The small cast of characters in The Old Man and the Sea consists of Santiago, the old fisherman, and Manolin, the boy who has fished with him for years. Though the old man hits a run of bad luck, Manolin still wishes to fish with him. But Manolin’s parents demand that he fish with a more successful boat.
Other important characters come to life in Santiago’s mind. Santiago speaks to and loves the flying fish, the dolphins, and the noble marlin. Santiago also speaks to the sharks, but he meets their malignancy with enmity. The sea is also a character, perhaps the major presence in the book. Santiago thinks of the sea as a woman, thinks of it “as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her,” while the younger fisherman think of the sea as the masculine “el mar ” and consider it “a contestant or a place or even an enemy.” The famous New York Yankee of the 1930s and 1940s, Joe DiMaggio, maintains a symbolic presence in the novel, often in Santiago’s thoughts. Despite the pain of his bone spur, DiMaggio plays great baseball. Santiago, too, perseveres in spite of his age and “bad luck.”
The book’s best-known line sums up its most important theme: “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Hemingway suggests that, although a person may be stripped of everything in the process of living, a quest conducted with skill, courage, and endurance can guarantee the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Hemingway rejects the traditional happy ending in which Santiago, the impoverished old fisherman, would bring home the great fish intact and sell it for a large amount of money at market. Instead, Santiago brings only the bare skeleton of the marlin into port, earning no money yet garnering a far greater prize: rather than triumphing over nature, he achieves oneness with it.
Other important themes in the book center on the master-apprentice relationship between Santiago and Manolin. The old man has taught the boy many important things-how to fish with skill and precision, and how to live with wisdom and dignity-but the old man also has great need for the boy, especially when he is alone at sea and takes the great fish. During his trying experience with the marlin, the old man repeatedly says, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.” The thematic statement, “No one should be alone in their old age,” refers to the old man’s solitude and emphasizes the characters’ relationship of mutual respect and love.
Another major theme is the kinship of all creatures. Santiago loves and respects the fish he kills. The old man finds it difficult to express the paradoxical love he feels for the fish: “I do not understand these things,” he thinks, “but it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.”