Hemingway’s Gospel of Manhood
After the 1940s, the majority of Hemingway critics and readers began to think that the writer’s best days were behind him. Hemingway’s literary reputation had gradually sunk, and he had undergone the bleakest years in his writing career. In 1952, however, Hemingway published his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, and the positive responses from ordinary readers, critical reviewers, and fellow writers such as William Faulkner, who proclaimed the book perhaps the best piece among the work of his contemporaries, proved the comment “Papa is finished” completely wrong. The Old Man and the Sea went on to win the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction and it was also instrumental in Hemingway’s winning the 1954 Nobel Prize in literature for his life work.
The story of The Old Man and the Sea is very simple. An old man, Santiago, fishes daily in a skiff in the Gulf Stream. When the novel opens, he has gone eighty-four days without a catch. His lack of success, however, appears not to destroy his spirit, as his cheerful and undefeated eyes show. A young boy named Manolin fishes with him and helps him for the first forty days of his ordeal, but the boy’s parents think that the old man is definitely salao and they force their son to join another more successful boat. But the boy helps the old man to bring in his empty skiff and fishing gear everyday. On the eighty-fifth day, the old man decides to fish far out into the Gulf, and finally catches a huge marlin. After a spirit-straining battle that lasts for three days, he kills the fish, but is unable to get it into his skiff due to its huge size. So, he lashes it to the side of the skiff. On his way home, unfortunately, most of the fish is consumed by sharks despite his valiant efforts to fight them off. He returns, morally undefeated, to his shack. And the boy vows to join him again for further fishing.
Read as an adventure story, The Old Man and the Sea’s prose is simple, lucid, and moving. The old man’s stubborn courage, unwavering strength and marvellous fishing skills sustain the suspense to the end. However, as simple as the story appears to be, there lies underneath a complex system of images and meanings. Hemingway once said of the story that “no good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, the boy, the sea, the fish and the sharks were all real. But if I made them good and true enough, they would mean many things” (“ An American Storyteller”).
For many readers the novel has deep, religious implications. The imagery suggests strongly Christian overtones. A great deal of the meaning of this story depends heavily on one’s view of the protagonist, the old man. He is not simply an old Cuban fisherman, but a Hemingway code hero. And beyond a good fishing adventure story, The Old Man and the Sea is an allegory, a literary work that deliberately attempts to teach something about manhood and life. More specially, it is the Hemingway’s gospel, a gospel of achieving and maintaining manhood. The rest of my essay tries to illustrate how Hemingway uses Christian imagery to promote the profundity of the old man’s struggle to preach his own gospel of manhood.
Through imagery, the writer can enrich the texture of his writing – to create echoes of meaning. Such is the case with The Old Man and the Sea, in which various groups of images are combined to make the novel an evocative narrative. The largest group of images in the novel are Christian images, and the most obvious is the parallel between the old man and Jesus.
From the beginning of the story the reader is shown an unique relationship between the old man and Manolin. Their relationship parallels that of Jesus and his disciples. Manolin is the old man's disciple and the old man teaches Manolin about fishing and life. One of the most important lessons that the old man gives is that of a simple faith:” have faith in the Yankees, my son” (17). He teaches Manolin to never lose faith in the Yankees even when the star player, Joe DiMaggio, is injured with a heel spur. This type of faith reflects the basic principles of Jesus’ teaching. When the old man’s fishing line first cuts his palms, this scene reminds the reader of Jesus’ suffering his stigmata. Later, when the sharks arrive, the parallel becomes even closer and Hemingway portrays the old man as a crucified martyr, as the following passage makes clear: “’Ay’, he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood” (107). Furthermore, the image of the old man struggling up the hill with his mast across his shoulders and collapsing on the road evokes the image of Jesus' march toward Calvary. Even the position in which he collapses on his bed—“face down with his arms out straight and the palms of his hands up” (122)—brings to mind the image of Jesus suffering on the cross. And finally, the three days that he endures his ordeal at sea is reminiscent also of the chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion.
If the parallel between the old man and Jesus is interpreted as being total and exact, then The Old Man and the Sea becomes a religious allegory. However, Hemingway’s purpose here is not to create a Christian allegory, as the parallel is not complete: the old man does not to take religion very seriously. Religion does not play a significant role in his struggle. During his ordeal, “’I am not religious,’ he says. ‘But I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Cobre if I catch him. That is a promise.’ He commenced to say his prayers mechanically. . . . Hail Marys are easier to say than Our Fathers, he thought” (64-5). Later he says, “Now that I have him coming so beautifully, God help me endure. I'll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now. Consider them said, he thought. I'll say them later” (87). His attitude toward prayer shows a lack of serious respect for religion. Hemingway allows his character to believe that God exists, but not to believe that God is interested in human affairs. He focuses on man in relation to the things of this world only, as though no other world exists or matters. Though he asks for God's help, in the end, when he wonders to himself what it was that beat him, he says, “Nothing . . . I went out too far” (120).
The parallel between the old man and Jesus is obviously intended to be less than total identification, and it moves towards three other accomplishments. On the first level, Hemingway reaches for correlation in the world of values he can’t stop caring about, and religion offers an approximation. Religion is the provider of images and forms for the self in the search for values. On the second level, the religious imagery enriches the artistic effect of the novel. On the third level, the evocation of Jesus’ crucifixion experience enables Hemingway to emphasize his hero’s suffering, courage, endurance, dignity, and glory. It helps set the stage for his gospel. The reason Hemingway deliberately uses Christian imagery is to elevate what might be called his philosophy of Manhood to the level of religion and to preach his own gospel, a gospel of achieving and maintaining manhood. By this philosophy we mean Hemingway believes in the human spirit and the emphasis on man's struggle against the world as the sole purpose of existence. It is not the victory or defeat that matters, but the struggle itself. The purpose of life is the struggle, and a man's "salvation" is based upon how well he handles the struggle. Hemingway critic Joseph Waldmeir explains, “A man must depend upon himself alone in order to assert his manhood, and the assertion of his manhood, in the face of insuperable obstacles, is the complete end and justification of his existence for a Hemingway hero . . . each must face his struggle alone, with no recourse to otherworldly help, for only as solitary individuals can they assert their manhood” (164). Therefore, the old man must endure his struggle to land the fish and the useless battle against the sharks.
Although Hemingway has rejected Christianity, he has formulated as rigid a set of rules for living and for the attainment of manhood as can be found in any religion. Hemingway critic Kenneth Johnston, drawing on both The Old Man and the Sea and other Hemingway's stories, describes what he calls the Hemingway code: "a personal code of conduct, self-imposed, characterized by courage, stoicism, dignity, and honor. It is a set of inviolable rules by which the code hero imposes order and meaning on a chaotic world, steels himself to the pain and disappointment of life, and retains his dignity and honor. The code permits a character to retrieve victory, usually moral, as he goes down to what the uninitiated would call defeat. The person who abides by the code is motivated, not by a desire to win glory or admiration of others, but by a deep sense of personal honor and integrity." (175)
The old man embodies the code, and it is this code that gives him the courage and determination to go through his incredible ordeal: after hooking the great marlin, he fights against him with epic endurances, showing ”what a man can do and what a man endures” (66) And when the sharks come, he is determined to “fight them until I die,” because he knows that “man is not made for defeat . . . A man can be destroyed but not defeated” (103). Therefore, according to Hemingway, victory is not a prerequisite for glory. Instead, glory depends upon one having the pride to go through a struggle to its end, regardless of the outcome. In fact, the old man’s pride is what enables him to endure, and it is endurance that matters most in Hemingway’s conception of the world—a world in which death and destruction, part of the natural order of things, are unavoidable. Hemingway believes there are only two options: defeat or endurance until destruction; his code hero, the old man, clearly chooses the latter, and thus, he is elevated above the normal stature of a protagonist, assuming near-mythical proportions. Hemingway associates the old man’s ordeal with Jesus’ agony and triumph and sets the stage for his own gospel. The old man is the Jesus of Hemingway's gospel, perhaps, an idealization of Hemingway who had himself undergone periods of struggle as a man and as an author. The old man’s struggle does not enable him to alter his place in the world. Rather, it enables him to meet his destiny with dignity.
Johnston, Kenneth. “The Undefeated: The Moment of Truth.” Ernest Hemingway: A Study of the Short Fiction, Ed. Joseph M. Flora. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Waldmeir, Joseph. “Confiteor Hominem: Ernest Hemingway's Religion of Man” Hemingway: A Collection of Critical Essays, Eds. Robert P. Weeks and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962.
Unknown, “An American Storyteller.” Time, July 07, 1999. Accessed on March 15, 2006