Do You Read TOMS?

Screen Shot 2016-10-15 at 9.10.12 AMBy John Frye

Santiago: A Christ Figure

“‘Ay,’ he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands into the wood” (Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 107).

Patrons of the “One T Saloon” (aka, Scot with one “t” McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog) know that I write almost annually about Hemingway’s TOMS. I hear that Scot reads The Old Man and the Sea (aka TOMS) occasionally, too (search Hemingway on the site).

I am one of those readers who believe, contrary to Hemingway’s own denial, that the old man, Santiago, is a Christ-figure (see opening quote above). There are too many allusions to the Jesus story in TOMS to not be deliberate in my opinion. I find it hard to believe Hemingway was not aware of this. Consider: The old man is at sea for three days and nights. The old man faces a tremendous challenge with tenacity, endurance and severe suffering. The old, wearied man, finally ashore after the sharks gnawed his magnificent 18 foot marlin to its skeletal remains, hoists the mast on his aching shoulders with his bloodied hands and attempts to walk and stumbles under the weight. How can this not be an allusion to Jesus stumbling under the weight of the cross? With all of this, there are the undeniable Roman Catholic themes peppered throughout this magisterial story. God, prayer, The ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary,’ sin, saints. Hemingway is describing the marlin’s violet stripes: “They were wider than a man’s hand with his fingers spread and the fish’s eye looked as detached as mirrors in a periscope or as a saint in a procession” (96). The old man wondered if it was a sin to kill the fish. He thinks, “Do not think about sin. It is too late for that and there are people who are paid to do it” (105). I love this.

On this last reading, I was mesmerized by the theme of suffering. (That’s what is intriguing about great literature—you see or sense new dimensions in each reading.) The old man suffers loneliness. Time and again, he misses “the boy.” He makes friends with a small bird. He speaks of the marlin as “his friend.” He addresses his left hand as a traitorous friend. He talks to himself for company. The old man suffers physically. He experiences searing pain and fights through it to accomplish his mission to catch and kill the majestic marlin. He keeps wondering what a bone spur feels like. His eyes ache, he has benign skin cancer, his hands get cut and mushy from the fishing line ripping into them. His shoulders and back ache. At one point he coughs up blood—“The old man could hardly breathe now and he felt a strange taste in his mouth. It was coppery and sweet and he was afraid of it for a moment” (119).

Santiago gets to his shack and collapses into bed. When the boy, Manolin, sees the old man stretched out and asleep the bed of newspapers and sees the mangled palms of his hands, he cries. Mandolin enters into the old man’s suffering. Later the boy asks, “How much did you suffer?” Santiago answers simply. “‘Plenty,’ the old man said.”

The human need for community surfaces as Santiago speaks with Manolin. “He noticed how pleasant it was to have someone to talk to instead of speaking only to himself and the sea. ‘I missed you,’ he said” (124). The old man loves the boy and the boy loves him. Is it because the old man, wise, humble, and undefeated, teaches the boy how to live in and through suffering? Is it because they make plans together to fish again, only better prepared? Master and disciple, bonded by love, facing life’s challenges together. What a story!

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