Crucified in the Ring: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

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Editor: Anna Sheets-Nesbitt
Date: 2000
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 36)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,420 words

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[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Wittkowski contends that Santiago's struggle and suffering are patterned after that of the bullfighter and Christ on the Cross, and further that the ideal of the fighter-athlete in the novella encompasses and takes the place of the ideal of Christ.]

When The Old Man and the Sea appeared in 1952, Philip Young wrote that it was a metaphor for life as a fight and man as a fighter. It was a metaphor for which Hemingway indicated his deep respect and enlists ours through the enhancing use of Christian symbols.1 That was the impression of most readers then and probably is still today. However, in 1956 Carlos Baker gave a new twist to the critical discussion of the story, one which had far-reaching consequences. He stated that the religious associations attest to a Christian mentality which in the course of the story's development supplants the fighter ethos of the old man.2 This encouraged several critics to point out Santiago's insight into the tragic limitations of humanity and the consequent victory for a democratic and interpersonal way of thinking.3

The basis for and main thrust of such interpretations were religious argumentation, arriving at the non plus ultra that Santiago's actions were in fact an imitatio Christi.4 To be sure, the critical results were often more modest, for in Hemingway's works, and especially in the case of Santiago, the central image of the killer stands along side that of the sufferer,5 and Hemingway's Catholicism and ethical thought lack the dimension of transcendence.6 One critic, Julanne Isabelle, felt that Hemingway, in good Augustinian fashion, was concerned with the relationship of the individual soul to God, but Isabelle nevertheless shares the same objections as the others. In the final analysis she too ascertains no more than that the writer and his heroes do not deny God, even though they often claim to want no part of religion.7 Baker observes that "consciousness of God is in his [Hemingway's] books." With this both unquestionable and modest result he too was finally satisfied, conceding that the story's Christian symbolism as he understands it does not tally, for Santiago maintains his fighter's pride in the end (Artist, p. 319). In making this concession Baker undermined the theses upon which his own interpretation and the entire resulting Christian and moral meaning of Hemingway's works rise or fall, namely, that Santiago's pride changes into humility and love. Baker had arrived at this view by concluding that humility and love would have to remain when pride disappeared, a fact he saw confirmed by the sentence: "He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish's agony."8 This statement reveals not the loss of pride, but rather the opposite. Baker evidently misunderstood Hemingway's particular manner of expression. Such paradoxical hyperbole is extremely characteristic and significant for all his work. On one occasion it...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420024365