There is an old fisherman in Cuba called Santiago, who has gone eighty-four days without a catch. He is "thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck...and his hands had deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert" (10). Santiago's lack of success, though, does not destroy his spirit, and he has "cheerful and undefeated" eyes (10).
He has a single friend, a boy named Manolin, who helped him during the first forty days of his dryspell. After forty days, though, Manolin's parents decide the old man was unlucky and ordered their son to join another boat. Despite this, the boy helps the old man to bring in his empty boat every day.
After earning money on the other boat, Manolin asks Santiago if he can return to the old man's service. Santiago refuses the boy, telling him to mind his parents and to stay with the successful boat. Santiago tells Manolin that tomorrow he will go out far in the Gulf to fish. Manolin says that he will try to convince his new employer, who is nearly blind, to fish near Santiago the next day. That way, if Santiago catches a big fish, Manolin and his new employer can help Santiago manage it.
Manolin offers to fetch sardines for the old man, an offer which Santiago first refuses and then accepts. Hemingway tells us that "[Santiago] was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride" (14).
The two gather Santiago's things from his boat and go to the old man's house. His house is a very simple shack with a bed, table, and chair on a dirt floor. There are also religious pictures and a tinted photograph on the wall, relics of his wife. The picture that used to hang on the wall of Santiago's wife had been taken down, since it made him too lonely to look at it.
At the house, the two rehearse a nightly ritual of speaking about fictitious rice and fish and a cast net. They sold the cast net long ago, but they still insist on speaking of it as if it is there. The boy decides to go out to get the sardines for them to eat.
Santiago then pulls out a paper and the two discuss baseball, speaking with great enthusiasm of Joe DiMaggio. Santiago tells Manolin not to fear the Cleveland Indians, but to have faith in the Yankees and trust in DiMaggio. He tells Manolin that eighty-five is a lucky number, and since tomorrow is "the eighty-fifth day" that he will have gone without a catch, maybe they should buy a lottery ticket with that number. Manolin leaves the house and Santiago falls asleep.
The first sentence of the book announces itself as Hemingway's: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish" (9). The words are plain, and the structure, two tightly-worded independent clauses conjoined by a simple conjunction, is ordinary, traits which characterize Hemingway's literary style. While in other works this economy of language is used to convey the immediacy of experience, Hemingway's terseness is heightened here to the point of rendering much of the prose empty on one level and pregnant with meaning on the other; that is, the sentences tend to lose their particular connection to reality but at the same time attain a more general, symbolic character, much like the effect of poetry. Hemingway's style, then, helps explain why so many commentators view his novella more as a fable than as fiction.
The use of the number forty in the next sentence is the first of many religious allusions in the novella. We are told that after forty days (the length of time it took Christ to subdue Satan in the desert), Manolin's parents decided that "the old man was now and definitely salao, which is the worst form of unlucky" (9). This sentence proclaims one of the novel's themes, the heroic struggle against unchangeable fate. Indeed, the entire first paragraph emphasizes Santiago's apparent lack of success. For example, "It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty." And most powerfully, "The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat" (9).
This type of descriptive degradation of Santiago continues with details of his old, worn body. Even his scars, legacies of past successes, are "old as erosions in a fishless desert" (10). All this changes suddenly, though, when Hemingway says masterfully, "Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated" (10). This draws attention to a dichotomy between two different types of success: outer, material success and inner, spiritual success. While Santiago clearly lacks the former, the import of this lack is eclipsed by his possession of the later. This triumph of indefatigable spirit over exhaustible material resources is another important theme of the novel. Also, Santiago's eye color foreshadows Hemingway's increasingly explicit likening of Santiago to the sea, suggesting an analogy between Santiago's indomitable spirit and the sea's boundless strength.
The relationship between Santiago and Manolin can be summed up in one sentence: "The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him" (10). Manolin is Santiago's apprentice, but their relationship is not restricted to business alone. Manolin idolizes Santiago but the object of this idolization is not only the once great though presently failed fisherman; it is an idolization of ideals. This helps explain Manolin's unique, almost religious devotion to the old man, underscored when Manolin begs Santiago's pardon for his not fishing with the old man anymore. Manolin says, "It was Papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him," to which Santiago replies, "I know... It is quite normal. He hasn't much faith" (10).
Despite the clear hierarchy of this teacher/student relationship, Santiago does stress his equality with the boy. When Manolin asks to buy the old man a beer, Santiago replies, "Why not?... Between fisherman" (11). And when Manolin asks to help Santiago with his fishing, Santiago replies, "You are already a man" (12). By demonstrating that Santiago has little more to teach the boy, this equality foreshadows the impending separation of the two friends, and also indicates that this will not be a story about a young boy learning from an old man, but a story of an old man learning the unique lessons of the autumn of life.
A similar type of unexpected equality comes out when Hemingway describes the various ways marlins and sharks are treated on shore. While this foreshadows the struggle between Santiago's marlin and the sharks, it is also equalizes the participants. Despite the battles at sea, the marlins and sharks are both butchered and used by humans on land; their antagonisms mean nothing on shore. Like the case of Santiago and Manolin, this equalization demonstrates the novella's thematic concern with the unity of nature - including humanity - a unity which ultimately helps succor the heroic victim of great tragedy.
Hemingway also peppers the novella with numerous references to sight. We are told, for instance, that Santiago has uncannily good eyesight for a man of his age and experience, while Manolin's new employer is nearly blind. When Manolin notices this, Santiago replies simply, "I am a strange old man" (14). Given the previously mentioned analogy between Santiago's eyes and the sea, one suspects that his strangeness in this regard has something to do with his relationship to the sea. This connection, though, is somewhat problematic as it might suggest that Santiago would have success as a fisherman. Santiago's exact relation to the sea, though, will be taken up in later chapters.
The simplicity of Santiago's house further develops our view of Santiago as materially unsuccessful. It is interesting that Hemingway draws attention to the relics of Santiago's wife in his house, presenting an aspect of Santiago which is otherwise absent throughout the novel. This is significant because it suggests a certain completeness to Santiago's character which makes him more of an Everyman - appropriate for an allegory - but mentioning it simply to remove it from the stage makes its absence even more noteworthy, and one might question whether the character of Santiago is too roughly drawn to allow the reader to fully identify with his story.