Santiago’s resolution is stiffened always by some such thought as this, and he acts in accordance with it.

Yet he is too human not to be troubled like Job in the Bible, by certain moral and metaphysical questions. “Perhaps”, he reflects, “it was a sin to kill the fish...even though I did it to keep me alive and feed other people.” But after a while he realises: “You killed him for pride”, to show that he was still El Champion. As in other tragic literatures the whole process consists in the readjustment of moral proportions. What begins as a balanced mixture of pride and love slowly alters through the catalysis of circumstances into love as the natural concomitant of true humility.

What seems finally to settle on is the notion that he had gone, as he often puts in, “too far out”. This concept of “too far out” connects the hamartia or tragic flaw that every tragic hero ultimately understands at the end. But Santiago takes his defeat with a stoical attitude and finally achieves a moral triumph, a triumph of having lasted without permanent impairment of his belief in the worth of what he has been doing. In this way the story becomes a universal paradigm of human life, a process which nevr stops at the point of failure rather re-starts with the another person, as with the presence of Manolin beside Santiago, in the same stream. The concluding sentences geometrises this generalization:

“He was sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

Apparently the story has come a full circle. Santiago ends from where he began: “in my end is my beginning.” And yet with what a difference!


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