No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
In light of this, it might be said that if The Old Man and the Sea is read according to the mode in which Hemingway wrote it, there are no symbols. However current critical theory emphasizes reading literature from a perspective contemporaneous with the reader's experience: reading literature from one's immediate current experience. Therefore in a reading in accordance with this critical view, there are some significant symbols in the novella The Old Man and the Sea. Also in accordance with this critical view, there is more than one approach to recognizing symbols and each approach is tied to the theme it emphasizes.
For instance in one critical opinion the symbols support a theme of ultimate victory in the face of the human condition in which Santiago symbolizes a Christ-like figure who is struggling to fulfill the injunction found in Genesis to have dominion over nature, yet is hindered by humanity's suffering, which was introduced into the world by the original sin propagated in the Garden of Eden. Manolin is the devoted and loving disciple of Santiago, while the blue marlin symbolizes the natural world that Santiago is meant to have dominance over, and the sharks symbolize the suffering unleashed by original sin.
Another interpretation builds different symbology around the theme of humankind's noble struggle against encroaching defeat and death. In this interpretation, Santiago symbolizes the conquering warrior, a Beowulf-type figure engaged in a continual combat against opposing forces. Manolin symbolizes his loyal squire and friend. The marlin symbolizes the mighty Grendel-type opponent, the opponent of a lifetime. The sharks symbolize encroaching defeat and death.