Delving Deep: Meanings and Metaphors from Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’

artist's impression of a big marlin leaping from the sea with the old man in the skiff in the distance

The Old Man and the Sea – Santiago hooks a giant marlin

Ernest Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in 1951 to tremendous acclaim. Read as a symbolic novel with overtones of religion, identity, life and death, I feel it has a much richer set of meaning layers and can usefully be read through the lens of depth psychology as an individuation narrative, a Hero Myth.

The Jungian concept of individuation entails a process of gradual and lifelong connecting with the unconscious at ever deeper layers, ultimately with the collective unconscious which is hard to define but in some ways can be understood as nature itself. This process of connecting with and owning all our archetypal aspects, energies or identities leads to greater wholeness and a lesser tendency for unconscious acting out of destructive complexes. In essence it is a maturation journey, full of struggles and epiphanies. It is also an existential task, to come to terms with death as inevitable and therefore to adopt a meaning-based attitude towards life.

Symbolic Meaning in The Old Man and the Sea

Several layers of symbolic meaning are to be noted and Hemingway builds these gradually by setting out the relationship between the old man Santiago and the boy Manolin. Much mutual trust and affection is evident and this may be read as the dependent and intertwined nature of the archetypes of the ‘puer’ full of energy and freshness, and of the ‘wise old man’ full of wisdom and intuition. The boy will become the old man one day and has much to learn from him; at the same time the old man sees himself in the boy and remembers the happiness of his youth – the cyclical regeneration of human life and the transmission of culture. Santiago dreams of lion cubs on the beach, a sight he marvelled at in his youth when working on fishing boats going to Africa. While he knows he has much intelligence and experience, he is also mindful of his poverty and ageing body. This insight is worn with the idea that humility ‘carries no loss of true pride’ however; he is as valid a part of life as anyone else and indeed so is the noble marlin.

The Sea of Unconsciousness

But the greatest symbolism is in the sea itself which I see as the unconscious, and the search for the ‘big fish’ is a delving into the unconscious for its gifts of wisdom and a connection with the wild creativity (and destruction) of life and nature – for the Self. It is a metaphor for the searching life, as Santiago says to himself  ‘My big fish must be somewhere’. He identifies with the fish and the turtles, seeing in them both the dignity and the vulnerability of his own self. During the fight, he feels sorry for the fish, as well as for his own suffering holding the lines with bleeding hands and an aching back. In the end he tows it towards the shore, exhausted and fighting off sharks, and says, ‘I have killed this fish which is my brother and now I must do the slave work’, as he harnesses the trade winds to set sail for home. He has learned all his life how to suffer and to make meaning from it, then to enjoy the rewards when they arrive. Living so close to nature and struggling for every piece of sustenance, there are lessons to be learned and truths to be remembered from the old man Santiago and his apprentice Manolin. I was carried away by it and truelly uplifted.

The Old Man and the Sea

citation for introductory image: creative commons for use with citation:


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan Scott
    Sep 09, 2016 @ 08:44:15

    I’m coming by this several months later Roberta via Matrignosis, Jean Raffa. What a lovely exposition you give of the ‘Old Man & the Sea’ – rich indeed in its symbolism, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. richcreativemuse
    Sep 08, 2016 @ 05:40:08

    I read this book some time ago in high school. Thank you for your analysis, which sheds more light on it from where I am today.

    I spent some time in Japan, teaching English and supporting community work there. I read many well-known Japanese novels; one of them that made an impression on me was “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea” by Yukio Mishima. I’ve never read any analysis of it, but it might be a good work for you to analyze and compare to the “Old Man and the Sea”. The theme, I believe will be much different – maybe not.

    I loved the Japanese culture. When I came back from spending five years of in depth living and absorbing Japanese culture, I experienced a surprising and upsetting cultural shock upon reentering my own native “American” culture. I still haven’t understood the full ramifications of that experience.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Roberta McDonnell
      Sep 08, 2016 @ 10:35:27

      Hi there and thanks for your comments and pointers. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Mishima’s novel – thanks for giving me an idea for my next post too! Your adventures sound remarkable, would love to hear more. My eldest daughter is an illustrator and loves all things Japanese (her website is ) and I also had the good fortune to hear about Japan from one of my lecturers at QUB (Dr John Knight) and to read the work of anthropologist Joy Hendry, as well as Brad Warner’s ‘Hard Core Zen’ about living, working and training in Japan. Interested to hear about your experiences of culture shock too and wonder if you have found yourself able to integrate both cultures into any kind of synthesis? I grew up in Northern Ireland, a divided society with strong cultural clashes, and I am also in a mixed marriage as they call it here, however I find that enriching and our children attended integrated schools which also creates a kind of smorgasbord culture – I believe the biggest cultural threat worldwide is materialism and runaway capitalism, though I do also believe that humans will make meaning whatever context we find ourselves in. Thanks again and all the best for now 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


      • richcreativemuse
        Sep 08, 2016 @ 16:20:54

        Thank you for your reply to my comment. I will check out your daughter’s website. Jungian analysis and art therapy have been very profound in the direction of my life journey. And yes, I am still continuing to complete a workable synthesis of these polarities within. I hope to keep in touch with your work. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. TheGirlWhoKeepsReading
    Jul 04, 2013 @ 11:43:19

    Wonderfully written! Thank you for helping me understand the book’s symbols and metaphors. 🙂



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