The biggest, fastest, most dangerous game fish in the sea is the billfish and the largest of all billfish is the marlin. They top speeds of 60 miles an hour on migrations that can span 9,000 miles. The largest, always female, weigh in at over 1,000 pounds, and are known as ‘granders’. Ernest Hemingway immortalized the grander in The Old Man and the Sea, which is a story about an elderly fisherman locked in a life and death struggle with this apex predator. To Hemingway’s great disappointment, he himself never landed a grander, although his novella captures the impact of this huge and graceful creature.
The story begins with an old man named Santiago living in Cuba during the 1950’s, whose wife has died, and he apparently has no children. He is a fisherman who has had a string of bad luck, as he has not caught a fish in 84 days, whereas the other fishermen are catching fish almost every day. Santiago is a native of the Canary Islands, who made frequent trips to the coast of Africa, but he is not eating very much. This old man goes to sleep dreaming of the lions he used to see back in the day when he visited Africa. He wakes before sunrise and does what every fishermen does, gets in his small boat and heads out to fish.
Santiago’s past life hasn’t been easy, so he’s been toughened, accustomed to hardship and he is able to accept it easily. He is an old, seasoned Cuban fisherman, that maintains a positive attitude, as he sets out to sea and goes fishing every day, even though he keeps on returning empty-handed. Santiago is a dedicated fisherman whose craft is integral to his own identity, his code of behavior, and nature’s order. The old man works harder than any of the other fisherman, but despite the hard work, he just doesn’t catch fish. It is so obvious that he is unlucky, that the parents of his young, devoted apprentice and friend, Manolin, have forced the boy to leave the old man in order to fish in a more prosperous boat. Nevertheless, the boy continues to care for the old man upon his return each night. He helps the old man tote his gear to his ramshackle hut, secures food for him, and discusses the latest developments in American baseball, especially the trials of the old man’s hero, Joe DiMaggio. Santiago is confident that his unproductive streak will soon come to an end, and he resolves to sail out farther than usual the following day.
Santiago is not a religious man, it is unclear whether or not he actually believes in God, or if he does practice religion. It seems likely that he does believe in God, because he mentions God often throughout his struggle and he speaks to Him. He says, “I am not religious, but I will say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Mary’s that I should catch this fish, and I promise to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin de Cobre (Patroness of Cuba) if I catch him. That is a promise.” Santiago reciting Christian prayers is anything but superficial, although he does say his prayers mechanically. Sometimes he would be so tired that he could not remember the prayer and then be would say them fast, so that they would come automatically. He thought that Hail Mary’s were easier to say than Our Fathers. The sea is Santiago’s dwelling place, and his connection to the sea gives him all the spirituality that he needs.
On the eighty-fifth day of his unlucky streak, Santiago does as promised, sailing his skiff far beyond the island’s shallow coastal waters and venturing into the Gulf Stream. He prepares his lines and drops them. At noon, a big fish, which he knows is a marlin, takes the bait that Santiago has placed one hundred fathoms deep in the waters. The old man expertly hooks a really, really, ridiculously big fish, the largest marlin he’s ever seen, but he cannot pull it in. He works harder than any other fisherman would have to catch this giant marlin, and any other fisherman would have given up, on this earth-shattering struggle of mythical proportions, and then the fish begins to pull his boat.
Unable to tie the line fast to the boat for fear the fish would snap a taut line, the old man bears the strain of the line with his shoulders, back, and hands, ready to give slack should the marlin make a run. The fish pulls the boat all through the day, through the night, through another day, and through another night. It swims steadily northwest until at last it tires and swims east with the current. The entire time, Santiago endures constant pain from the fishing line. Whenever the fish lunges, leaps, or makes a dash for freedom, the cord cuts Santiago badly. Although wounded and weary, the old man feels a deep empathy and admiration for the marlin, his brother in suffering, because of its strength and resolve.
On the third day the fish tires, and Santiago, sleep-deprived, aching, and nearly delirious, manages to pull the marlin in close enough to kill it with a harpoon thrust. The old man sees the fish as his brother, not his enemy, yet he never wavers in his resolution to kill the thing. Dead beside the skiff, the marlin is the largest Santiago has ever seen. He lashes it to his boat, raises the small mast, and sets sail for home. While Santiago is excited by the price that the marlin will bring at market, he is more concerned that the people who will eat the fish are unworthy of its greatness.
As Santiago sails on with the fish, the marlin’s blood leaves a trail in the water and attracts sharks. The first to attack is a great mako shark, which Santiago manages to slay with the harpoon. In the struggle, the old man loses the harpoon and lengths of valuable rope, which leaves him vulnerable to other shark attacks. The old man fights off the successive vicious predators as best he can, stabbing at them with a crude spear he makes by lashing a knife to an oar, and even clubbing them with the boat’s tiller. Although he kills several sharks, more and more appear, and by the time night falls, Santiago’s continued fight against the scavengers is useless. Despite the old man’s best efforts the fish is entirely gone by the time he gets back to land. The marlin’s precious meat has been devoured, leaving only its skeleton, head, and tail. Even though he works harder than anyone else, and even though he actually catches the big fish, he ends up with nothing at the end. Santiago chastises himself for going out too far, and for sacrificing his great and worthy opponent. He arrives home before daybreak, stumbles back to his shack, and sleeps very deeply.
The next morning, a crowd of amazed fishermen gathers around the skeletal carcass of the fish, which is still lashed to the boat. Knowing nothing of the old man’s struggle, tourists at a nearby café observe the remains of the giant marlin and mistake it for a shark. Manolin, who has been worried sick over the old man’s absence, is moved to tears when he finds Santiago safe in his bed. The boy fetches the old man some coffee and the daily papers with the baseball scores, and watches him sleep. When the old man wakes, the two agree to fish as partners once more. The old man returns to sleep and dreams his usual dream of the same lions of his youth at play on the beaches of Africa.
The old man is struggling against age, poverty, loneliness, and mortality to maintain his identity and dignity, reestablish his reputation in the community, and ensure for all time his relationship with those he loves and to whom he hopes to pass on everything he values most. Ultimately, Santiago’s heroic struggle not only redeems himself but inspires and spiritually enriches those around him.