Symbolism in The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea is one of Hemingway's most accomplished pieces, earning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and supporting his solid literary reputation enough to earn him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Often, critics look upon this work as a reflection of the author's rugged individualism, but there is a tragic aspect that clearly makes this work a representative piece of the Modernist era--a period of time from the early to the middle of the twentieth century, where, among other things, was a real fear that the world's classical values were disappearing. To me, this is apparent in the relationship between Manolin and Santiago, Santiago's pathetic quest for the eighteen-foot marlin, and the encroachment of a commercial world apparent through the tourists.
What first strikes my sensibilities is the integral relationship between the apprentice, Manolin, and his master, Santiago, who, according to society's standards, can be considered a cast away as a result of the death of his wife, his financial hardship, his weak physical condition, and, increasingly, his declining performance as a fisherman. Clearly, he is in the last stages of his life and can only function with the assistance of Manolin, who increasingly has begun to venture off into his own sphere as, one might suspect, a successful commercial fisherman. And yet, Manolin is the son we fathers would all want: his loyalty, his respect of his elders, his willingness to learn the ways of the past, and, most importantly, his humility in the face of his own superiority. Living in Katy, I still witness these relationships, but increasingly they can be found only in movies or in books such as Hemingway's.
Hemingway also aptly points out the fleeting ancestral values through Santiago's pathetic quest for the king of fishes. This journey displays Santiago's cunning and physical prowess as a fisherman and reinforces his commitment to Manolin, but clearly, as Santiago leaves the familiar to venture out into unfamiliar waters, he must battle not only the marlin itself that is dragging him out to sea but also the sharks that naturally want their pound of flesh for his sin. At the top of Santiago's mind is Manolin, of course, but his deeper motivation is to prove himself worthy of the battle, and, in the process be rewarded with the riches accompanied with selling the flesh of the marlin, his revered brother. In a not so subtle way Hemingway, I believe, sends the subtle message that Santiago's flaw is what many modern men do today: going to extremes to earn wealth from the world and admiration from society, especially of those closest to them. Santiago may have accomplished his ultimate goal, but he is merely left with a skeleton that reminds him of his tragic error.
The other aspect of this novella that is striking are the tourists. The tourists really could almost be any of us, especially in that last scene where one spots the discarded skeleton of the marlin heaped in trash pile. "What is that?" the tourist asks. Although the waiter gives a literal and wrong response, Hemingway's answer is clear: it's the values of a bygone era expressed through the interplay of Manolin and Santiago heaped upon the trash pile of history. All may not be bleak. Manolin rushes to aid Santiago by providing him food and comfort, but one has to wonder if the younger generation will be as kind and generous as Manolin. That fear may be answered in the final line when, in a dream, we learn what is at the top of Santiago's mind: the Lions of Africa, symbols of his glorious youth that will live only as long as the deteriorating old man.
As many have demonstrated, Hemingway's genius is to take the every day and pack it with symbolic values in the most terse language. The Old Man and the Sea is not an exception. One part fishing story, one part allegory, and the final part social commentary, this story is truly rewarding for those patient enough to unravel the layers of the story's onion.