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Santiago's relationship with the sea is essentially an existential one; he exists because of the sea that provides him with food, as a fisherman, his being is defined by his relationship with the sea, and his happiness and sorrow depend upon his successes and failures on the sea. Indeed, it is the sea that is Santiago's essence and gives meaning to his life.
Because of this inextricable, but variegated connection to the sea, Santiago anthropomorphizes the sea as "La Mer" which is what people call it in Spanish when they love the ocean:
...the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help....
Therefore, since Santiago conceives of the ocean as the source of life and meaning, the struggle of the old man with the fish in the sea becomes a metaphor for the existential struggle of man in life. Having gone eighty-four days without a catch, Santiago is viewed by the other fishermen as "unlucky," cursed, and a failure. That is, with his life threatened by starvation, Santiago's existence has little meaning. However, when he catches the great Marlin, Santiago is renewed in his manhood, his life regains its meaning and value. Because Santiago's hope and luck is renewed, even though the shark steals the meat of the fish, he can still dream of the lions and hope.
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