When Santiago returns to town after his encounter with the fish, he is physically exhausted. Investing all his energy in catching the huge marlin left him spent. Because he was not able to bring the fish back intact, he will not realize any profit on the venture. Although Ernest Hemingway has deliberately left the ending ambiguous, it is likely that Santiago may never regain his strength and that the epic battle with the fish was the last of his life. For all that, however, as he rested his chin on the boat, “he was happy.”
The question of “defeat” needs to be contextualized. Santiago’s struggle with the fish is in many ways as important as winning or losing. The man suffers some injuries in the course of battle, including to his hands, but he is not resentful. Santiago recognizes an evenly matched opponent in the fish, so when he triumphs, he realizes that he has scored a significant victory. Sadly, the sharks emerge as the true victors: it is to them, not the fish, that Santiago finally loses. By the time they finish with the fish and the old man has reached the village, he has almost no strength left.
The fisherman’s concern throughout the battle is more with the competition, but he does think of the money. When he realizes how large the fish he has hooked is, he thinks of the potential income.
But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good.
After the sharks attack the fish and ruin him, Santiago feels like his luck is gone and wonders if he could buy some. He takes stock of what he has that could be used for such a purchase and comes up with few assets.
Could I buy it [luck] with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?
Still he must use his remaining strength to fight off the final pack of sharks, and after that, he feels the weight of defeat: “He knew he was beaten now finally and without remedy.”
Once he reaches his village, he can barely walk with the weight of the mast he is carrying, stopping repeatedly before he reaches his shack and his bed. In the morning when he speaks with the boy, he tells him that something broke inside his chest, as well as about damaging his hands. The boy feels confident that they will fish again together, and Santiago allows him to make plans.