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.
citation for introductory image: creative commons for use with citation: http://www.bluemarlin3.com/tbf/hemmingway.php