The novella’s protagonist, Santiago, faces the most strenuous days of a long life spent coaxing a living from the sea. These days on the sea test his stamina and prove that he can “suffer like a man” against pain, exhaustion, failure, and age. The conflict plays out against the marlin Santiago relentlessly hunts and the sharks that relentlessly hunt the marlin, but even more, Santiago faces the conflict in his ruined body and vacillating thoughts. Santiago’s story examines ideas about why life involves suffering and failure, and of how to face and endure loss.
The story’s action begins when Santiago’s luck seems to have left him. He is an experienced, competent fisherman, yet for 84 days, he has not brought in marlin to sell at market. Some fishermen mock his hopes, but Manolin, whom Santiago began teaching when the boy was five years old, believes that Santiago’s luck will turn. Santiago, whose eyes are “cheerful and undefeated,” does not let failure discourage him. The plot’s inciting incident may be Santiago’s willingness to head out alone on day 85, but the moment late in the day when a marlin takes the bait and begins to tow Santiago’s boat farther out is the event that launches the rising action.
The long hours that Santiago and the marlin struggle against each other and against pain, hunger, and fear make up the rising action. Santiago wishes often that Manolin were with him, not only to help with the ceaseless work of pursuing the marlin but also to talk. Instead, Santiago talks to himself and to creatures he encounters. The events of the chase develop the conflict and prolong the opponents’ suffering. Santiago’s hands and back are bruised and torn, his vision fades from hunger and exhaustion, and his “traitor” left hand cramps shut. He extends his experience of suffering to the world around him, to his brother the marlin, for example, and to the tired warbler that rests a moment before flying toward danger. Critics have pointed out that wounds on Santiago’s hands are like stigmata, the wounds left in Christ’s hands by the nails during the crucifixion, which lends a redemptive value to Santiago’s suffering. At any time, Santiago could release the marlin, ending their suffering, yet he does not, just as Christ does not refuse his ordeal. Instead, Santiago bears the pain while contemplating the necessity that some things die so that others may live.
The climax comes when Santiago kills the marlin, piercing its heart and fulfilling his destiny as one born to fish. Even in its death throes, the marlin’s strength and vitality inspire Santiago’s respect and love. The falling action follows quickly as Santiago begins the hard work of securing the fish and returning to the coast. The marlin’s suffering is over, but Santiago’s continues. As he sails in his weakened condition, he suffers with each shark attack that ravages the beautiful fish. With his wounded hands, he kills the “hateful” sharks. When his meager weapons are expended, he declares, “I’ll fight them until I die.” Thinking of the pain of his hero, “the great DiMaggio,” inspires Santiago to endure. He also draws strength from his relationship with the marlin. They had been adversaries, but now, as Santiago fights the sharks, they become allies against the unworthy scavengers.
Santiago proves his heroism and nobility by continuing to fight in the face of almost certain defeat. He cannot prevent the sharks from mauling the marlin, but he utilizes every makeshift weapon at his disposal and all his strength, fighting on until fighting becomes impossible. He hasn’t broken his unlucky streak, but his return home posits the idea that even in defeat, there can be victory. The fisherman gape at the carcass, amazed. Manolin, when out of his mentor’s sight, weeps because he understands the cost of the effort. The “coppery” blood that Santiago coughed up and spat into the sea may signal his coming death, but the novella ends with him dreaming of his beloved young lions at play, suggesting that there is life in him yet.
What this ambiguous resolution means depends in part on how the story is read. Parables are stories that suggest truths about life’s hard questions and feature archetypes rather than realistic characters. As an archetype, Santiago is not simply an old man but the old man whose life teaches a lesson. Read as a parable, Santiago’s story suggests answers to such questions as why life involves suffering and failure and how people face and endure loss. Santiago persists through pain and hunger, heat and thirst, and ultimate failure. Yet his suffering takes on a redemptive power, highlighted by his cry of “Ay!” as the sharks move in. The narrator calls this cry the sound of a man “feeling the nail go through his hand and into the wood” in a clear allusion to Christ’s redemptive suffering. The resolution in this reading is captured in Santiago’s advice to himself as he struggles to bring the remains of the marlin to shore: “[K]eep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.” Santiago finds purpose and contentment in the struggle itself, regardless of results.