Santiago is an old man. He was once a great fisherman, but no longer. The other fishermen ridicule him, or ignore him. Eighty days without a fish, and the parents of the small boy who helps him, Manolin, have forbidden him to work with Santiago any more. He is unlucky, they say, and the word is echoed around town.
But the old fisherman does not mind. He knows that life is difficult, that not everything goes the way you wish it would. On the eighty-fifth day, he sets out into the water, alone, and hooks a great fish. 'Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely', he muses to himself, early on in the battle. For it is a battle. The fish he has caught is strong, has great endurance, and a cunning that Santiago admires.
As time passes, he starts to talk to himself more and more. He muses on the strength of the fish, and how they are brothers. He desperately wants to catch it, so that he can return to Havana with some glory and enough money to sit and listen to the 'great DiMaggio' on the radio, in peace. But he also admires the fish, and gradually, he becomes unsure as to whether he has made the right decision in trying so hard to kill it.
'Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.'
Santiago is an old man, a man who has accepted his weaknesses and failures, but who also knows his strengths. He has a great confidence in his own abilities, but it is a weary, hesitant confidence that is difficult to explain. On the one hand, he knows that he has the capability to capture the fish. He has caught large fish before, and, thanks to the raw fish he has been eating, considers that he has the strength to keep going, for ever if necessary. But he protests and cajoles and pleads at his individual body parts to work, for them not to fail. 'Hold up, legs. Last for me, head. Last for me. You never went.' He knows he can do it, but, because of his age and the majesty of his 'brother', he is worried that maybe this time, this fish will be the one that got away.
Hemingway's writing is sparse and effective. Sentences are short, sharp, and have very little in the way of flowery words or fancy punctuation. The writing suits the story very well, because Santiago is an up and down man himself. What you see is what you get, both in the characters, the setting, and the writing. There is also the interesting effect where, due to the simplicity of the writing and the sparse selection of characters, the story can be interpreted on many levels. On one, it is the story of man struggling and fighting for something that, once achieved, we cannot hold on to. On the other, it is the sadness and inevitability of age. Or the insignificance of the single man in today's group-action world. Or many other interpretations.
The ending is sad, beautiful and completely appropriate. Could the novel have ended any other way? Yes, but I argue that if it had, then the message, the electricity, the purpose that Hemingway had been building for the previous 90 pages, this would have been lost with the easy, happy solution. Instead, we have man's failure in success, and Santiago's calm acceptance, and it is inspiring. Pick up a copy of this thoughtful, beautifully written novel. Another book I need to recommend -- completely unrelated to Hemingway, but very much on my mind since I purchased a "used" copy off Amazon is "The Losers' Club: Complete Restored Edition," a somewhat raw, but oddly engaging little novel I can't stop thinking about.