Illustration of a marlin in the water

The Old Man and the Sea

by Ernest Hemingway

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The main characters in The Old Man and the Sea are Santiago, Manolin, and the marlin.

  • Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman, isn’t daunted by his recent bad luck. He catches an enormous marlin and struggles for several days to bring it to shore.
  • Manolin, Santiago’s former apprentice, was forced to leave Santiago when his father demanded he work for a luckier fisherman. He continues to bring Santiago food and bait and plans to fish with him again at the end.
  • The marlin, Santiago’s adversary and “brother,” is the largest marlin Santiago has ever seen.

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Characters Discussed

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Santiago (sahn-tee-AH-goh), an old Cuban fisherman, is the protagonist. He is a simple man who loves and respects the sea and all the life within it. On his search for the great marlin, his young friend Manolin fishes with him for forty days, but then Santiago fishes alone among the elements. After eighty-four days of fishing without a catch, the old man’s patience is rewarded. He hooks a huge marlin but then must engage in an exhausting three-day struggle with it. In his battle with the marlin, Santiago begins to identify with the fish, feeling a brotherhood with it and almost a sense of guilt about the idea of killing it. This feeling of solidarity and interdependence between the old man and the marlin pervades the action of the story. The old man’s heroic individualism and his love for his fellow creatures is evident throughout. After finally harpooning it, he attaches the marlin to the bow and stern of his boat, but sharks begin to devour his catch. Santiago’s next battle, with the sharks, proves impossible to win, and Santiago reaches shore with only a skeleton, worthless except as a symbol of his victory. In his struggle with the giant marlin, Santiago pushes himself to the limits of his physical and mental endurance. A man with native intelligence and a strong will to survive, Santiago bears tragedy with great humility and dignity.


Manolin (mahn-oh-LEEN) is a young Cuban boy whom Santiago teaches to fish. He becomes Santiago’s fishing partner and fishes with the old man until the young man’s father forbids it. He becomes Santiago’s closest and most devoted friend, and Santiago becomes the boy’s substitute father. Manolin is so devoted to the old man that he begs and steals so that the old man does not go hungry; he also finds fresh bait for Santiago. In the time they spend together, Santiago and the boy talk at length about fishing, hunting, American baseball, and one of the old man’s heroes, Joe DiMaggio, the great Yankee outfielder. In his discussion of DiMaggio, Santiago wishes to teach Manolin about physical and psychological endurance, about being a “team player,” and about being a champion.

The Marlin

The marlin is an eighteen-foot fish weighing more than a thousand pounds, the largest ever caught in the Gulf Stream. Santiago views the marlin as a mixture of incredible beauty and deadly violence. He and the marlin are equal partners in the battle of human against nature. They both emerge as heroes.


Martin (mahr-TEEN) is the owner of the Terrace. He gives food to Manolin to give to Santiago.


Pedrico (peh-DREE-koh) is a fisherman to whom Santiago gives the marlin’s head, for use in his fish traps.


Rogelio (rroh-HEH-lee-oh) is a young boy who once helped Santiago with his fish nets.


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In this short novel (or novella), the cast of characters is small. Everything centers on Santiago, and it is through his consciousness that the world of the narrative comes alive. Santiago’s character is unambiguous, straightforward, as clearly and roundly realized and present as the sea. His character is revealed in his sharp, clear, “cheerful,” “undefeated” eyes which are “the same color as the sea.” There are many memorable formulations of Santiago’s character, such as the following: “He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.” Aside from his simplicity, in the best sense of the word, and his dignity and humility, he has specific physical skills and knowledge as a fisherman, as well as discipline, determination, strength, and endurance. Also, although not all critics have grasped the point, he possesses a profound spirituality which is made evident in ways besides the obvious Christ-figure symbolism Hemingway employs. For example, when Santiago says his prayers—repeatedly—he also says, “I am not religious,” even as he says his prayers. The point is not that he does not value his prayers, as some critics have concluded, but that he is a ritual-centered Catholic believer; that is to say, he may not be “religious,” but he is devout.

Although Manolin is the only other important character (and a minor one indeed in terms of narrative presence), he is crucial to the exemplar-apprentice scheme of characterization. When one thinks back over the novel, Manolin seems to be present much more than he actually is; simply put, he is always present in Santiago’s consciousness, and he is, in the deepest sense, Santiago’s son and heir, inheritor of the burden of Santiago’s wisdom and knowledge and values. A few other characters figure as symbolic presences through Santiago’s consciousness—most notably Joe DiMaggio, who serves Santiago as a kind of exemplar, who plays baseball with great skill and courage in spite of his suffering and pain. Finally, there are the uncomprehending tourists on the last two pages of the novel, the man and the woman who confuse the skeletal remains of the noble marlin with the malignant shark, serving to make Hemingway’s point that the ignorant, uninitiated observer is always likely to confuse good and evil, to reduce tragedy and nobility to triviality and banality.

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