Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea contains Christian themes and imagery. Should it be considered a Christian novel?
The Old Man and the Sea resembles a Christian parable in many ways. Its protagonist, the fisherman Santiago, seems to exemplify Christian virtues, and the narrative clearly and repeatedly connects his trials at sea to Christ’s suffering on the cross. However, a careful examination of Santiago’s character and actions shows that he is not a Christian character and that, in reality, he embodies a warrior ethic that is incompatible with Christian ideals. The parallels between The Old Man and the Sea and the familiar Biblical story of the crucifixion add narrative and emotional power to the novel, but Hemingway does not use them to advance a religious moral or lesson. Instead, they serve to advance Santiago’s warrior philosophy. Though The Old Man and the Sea has superficial Christian elements, at its core it cannot be considered a Christian novel.
Initially, Santiago seems to be an ideal Christian. He keeps Christian icons in his house, he refers to God and Christ repeatedly, and Hemingway calls attention to his “faith,” “hope,” and “love”—the three principal Christian virtues. However, these appearances are superficial. For example, though Santiago says he has “faith,” he doesn’t use the word in a religious sense; rather, he uses it in connection with a superstitious idea of luck and to describe his feelings about baseball. When he prays during his battle with the fish, he prefaces his prayers by saying he is not religious and then proceeds to recite them mechanically, forgetting the words. Santiago’s careful and disciplined approach to everything in life is emphasized throughout the novel, so his sloppiness here only draws attention to his lack of commitment to his prayers. Even more important, Santiago never thinks of God. Instead, he finds comfort, strength, and meaning by thinking of secular things: the human world, baseball, and the creatures of the sea—not religion.
Santiago is not religious, but he does live by a moral code and has a philosophy of life. He is a master of his craft, much more attentive to its fine details than the other fisherman in his village are. He exemplifies the manly virtues of courage and determination. In addition, he has a strong sense of right and wrong when it comes to killing. He loves and respects the fish he pursues, considering them his “brothers,” and he abhors killing a creature for no good purpose. More than anything else, Santiago has an enduring pride, which he expresses most clearly in the moments he realizes that more sharks are coming to eat the great marlin he has caught. He says, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated”—that is, a true man will fight to the bitter end, to death if needed, but he will never give up. Together, these principles form a fiercely independent warrior’s philosophy of life, where living well is about meeting adversaries in honorable battle. This is not a Christian outlook on life, which would advocate a patient forbearance and a meek tolerance of hardship.
Ironically, Hemingway uses Christian symbolism to advance this alternate worldview. After Santiago has hooked the great marlin, he passes the fishing line across his back and holds it in both hands, cutting his palms repeatedly. This posture resembles that of Christ on the cross, and Santiago’s wounds evoke the stigmata, the puncture wounds Christ bore from the crucifixion. But at the end of his suffering, Santiago is not redeemed or reborn like Christ. Rather, his fish is stolen from him by sharks, and he returns to land close to death. His suffering can only be considered redemptive because, in Santiago’s view, struggle and forbearance are ends in themselves. In the novel’s philosophy, we are our best and truest selves only in a death struggle. This message is best illustrated in Hemingway’s description of the very moment of the fish’s death: “Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty.” Only in death does the fish come completely alive, or is its greatness entirely visible.
In a Christian parable, a deep religious message might be communicated through the actions of an ordinary man. In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway turns this literary convention on end. Instead, he appropriates the powerful, resonant story of Christ’s crucifixion in order to convey and glorify the life philosophy of an ordinary man.