Yes, we know, everyone’s wondering why the old man spends three days with a fishing line stretched tight across his back, bleeding from three places and eating raw, unsalted and nauseating fish bait. It’s a good question. The easy answer is that the old man hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days and he’s pretty much going to starve to death if he doesn’t catch something soon. But we don’t really see starvation as much of a threat. The old man doesn’t eat much anyway, and Manolin’s got his back. So there are far, far bigger things at stake here.
But, you say, what could possibly be bigger than the basic human need to eat? Plenty. Let’s start with pride, or the need to prove oneself. The old man used to be El Campeon – the "Shaft" of the fishing community. And now he’s just an old man that young guys laugh at. That’s not a chip on your shoulder – that’s an entire bag of Doritos you’re carrying up there. The old man has to prove that he’s still got what it takes.
Let’s start here. We only hear the name ‘Santiago’ four times: three from the boy, and one really interesting occurrence when the old man is recalling his epic arm wrestling match. That the boy calls him ‘Santiago’ makes sense – "hey old man" isn’t exactly a name for your mentor and fishing guru, is it? But the other time we hear his name is from the narrator, and it’s only once. We are told of the time in Casablanca when the old man "was not an old man […] but was Santiago El Campeon [The Champion]." Hmm. It looks like the old man has come to be defined by his age. And it looks like in his battle with the marlin, he’s trying to be The Champion again, instead of the old man. But he never loses his name; he’s still "the old man" by the end of the text. So did he fail? Or can he be "the old man" and El Campeon at the same time?
The old man is never really hungry. He doesn’t eat, and he tells the boy he is used to fishing and competing in otherwise physically exhausting tasks without a morsel. Amazing. It makes the old man almost superhuman. Or, you could say, it makes him like an ascetic, a person who denies himself indulgences generally for religious reasons. Where’s the religion part, you ask? What a great essay topic!
Moving on. The old man does at times eat, just not for the reasons that normal people do. He takes no pleasure in the act, and repeatedly forces himself into it for the sole purpose of gaining strength. The old man is single-minded in this goal. It gets more interesting when you compare him to the marlin, who is trapped by his own hunger (that’s how fish get caught, right?). The marlin got screwed for eating the bait, but the old man ends up eating the same fish he used for bait – just like the marlin. It’s almost as if the two are being compared…