Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
The moon is still shining as Santiago dresses and walks to the boy’s house to wake him. After the boy carries the gear, which he has helped do since he was five, they have coffee. Santiago is confident this will be the day he will catch a fish. While the boy, Manolin, gets the sardines and baits, Santiago enjoys his coffee, the only sustenance he will have for the day. Other than a bottle of water, the old man brings no food with him on his boat. Eating bores him; water is all he needs.
Manolin returns and Santiago is ready to fish. As he rows he hears others silently rowing as well. He hears the hissing of the flying fish, his “principle friends in the ocean.” He feels sorry for the birds who are always looking but rarely finding; he believes the ocean is too strong for such delicate creatures. The Spanish name for the ocean is la mar, which is what the old man calls her as a term of endearment. Those who see fishing as just a business call it el mar, the masculine name. Others speak unkindly of her, but Santiago does not. He sees the ocean as a woman, good-natured but often capricious.
He has rowed quickly, and he stops where the albacore and bonita school. He hopes for a big marlin among them. His baits are out, one at forty, one at seventy-five, and one at one hundred, and the last at one hundred twenty-five fathoms. The baits are on the hooks and the sardines are covering any exposed steel; everything on the hook is tempting, and each line rests on a stick so he will see it dip when a fish pulls on the bait. He has more than three hundred fathoms of line coiled in his skiff.
As the sun rises, Santiago rows steadily to keep the baits in straight lines, unlike those of other fishermen. He has had no luck, but he thinks he would rather be exact than lucky: “then when luck comes you are ready.” He continues rowing and sees only a few other boats, much closer to shore. A man-of-war bird is circling nearby, and Santiago rows in that direction. Flying fish leap and they are too quick for the bird; a great school of dolphins is chasing the flying fish. Santiago baits a small hook with a sardine in hopes of catching something smaller; he hopes his big fish is somewhere near him. Below him in the water he sees plankton, which is a sure sign of fish; he also sees stinging jellyfish, something he hates. Turtles eat the bad jellyfish, and Santiago loves turtles. Though they are slow they are not stupid, and their heart beats for hours after they have been butchered. Santiago eats the turtles and the eggs in May to be strong for the fall fishing season. Each day he also drinks a cup of fish liver oil from the common barrel; most fishermen do not like the taste, but Santiago knows the oil will help him stay healthy.
Suddenly fish start jumping and frothing the water ahead of the boat, and the small line the old man dropped is heavy with an albacore. Santiago swings him into the boat. He tells himself the ten-pounder will make a good bait, and then he thinks about when he began talking to himself. He probably began when the boy left him, but he knows he is not crazy. This is no time for daydreaming, though, and he watches the fish move quickly to the northeast. He must fish well today to break the unlucky streak.
Suddenly one of his lines dips sharply, and Santiago is alert and watching. He places his hands on the line but does not apply any pressure; six hundred feet below, a marlin is eating the sardines covering the hook. Santiago holds the line delicately in his weathered hands so the marlin feels nothing. He thinks it must be a huge fish to be this far out at this time of the year. The great fish bites delicately, turns, then bites again; finally he takes the hook in the side of his mouth and dives down very quickly. The rope slides through Santiago’s hands and the marlin goes even deeper. When he knows the hook is in the fish’s mouth, the old man pulls hard on the line to set the hook. “Nothing happened.” It is noon.
Santiago is afraid to do more right now, and he is being towed out to sea by the fish. He is thankful the fish is heading out rather than down, and he braces the rope across his back in case the fish decides to dive. Santiago knows this must be exhausting the fish, but four hours pass and the fish is still towing the small boat out to sea. In all that time, though he keeps the rope taut against his back, Santiago does not see the fish. When he is thirsty, he crawls to the bow and gets some water. The old man hopes the fish will surface soon, as he can no longer see land and he misses the boy. But he is not worried, for he can navigate by the glow of Havana’s lights. The fish will have to surface sometime—if not before sundown, then by moonlight; if not by moonlight, then at sunrise. Santiago is not worried, for he is strong and he has no cramps.
As the sun goes down it gets cold. Santiago slides a rough sack across his back under the rope. The fish is still moving eastward, and the old man can no longer see the lights of Havana. He wonders about today’s baseball games then reminds himself to stay focused. He wishes the boy were here to help and to experience this great fish.
In the dark, Santiago hears a pair of porpoises blowing near the boat. They and the flying fish are his brothers. He begins to feel sorry for the great fish who is “wonderful and strange” and must know he has been hooked. “I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?” He recalls catching a female marlin and seeing the male marlin sorrowful at the loss of his mate. He and the boy were sad for the fish and promptly butchered her. He thinks of the fish on his line and knows they each made a choice and are now connected in this journey. During the night something takes another of the baits, but Santiago has to strain and carefully cut the line and reconnect the ropes too quickly to know what it might have been. Once the fish makes a great lurch that causes the old man to hit the bottom of the boat, where he gets a cut on his face. He knows he will stay with this fish until one of them is dead.
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