The Effective Use of Imagery in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea has engendered some lively debate in literary circles. Critics have concentrated on everything in the novella from the verity of Rigel's early evening appearance over Cuban skies in September (Weeks 192) to William Faulkner's judgment that Hemingway discovered God while writing The Old Man and the Sea (Bradford 158-62). Yet the most insightful commentary has gravitated invariably toward biblical, natural, and classical imagery in the novel. These images turn an otherwise simple fishing tale into a sublime narrative of human endurance. A reading that examines these images will serve to clarify the hidden significance in Hemingway's novel.
Biblical imagery literally abounds in The Old Man and the Sea. The name "Santiago" itself is a biblical allusion. Donald Heiney informs us that "Santiago is simply the Spanish form of Saint James, and James like Peter was a fisherman-apostle in the New Testament. Santiago de Compostela is the patron saint of Spain and is also greatly revered by Cuban Catholics" (86). Sam Baskett enhances this image by indicating that Saint James "was martyred 'with the sword' by Herod" (278). In the novel, we see Santiago entrenched in battle with a swordfish, and, if we are to believe Baskett, he eventually dies after the struggle (269). In a sense, Santiago, like James, is martyred "with the sword."
Santiago's battle with the fish produces myriad biblical images, and while the most obvious are Santiago-as-Christ, others exist as well. Arvin Wells, for example, provides a Santiago-as-Cain analogy: "Repeatedly, [Santiago] addresses the fish as 'brother'. . . Yet, at the same time, he is relentlessly determined to capture and kill the marlin, as Cain killed his brother" (59). Wells furnishes another provocative analogy by equating the fish as Christ and Santiago as the crucifier. During the battle, Santiago exclaims, "Christ . . . I did not know he was so big . . . I'll kill him though . . . in all his greatness and his glory" (66). He states, "Significantly this is the only place in the story where the expletive, Christ, is used, and the echo in the [last] sentence is unmistakable--'for thine is the power and the glory forever'" (Wells 59). John Hamilton further illustrates this point by equating the fish with the Christian acronym , or Ichthus (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior): "it is inconceivable for one as widely read and travelled in fishing and Christian circles as was Hemingway . . . not to have become familiar with the fish as a God-Man symbol" (142). When Santiago finally kills the fish, he thrusts the harpoon into "the fish's side just behind the great chest fin" (94), thus reminding us of Christ's side being pierced while on the cross.
Finding insightful commentary on the Santiago-as-Christ image is problematic at best. For instance, Joseph Flora's judgment that "The...