Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part Two

When teaching a work of literature in class or with your homeschooled child, it helps to have a work that is approachable in terms of length, plot, vocabulary, and sentence structure–a challenge is good, but it’s best not to scare away shy readers! As talked about in “Teaching The Old Man and the Sea: Part One,” Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea offers this sort of accessibility. But it also provides a clear approach to strong themes and meaningful symbols that illustrate those themes.

Themes

OldManandSeaReaders witness a harmony of the young and the old, a young boy who cares for an elderly man, and a mutual exchange of care and wisdom amongst the ages. The novel explores questions regarding wisdom versus knowledge, the role of humanity in nature, the risks associated with pride, and how to be a hero. The examples and glorification of perseverance teach young readers what it means to work hard for something noble. When Santiago faces extreme difficulty, he keeps pushing: “He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.”

The novel pushes the reader to consider what it means to be “good”–a good person, a good neighbor, a good friend, a good teammate. Furthermore, the rich symbolism of the novel serves as clear support for themes that the young reader will be able to grasp.

Symbols

The Old Man and the Sea exemplifies the use of symbols beyond a mere treasure hunt for literary devices. Symbols are used to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense. Symbols grab the attention of the readers. They help communicate, give understanding, and illustrate ideas.

Symbols can take different forms. Generally, it is an object, person, situation, or action representing another to give it a different meaning that is much deeper and more significant. Works of literature can be interpreted in various ways with various themes, and the rich symbolism of The Old Man and the Sea promote meaningful discussions of these interpretations. 

Be ‘good’ not ‘bad’

Hemingway said, “About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” For Hemingway, the right thing is what makes you feel good afterwards. So, what is it that will make a person “feel good after”? To what does his novel point?

Santiago is a man whose actions and words are rich with Christian imagery. After all, his name is Santiago, or James in English. James, the Disciple, was a fisherman (like Santiago of the novel) called to be a follower of Christ: “He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

As the novel moves along, the reader see Santiago hold the fishing line in his fingers, The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingwaymoving them like beads of a rosary as he kneels patiently in the boat. Santiago’s draped sack on his deeply cut back calls to mind the Passion of Christ: “They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him. They began to salute him with, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” The suffering and enduring continue throughout the novel, and the Christian imagery remains.

The story aligns Santiago not with Christ, but as a follower of Christ. He is to be seen as a person who is “good.” What is that he does that is “good,” then? It’s not in church attendance or Bible reading that Santiago’s goodness is found. Instead, his goodness is found in his actions: he endures. He respects the fish, yet he fights hard against it. He knows that he must try his hardest against his “brother” fish.

backIn the face of difficulty, Santiago does what he believes is right, or “good.” The imagery and themes of The Old Man and the Sea align Santiago and his actions with the likes of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Homer’s Odysseus, and William Faulkner’s Dilsey. Like them, Santiago pushes, strives, and holds firm to what he knows he must do.

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