“The Fish” talks about the interesting journey of the narrator who at first was just out to catch a fish, but ended up developing a deep understanding of nature and life through the fish. With the use of vivid imagery and abundant description, Elizabeth Bishop took the readers to the past struggles of the fish in order to stay alive, how its physical disfigurement reflecting those struggles translated into images of beauty and victory, and how these mental pictures elicited respect and admiration from the narrator.
True to its title, the narrator begins telling the story by talking about catching a fish.
I caught a tremendous fishand held him beside the boathalf out of water, with my hookfast in a corner of his mouth. (1-4)
This picture shows a typical event in a fishing trip, with the narrator just about to haul in a catch. However, emphasis on the fish being “tremendous” already signals the importance, next to the title itself, that will be given to the fish. From the ordinary event of catching a fish, Bishop started describing in detail the fish, first focusing on the narrator’s observation of how the fish did not struggle. “He did not fight. He hadn’t fought at all.” (5-6). Though not nearly as colorfully descriptive as the other lines in the poem, emphasis on the fact that the fish was not fighting its captivity is consistent with how Bishop “attempts to represent as closely as possible the actual appearance, sound, or texture of what is being described rather that to interpret its significance” (McNally 190). The readers are presented with the opportunity to form their own interpretation of how the fish, as opposed to most fishes which struggle and fight its captivity, has seemed to have given up the fight and has resigned itself to its fate. Similarly, Bishop points out to the alienness of the fish, as it is “half out of the water” (3). The fish is portrayed as an “alien” as it is half in the air of the human world, while half of its body is still in water, which is its own world. This description showed its significance in the preceding lines as Bishop developed an affinity to the fish.
After forming the passive image of the fish, Bishop goes on to provide the readers with an intense image of the fish. Descriptive words such as “battered,” “venerable,” and ”homely” tells how the narrator may have felt sympathy towards the fish’s situation. Then Bishop moves on to making the fish appear more familiar, likening it to household objects which hinted of the narrator’s perhaps unconscious attempt at forming a bond with the fish.
Here and therehis brown skin hung in stripslike ancient wallpaper,and its pattern of darker brownwas like wallpaper:shapes like full-blown rosesstained and lost through age. (9-11)
Likewise, Bishop also describes the beauty of the fish that has given in to decay, as with that of “ancient wallpaper” with its designs that are “stained and lost through age.” This description of ancient wallpaper is also reminiscent of “Victorian parlors and their yellowed wallpaper” (McNally 192) but serves as a more useful tool in ”evoking the associations of deterioration which usually surrounds such memories” (McNally 192).
Bishop’s analogy of beauty despite the decay continues with descriptions of the fish as being “speckled with barnacles/ fine rosettes of lime/ and infested/ with tiny white sea-lice/ and underneath two or three/ rags of green weed hung down.” The narrator recognizes the fish’s beauty despite its traces of fading, interpreting the “barnacles” as “rosettes,” a small rose which is indicative of beauty. These lines illustrated the unattractiveness of the fish, but somehow made it appear that it was a decorated object. This further domesticates the fish, bringing it closer to human world as it does not only possess “vestiges of the sea, but also the traces of a domestic, human scene” (A Psychoanalitic Reading 1).
While his gills were breathing inthe terrible oxygen- the frightening gills,fresh and crisp with blood,that can cut so badly-
Although the fisher domesticated the fish, s/he also does not “omit reminders of its potential danger” (Shwartz and Estess 169). At the same time, the fisher is also reminded of the differences between human and fish, a way o “balancing human connotation” by using “images insisting upon the fish’s alienness” (Travisano 65). This line highlights the fact that the oxygen which keeps man alive is the same thing that makes it “terrible” for the fish’s “gills,” which the fisher in turn considers “frightening.” However, this barrier does not stop the fisher from feeling empathy towards the fish. The fisher also tries to bridge their differences by looking into its eyes, an organ that both of them share.
I looked into his eyeswhich were far larger than minebut shallower, and yellowed,the irises backed and packedwith tarnished tinfoilseen through the lensesof old scratched isinglass.
The line “I looked into his eyes” indicates more of how the fisher has moved on from just observing to confronting it. Also, it shows of how the fisher moves on from the sense of alienness of the fish to making it more relatable to the human world. His/her next narration of how “They shifted a little, but not to return my stare,” but is “more like the tipping of an object toward the light” is a signal to the poem’s movement towards its climax.
More than the eyes that both of them possess, the fisher starts seeing the fish as a human. From “I admired its sullen face, the mechanism of its jaw,” the fisher’s attitude changed radically as illustrated by what s/he saw next:
that from his lower lip- if you could call it a lipgrim, wet, and weaponlike,hung five old pieces of fish-line,or four and a wire leaderwith the swivel still attached,
The fish makes its mark to the fisher, making him/her think highly of the fish. “Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering” indicates how the fisher recognizes the triumphs of the fish in staying alive despite being caught four times in the past. In here, the narrator “transforms him into a veteran fighter, a survivor of many contests who wears the remnants of old fish-lines in his lower lip like battle scars” (Schwartz and Estess 169). While the “medals with their ribbons” and the “beard of wisdom” are both tribute to his strong will to survive, it is important to note that they are both permanently attached to his “aching jaw.” This further cements the fish’s strong character as his triumphs are “intimately connected with the pain he has endured” (McNally 194). Estess comments that not only did Bishop successfully “describe the fish with great detail,” a characterisitic inherent in all her work, but she was also able to provide “an imaginative empathy” for the fish (715).
As the speaker speaks of his/her admiration, his/her own personal triumph was also realized. “I stared and stared/and victory filled up/the little rented boat.” The fisher is able to come to terms with the fish in what can be considered a spiritual achievement as well. As with the genre of pastoral during the time of Virgil, the call for “moral understandings of things overlooked and undervalued” has been reiterated again and again. In this poem, this superficial judgment is shown through the description of “from the pool of bilge/ where oil had spread a rainbow/ around the rusted engine/ to the bailer rusted orange.” However, overlooking this impurity of the water to focus on the “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” gives the fisher a feeling of freedom, freedom from the tendency of superficially judging. This is also analogous to his/her acceptance of the fish. From the original alienness of the fish and all its imperfections caused by decay, the fisher has gotten past the initial fear of its “frightening gills,” the fish has taken a new image through the imaginative perception that s/he has created. After a series of revisions that have shifted the fisher’s view, the fish was “built to create his final symbolic weight” (Schwartz and Estess 170).
Although the fisher’s victory achieved through his/her newfound connection with the world, ultimately victory belongs to the fish. Not only is his previous triumphs marked by his “medals” which he earned painfully, he was also able to achieve a sense of moral victory by “refusing to compromise his aged dignity by fruitless resistance “ (McNally 194). This realization caused a profound effect on the fisher, and in his/her show of recognition, s/he let the fish go. In the water filled with oil which is both toxic and beautiful, danger lurks along with numerous possibilities.
Schwartz and Estess recognize that victory belongs to both the fish and the fisher, as both are deemed “heroic by virtue of their endurance, their embodiment or perception of natural beauty, and the harmony of visual detail which reflects their personal connections” (171). Bishop gives heroism a new definition, that which is of elimination or conquest of the enemy, but the embracing of him.
McNally in her essay alludes to the possibility that the fisher was female.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
The ornamental imagery indicated by the description is somehow a reference to a woman’s natural inclination towards feminine things and words, which also explains the complexity of the poem. This complexity, according to McNally, may be attributed to her “interplay of adventurous, even aggressive, elements in her character” (192). This is best illustrated in her observation of the passivity of the fish, where she made the following observations: “He didn't fight. / He hadn't fought at all.” McNally’s assumption may just lend some truth to how the fisher was able to perceive the “barnacles” as “rossettes” that instead of presenting a gross and scary picture illustrated beauty. The appreciation of the “rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” and the decision to let go of the fish shows a woman’s characteristic of submissiveness, not over power but the recognition of great feats that came with immense pain. This can be attributed to woman’s sympathetic nature, a trait the fisherman has continuously exhibited from the beginning of the poem.
The poem is a colorful and meaningful narration of a story about admiration, courage, respect, and eventually acceptance. Throughout the journey of the fisher, she was besieged with conflicting emotions that continued to rise until she was able to reconcile them all. She saw imperfections and translated it into beauty that was characterized by courage. Such evolution was further highlighted as it was shown through a woman’s perspective, thus the emphasis on beauty and the recognition of pain and appreciation of courage.
Sarazyn, Natalie. “Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”: A Psychoanalytic Reading.” Columbia
McNally, Nancy L. “Elizabeth Bishop: The Discipline of Description.” Twentieth Century
Literature. 11.4 (1966): 189-201. Print.
Schwartz, Lloyd and Sybil P. Estess. Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Michigan: The University of
Michigan, 1983. Print.
Travisano, Thomas J. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. New York: The University
Press of Virginia, 1989. Print.