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The sea is the natural element of the old man, since he has been a fisherman all his life. However, its role is antithetical since it is both a provider and a threat at the same time. Santiago must battle against the elements of nature intrinsic with the sea (storms, extreme heat, attacks from sharks, hunger and thirst) and be found "tried and true." Santiago's experience is on the conflict level of man versus nature, but it is also an internal battle of the will, which he indeed wins - even if he has lost the biggest catch he ever had.
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