In these first few scenes, Hemingway introduces several issues and images that will recur throughout the book. The first is the question of Santiago’s endurance. The descriptions of his crude hut, almost nonexistent eating habits, and emaciated body force the reader to question the old man’s physical capacities. How could Santiago, who subsists on occasional handouts from kind café owners or, worse, imaginary meals, wage the terrific battle with the great marlin that the novel recounts? As the book progresses, we see that the question is irrelevant. Although Santiago’s battle is played out in physical terms, the stakes are decidedly spiritual.
This section also introduces two important symbols: the lions playing on the beaches of Africa and baseball’s immortal Joe DiMaggio. Throughout his trial at sea, Santiago’s thoughts will return to DiMaggio, for to him the baseball player represents a kind of triumphant survival. After suffering a bone spur in his heel, DiMaggio returned to baseball to become, in the eyes of many, the greatest player of all time. The lions are a more enigmatic symbol. The narrator says that they are Santiago’s only remaining dream. When he sleeps, he no longer envisions storms or women or fish, but only the “young cats in the dusk,” which “he love[s] . . . as he love[s] the boy.” Because the image of the lions has stayed with Santiago since his boyhood, the lions connect the end of the old man’s life with the beginning, giving his existence a kind of circularity. Like Santiago, the lions are hunters at the core of their being. The fact that Santiago dreams of the lions at play rather than on the hunt indicates that his dream is a break—albeit a temporary one—from the vicious order of the natural world.