Santiago is a poverty-stricken Cuban fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching any fish. The other fishermen feel either contempt or pity for him, and his best friend, a boy named Manolin, has been forbidden to fish with him anymore because of his bad luck. Nonetheless, the boy idolizes the old man and spends as much time with him as possible when they’re on shore, taking care of him and talking to him of American baseball and especially of “the great DiMaggio,” whose father was a fisherman.
Santiago sets out to sea alone, determining that he will fish farther out than the other fishermen do. He sets his lines and waits—and finally hooks a large fish. Although he has not seen the fish, he feels a spiritual connection with it, and his respect for it grows as it pulls him farther and farther from shore. For two days and two nights the fish pulls Santiago, who never releases his grip on the line. Finally the huge marlin, the largest fish Santiago has ever seen, surfaces and fights for his life. The old man overcomes his own physical and mental exhaustion as well as the fish’s great strength and finally harpoons him.
Because the fish is too large to fit into the old man’s skiff, he ties it to the side and turns back to shore. After only an hour, the first shark attacks. One after another, first singly, then in groups, sharks maul his catch. Santiago, pushed past anything human endurance could be expected to withstand, knowing he is beaten, continually fights them off, killing some but losing his harpoon and knife in the process. The sharks win: by the time Santiago gets back to shore, all that’s left of the eighteen-foot fish is his head, his backbone, and his tail.
Reaching his village late at night, the old man drags himself home and collapses. The next morning Manolin brings him food and encouragement, weeping when he sees the old man’s battered hands.
When Santiago awakes, he says, “They beat me, Manolin. . . . They truly beat me.” In reality, though, the old man has been “destroyed but not defeated.” The whole village has seen the great fish's skeleton and understands Santiago's achievement. He will fish again, and, in spite of his parents’ prohibition, Manolin will join the old man from now on: “I’ll bring the luck with me,” he promises.