Hemingway first describes Santiago as having the deep-creased scars from the cords used to handle very heavy fish. However, these scars do not have the appearance of fresh scars but appear "as old as erosions in a fishless desert." Later in the story as Santiago wrestles with the marlin, he cuts his hand and it begins to cramp. Santiago's suffering, pain and bleeding hand serve as a metaphor for Christ's hands pierced by the nails at his crucifixion. Even the young boy cries at the sight of Santiago's hands.
Santiago and the Sail
Hemingway describes the sail on Santiago's boat as "patched with flour sacks" that looked like a flag representing "permanent defeat." Because the fisherman Santiago has not caught fish in almost three months, other fisherman seem to consider him as a living, walking symbol of permanent defeat. Yet, even though the sail appears as a patchwork of sacks, it still functions when the wind blows, transporting Santiago out to sea to grapple with the marlin. Both Santiago and the sail serve as a metaphor for continuing endurance.
"They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert."
Because of the spare, simple style of Hemingway's writing, the best examples of hyperbole are found in the dialogue. Manolin, the young boy, frequently refers to people and things as "the best," or "the greatest," regardless of empirical evidence or proof. It is more important to Manolin, because of his youth, to have unattainable greatness to look up to, and to aspire to, than to look at facts and accept that many things are good, but not great.
"Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?"
"I think they are equal."
"And the best fisherman is you."
"No. I know others better."
"Que Va," the boy said. "There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you."
(Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, Google Books)
As hyperbole, this is an exaggeration of Santiago's skills; he is certainly a very good fisherman, because of his age and his experience, but he is only one man and getting old. In Santiago, however, Manolin sees more than the sum of his experience, but the drive of his soul and his passion for his work. Despite his fishing skills themselves, which may easily be simply "good," Manolin designates him as the ultimate fisherman, the one to whom every other fisherman should look for guidance.
What ennobles a man and makes him a success is his perseverance against overwhelming odds. Whether the central character, Santiago, wins or loses his battle with the great fish is less important than waging a good and honorable fight. Critics have interpreted this theme in many ways, seeing Santiago as a Ulysses or a Jason accepting a formidable challenge and seeing it through to the end–or as Hemingway himself fighting back against literary critics. Santiago's struggle has also been interpreted as the struggle of every human being against an inscrutable universe–the same struggle as Ahab in Moby Dick. However one describes the theme, there can be no gainsaying that Hemingway wished to compare Santiago with Christ in His struggle to redeem fallen man. Santiago, weighted down with the “sin” of 84 days of failure at sea, undergoes a three-day ordeal–suffering piercing injury to the palms of his hands and back, experiencing raging thirst, enduring the “gibes” of a mob (the attacking sharks), and staggering and falling as he bears his mast across the beach.