Santiago is an elderly fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching a fish. For the first 40 days, a boy named Manolin worked with Santiago. But Manolin's parents forced him to leave Santiago and start working on a "luckier" boat. Even so, at the end of every day Manolin still helps Santiago carry his empty skiff (boat) in from the water.
The novella's opening establishes the Santiago and Manolin's devoted friendship. The number 40 is significant in the Bible, and Santiago's 40 days of bad luck parallels Christ's 40 days in the desert.
Santiago's face and hands are deeply scarred from so many years of handling fishing gear and heavy fish. Everything about him is old, except his eyes, which are the same color as the sea and are "cheerful and undefeated."
After Santiago's 84th unsuccessful day, Manolin once again helps him to bring in his skiff and gear. Manolin tells Santiago that he has made a bit of money working on the "luckier" boat, and offers to rejoin Santiago. He says that his father lacks faith, which is why he forced Manolin to switch to the other boat. Santiago advises him to stay with the luckier boat, but the two agree that they have faith that Santiago will catch something soon.
Santiago's faith in his own skills and abilities allows him to fight off the hopelessness that might otherwise come from his bad fishing luck. Manolin's offer to return to work with Santiago, despite the likelihood that working with Santiago would make him less money, shows the depth of their friendship.
Manolin offers to buy Santiago a beer on the Terrace, a restaurant near the docks. The other fishermen at the restaurant make fun of Santiago's troubles, but Manolin disregards them. He reminisces with Santiago about the time they first started fishing together, when Manolin was five years old. Manolin says he still wants to help Santiago and offers to get Santiago fresh sardines for bait. Santiago initially refuses, but then finally agrees to accept two pieces of bait.
The other fishermen see Santiago as a defeated old man. Manolin's faith in Santiago helps Santiago ignore these insults, just as later it helps him endure his struggle against the marlin. Santiago refuses Manolin's offer at first out of pride. He wants to be self-sufficient. His acceptance of the offer later shows his desperation.
Over their beers, Santiago tells Manolin that he will be fishing far out in the sea the next day. Manolin says he will try to get the man he is fishing with to go far out as well since the man has bad vision and will follow the boy's recommendations. Manolin wonders how Santiago's vision can be so good after so many years of fishing. Santiago replies, "I am a strange old man."
Santiago's desire to fish far out shows his desperation to catch a fish, even at the risk of danger. If something dangerous occurs, there will be no help—it will be just Santiago and the sea. Santiago's good vision again emphasizes his youthful qualities despite his age.
After they finish the beer, Manolin helps Santiago carry his equipment up the road to Santiago's sparsely furnished shack. On the wall are two paintings: one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which belonged to Santiago's wife, and another of the patron saint of Cuba. Santiago has taken down a photograph of his wife that used to hang on the wall because it made him too lonely to see it.
The paintings suggest that Santiago's wife was more religious than he, but that he may have adopted her faith as a way of remembering her. That Santiago feels too lonely to even look at his wife's photograph shows how empty his life is, besides his friendship with Manolin.
After going through the same dinner ritual they follow every night: Santiago offers Manolin some food, which Manolin declines because Santiago doesn't really have any food at all.
The dinner ritual allows Santiago to play the role of gracious host and to resist the sense of defeat that might come from having no food.
They then sit on the porch and read about baseball in the newspaper. Santiago tells Manolin he will have a good catch the next day, his 85th day without luck, and Manolin jokingly asks why he isn't holding out for 87 days, to break his longest unlucky streak. Santiago replies that such an unlucky streak could not happen twice.
Baseball is Santiago's pastime and distraction because, like fishing, it is a game of streaks and luck, and yet, in the end, a player's skill is most important.
Manolin leaves to get the sardines he promised Santiago. When he returns, it is dark and Santiago is asleep on the porch. Manolin covers him with a blanket, noticing that with the old man's eyes closed there is no life in his face. Soon Santiago wakes, and Manolin gives him some food that Martin, the owner of the Terrace, has provided as a gift. Santiago asks if Martin has given them food before, and Manolin says he has. Santiago sleepily says he must thank the owner by giving him the belly meat of a big fish.
That Santiago seems lifeless with eyes closed shows that his youthfulness is internal—in his mind and memories only. Santiago's inability to recall whether Martin has given him food shows how old he truly is, but his promise to repay the gift with good meat from a fish shows that he still has the pride and determination of a young man.
Manolin reminds himself to bring Santiago water, soap, and a towel, as well as a new shirt, jacket and shoes.
Manolin's devotion to Santiago is profound.
Santiago then reminisces about his time as a youth on a ship that sailed to Africa, and about the lions he saw on the beaches there.
The powerful lions symbolize Santiago's youth. Also note that a group of lions is called a pride.
But Manolin wants to talk more about baseball. They talk about Joe DiMaggio, who is Santiago's favorite player and whose father was a fisherman. They then debate the best manager in baseball.
DiMaggio was revered for his grace, humility, terrific skill, and willingness to play through injury—traits Santiago shares.
Manolin breaks in to say that he thinks Santiago is the best fisherman. Santiago humbly disagrees, but acknowledges that although he is no longer strong he has "tricks" and "resolution."
When Manolin leaves, Santiago wraps himself in the blanket and lies down on the newspapers that cover the springs of his bed. He no longer dreams of storms, women, fish, fights, or his wife. He dreams only "of places now and of the lions on the beach" in Africa.