Religious Symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea

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  • 0:04 Not Just an Old Man
  • 0:36 Santiago's Hands
  • 1:20 The Marlin
  • 2:13 The Mast
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joe Ricker
Santiago makes the religious symbolism in Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and the Sea' apparent. Without Santiago, the allusions to Christ and Christianity would be vague and difficult to spot.

Not Just an Old Man

There is enough in The Old Man and the Sea to make this short novel an incredibly compelling story. The plot revolves around Santiago, an aging fisherman who ventures out alone on the ocean, and after days and days without catching a fish, he manages to land the biggest catch of his life. Unfortunately, sharks destroy his catch before he can get back to shore. There is certainly a moral perspective to the story that the reader can think about. However, the religious symbols in Ernest Hemingway's book give the reader a little more to consider.

Santiago's Hands

Santiago's hands become a religious symbol in two ways. First, the wounds Santiago suffers on his palms are an obvious connection to Christ, especially his crucifixion. However, before his hands have been too badly injured, Santiago makes a comment that directly alludes to a statement made by Christ during his Sermon on the Mount. Santiago says, 'If he cramps again let the line cut him off.'

When Christ makes this reference about hands, he is referring to sin. So, Santiago's hands, specifically the hand that is cramped and is of no use to him to bring in the marlin, essentially symbolizes sin or an aversion to Christ. The symbolism in Santiago's hand becomes even more prominent when examining the marlin, which symbolizes Christ.

The Marlin

The marlin isn't the only form of symbolism for Christ in the novel, but it does connect Santiago's hands to religious symbolism. Similar to how Santiago's comments directed the reader toward the symbolism of his cramped hand, his comments also reveal the marlin as a symbol of Christ. After Santiago successfully lands the marlin, ending his three-day torment, he thinks about the importance of the fish and his worthiness in catching it. Hemingway writes, 'How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him?'

This is not a reference to cannibalism; instead it compares the marlin, the fish who will feed people, to Christ who feeds his follower symbolically through Communion. The marlin, too, represents that communion, especially given Santiago's thoughts on the worthiness of the people to eat him. The same is said of Communion: only those who are willing to accept Christ as their personal savior are worthy of Communion.

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