The Old Man and the Sea: Chasing and Being Chased

Published 01 Aug 2016

The Old Man and the Sea refer to those literary works of Ernest Hemingway, which give much space to interpretation due to their allegorical nature. Indeed, on the surface the plot is not very much overloaded by events, presenting a story of the old fisherman Santiago, who hunts a great fish for a few days. For over eighty days he hasn’t caught a single fish and finally his young friend and pupil, the boy called Manolo, sees him off to have another try. Santiago manages to get hold of a gigantic marlin which is so strong that it takes three days’ pursuit to exhaust and kill him. Meanwhile, the old man is hurt and weakened himself. However, sharks perceive the smell of the fish’s flesh and although Santiago uses all arms at hand against them, it is all in vain and eventually there is nothing left of the marlin but the skeleton. Under this plain canvas lies a complex intrinsic meaning, which the current essay is going to be focused on. The main concepts, to which most critical research can be confined, are the interrelation between Man and Nature, Man and Faith and Man and Death. These points combined with the insight into Christian symbolism of the novel serve to be the key object of the current paper.

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One of the essential elements of any philosophical conception refers to the correlation between Man and Nature. There is no wonder that some researchers lay emphasis on this aspect when interpreting the novel. That’s what Leo Gurko writes about it: “One aspect of this universe, familiar from the earlier works, is its changelessness. The round of Nature – which includes human nature—is not only eternal but eternally the same. The sun not only rises, it rises always, and sets and rises again without the change of rhythm. The relationship of Nature to man proceeds through basic patterns that never vary. Therefore, despite the fact that a story by Hemingway is always full of action, the action takes place inside the world that is fundamentally static”. The organization of the Universe is not based on accidents, it is profoundly well-ordered. Everyone has a special role he ought to play, often the role of a hunter and the hunted. But the point is, despite the prescriptive character of these roles, the attitudes which they invoke can vary significantly. Then the relativity of being a hunter and being a victim is inevitable and it becomes evident that it is vital to feeling like a part of nature’s wise mechanism, to feel affection for its creatures despite the role you play in relation to them. “A sense of brotherhood and love, in a world in which everyone is killing or being killed, binds together the creatures of Nature, establishes between them a unity and an emotion which transcends the destructive pattern in which they are caught. In the eternal round, each living thing, man, and animal acts out its destiny according to the drives of its species, and in the process becomes a part of the profound harmony of the natural universe.

This harmony, taking into account the hard facts of pursuit, violence, and death but reaching a stage of feeling beyond them, is a primary aspect of Hemingway’s view of the world” This philosophy is manifested in the character of Santiago who promotes brotherhood between all creatures. That’s why he doesn’t consider the fish his foe; on the contrary, he feels great affection and admiration for its courage and nobility. The old man talks to all animate and inanimate objects, which surround him. He even talks to his hand, which is like a living being for him possessing its own character, its mood, its faults, and merits. But according to the researcher, it is not enough just to belong to the world, one needs to master it, not in a sense of ruling or owning but in the sense of having skills. That’s what Santiago means when he says: “It is better to be lucky,” he thinks. “But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” Hemingway believes that being skillful in natural professions like fishing facilitates the better understanding of Nature. Bickford Sylvester continues the theme of nature and the harmonious order, which Gurko touches upon. He believes, however, that the harmony can only be realized through continuous opposition of all participants: “Indeed, by a chain of associations pervading the texture of the story, opposition to nature is paradoxically revealed as necessary to vitality in the natural field upon which the action takes place. Both the marlin and the “September” fisherman are old, oriented away from that phase of the life cycle when the natural sources of energy flow freely. But the greater concentration thus required of them yields the greater intensity which is an indication of life itself. All implications accrue, eventually, to expose a fundamental natural principle of harmonious opposition”. In this context, the struggle of Santiago with the fish acquires a new connotation: he needs to do it to keep the natural balance and the fish equally needs it for the same purpose.

This view calls up the one of the Gurko again but Sylvester is not so sure about the possibility of peaceful coexistence and of brotherhood between all creatures. Instead, he notices that Hemingway’s creatures fall under two categories: into those who break the way for themselves and those who depend on upon others, and they are not depicted equally positive: “among all the living creatures in the story, including the men, those who are fearless and aggressive are conspicuously portrayed as clean, beautiful, and aesthetically satisfying in their behavior. On the other hand, the “hateful,” “bad smelling” scavengers are uniformly disgusting, dishonest, and awkward” (Sylvester, 1999). But in the world of Hemingway, where Man lives close to Nature, even the ugly and cowardly has its own place and function. Another aspect of the interrelation between man and Nature manifested in the book is noticed by Carlos Baker who traces the moments when Santiago recollects the boy and the lions during his journey : “They help in a very notable way. For the boy and the lions are related to one of the fundamental psychological laws of Santiago’s—and indeed of human—nature. This is the constant wave-like operation of bracing and relaxation. The boy braces, the lions relax, as in the systolic-diastolic movement of the human heart. The phenomenon is related to the alternation of sleep and waking through the whole range of physical nature”.

Man in relation to nature, described above, is not the only possible correlation, considered by the critics. Besides external nature, man has to face his inner nature. He is left alone with it, in solitude, in isolation from the rest of humanity. At this point, the idea of faith comes to the foreground. Faith acquires a broad meaning exceeding the limits of religion. However, the allegorical structure of the novel is so much indicative that it attracts the attention of literary researchers. Thus, Joseph Waldmeir states that the parallel between Santiago and Christ is absolutely explicit: “The Old Man is a fisherman, and he is also a teacher, one who 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 pain him terribly, his back is lashed by the line, he gets an eye piercing headache, and his chest constricts 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, the Old Man shoulders his mast 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.”

The Christian symbolism is evident but it doesn’t presuppose that the character of Santiago clings to conventional Christian values. Thus, he claims that he doesn’t believe in God and seems to be rather superstitious than pious. He only remembers the words of prayer at the moment of crisis but he actually expects no revelation from heaven, no miraculous aid. And here lies the specifics of Santiago’s (and probably, Hemingway’s) faith – Waldmeir calls his religion the Religion of Man. It takes pride, courage and the strength of spirit to be the adherent of this religion. It means you can only lean on yourself as a God-like creature and in that case, your sincere belief in yourself can make you divinely, supernaturally powerful. That’s what happens to Santiago when he chases the fish. That’s Hemingway’s type of spirituality about which his fellow-writer William Faulkner speaks with such admiration: “This time, he discovered God, a Creator. Until now, his men and women had made themselves; shaped themselves out of their own clay; their victories and defeats were at the hands of each other, just to prove to themselves or one another how tough they could be. But this time, he wrote about pity: about something somewhere that made them all: the old man who had to catch the fish and then lose it, the fish that had to be caught and then lost, the sharks which had to rob the old man of his fish; made them all and loved them all and pitied them all. It’s all right. Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and I kept him from touching it any further”.

Apart from glorious and triumphant aspect discussed above, there is a backward side of human existence, which is called death. People’s everyday life is closely interrelated with this phenomenon, that’s why there is no wonder that the opposition of man and death is considered by Hemingway’s researchers as well. It is interesting how in the harmonious universe of the author death is directly connected to love. “You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him”, Santiago says. Death is also a hero’s stake; this is the price one has to pay for the glory of a winner, Leo Gurko believes:

“To be a hero means to dare more than other men, to expose one to greater dangers, and therefore more greatly to risk the possibilities of defeat and death… The greatness of the experience and the inevitability of the loss are bound up together. Nature provides us with boundless opportunities for the great experience if we have it in us to respond. The experience carries with its heavy tragic price. No matter. It is worth it” (Gurko, 1955) Waldmeir’s perception of death manifested in the book is somewhat different: “There must be a cognizance of death both from the standpoint of killing and from that of being killed; there must be more than a cognizance actually; there must be an acceptance…The immanence of death for the sacrifice as well as for the sacrificed and his total disregard of its possibility are made clear at the climax of the struggle when the Old Man thinks: “You are killing me, fish … Come on and kill me, I do not care who kills who.”.

In the Universe of Hemingway, where every role has its sense, even death contributes to the general feeling of unity: “A sense of brotherhood and love, in a world in which everyone is killing or being killed, binds together the creatures of Nature, establishes between them a unity and an emotion which transcends the destructive pattern in which they are caught. In the eternal round, each living thing, man, and animal acts out its destiny according to the drives of its species, and in the process becomes a part of the profound harmony of the natural universe. This harmony, taking into account the hard facts of pursuit, violence, and death but reaching a stage of feeling beyond them, is a primary aspect of Hemingway’s view of the world”.

The above conceptions are the most common ones with the researchers of Hemingway. There are some, however, which are different from the major trends and rather questionable. Thus, Delmore Schwartz attempts to connect the author’s philosophy in The Old Man and the Sea with the concept of the American dream. He claims: “The American Dream converts the pursuit of happiness into the guarantee of a happy ending… The Hemingway hero’s attitude toward himself and toward existence depends on on immediately upon the American Dream”. This statement evokes much doubt because it doesn’t look fully justified. The American dream concept promotes a result-oriented way of thinking. Santiago’s chase of the fish seems to be aimed at the final goal only at the first sight. The closer the reader moves towards the end of the narration the more evident it gets that the sense of the old man’s struggle is in the struggle itself, not in winning. Furthermore, although there is much talk about baseball competition between Santiago and Manolo, the concepts of losing and winning are very much different from the conventional ones. Being a winner is seen as an inherent quality, as being the hero. That’s why baseball star “the great DiMaggio” whom the two friends admire is a winner irrespective of the fact that his team loses. For the same reason, Manolo admires the old man as a fisher and wants to be like him despite the fact that he hasn’t caught any fish for over eighty days. That’s why the concept of American dream applied to the story seems to be irrelevant.

As we see, there are different aspects of Hemingway’s novel, which were subject to detailed research. The Christian symbolism seems to be the most interesting approach to the symbolism of the novel. Surprisingly, the focus in mostly on the allegorical structure, which reveals parallelism between Christ’s way up to the moment of Crucifixion and Resurrection. Unfortunately, little attention is devoted to such peculiar symbol as the fish. There is hardly any other symbol in world culture, which is so purely Christian in its connotation. First of all, it I enough to remember that Apostles Peter and Andrew were initially fishermen and afterward Jesus called them to change catching fish for catching human souls. Jesus himself is often symbolically called a fisherman. So, on the one hand, fish can stand for a human soul and the story itself can suggest how difficult it for God to capture man’s spirit. The idea of the struggle between man and God is even more ancient than Christianity, as it originates from the Old Testament. This struggle is viewed as a highly noble one because one only has to fight with someone who is stronger. But the symbol of a fish is a two-sided one: on the one hand, Christ is seen as a fisherman; on the other hand, it is fish that was an acronym for the phrase “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. So, in the case of Santiago’s pursuit of the fish has a double meaning in itself, which raises a question: “Is it God who chases Man or Man who chases God?” Whatever the answer can be, the focus is on the noble struggle, of courage and endurance.

To sum up, it is necessary to note that most researchers of the book Old Man and the Sea cling to the following patterns of correlation: Man and Nature, Man and Faith, Man and Death. The general conclusion, common to all of them is that harmony is closely connected with struggle. In the Universe of Hemingway, every creature has its own role and functions, which makes it unique within the universal order. This statistic order is created in the course of the continuous dynamic opposition of all creatures and phenomena. Hemingway’s hero leans on faith, which is not a conventional Christianity but Religion of Man. The resource for courage, patience and love is the man himself. Besides, the motif God chasing Man and Man chasing God contributes to the philosophical conception of the novel. In the context of the book, death is not the thing which really matters and it doesn’t contradict the feeling of affection for those who are being killed. Death is as natural as breathing or eating. Being a fish and being a fisherman are the roles, which Nature gives and everyone has to perform the function honestly and humbly, with no evil in his soul.


  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
  • Faulkner, William. “Review of the Old Man and the Sea”, Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1987
  • Baker, Carlos. Hemingway, the Writer as Artist, Princeton University Press, 1972
  • Gurko, Leo. “The Heroic Impulse in the Old Man and the Sea”, Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Old Man and the Sea, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968
  • Schwartz, Delmore. “The Old Man and the Sea and the American Dream” Bloom, Harold, ed.Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
  • Sylvester, Bickford. “Hemingway’s Extended Vision: The Old Man and the Sea”, Bloom, Harold, ed.Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
  • Waldmeir, Joseph. “Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway’s Religion of Man”, PMASAL XLII, the University of Michigan Press, 1956
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