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"The Fish": A Struggle for Survival

In her poem entitled “The Fish,” Elizabeth Bishop tells the story of a fisherman who catches an old, battle-worn fish. The experience led the fisherman to a discovery that inspired her to throw the fish back into the water. The revelation struck her when she realized that the fish had fought time and time again to survive fishermen’s attempts to catch it; she could see how difficult survival had been for the fish, which had calmly allowed the narrator to lift it out of the water. This fish served as a lesson for the fisherman that people often forget the intelligence the natural world possesses. The fish is a reminder that nature can survive despite the hardships mankind creates for it.

            Bishop wastes no time getting into the poem’s action; “The Fish” poem begins abruptly with a first line that concisely describes what fisherman physically does: “I caught a tremendous fish” (1). Yet the poem that follows is mostly description of the fish itself. In fact, someone viewing the scene from the third person perspective would hardly think much had happened at all. The sum of the fisherman’s main actions that occur in the poem are illustrated in only three different lines: “I caught a tremendous fish” (1), “I stared and stared” (65), and “And I let the fish go” (76). To a casual observer, nothing extraordinary happened. This is exactly the reason why the poem was written in first person. In order to appreciate the fish, one must delve into the mind of the fisherman to see her thoughts. Since Bishop wrote “The Fish” in first person, audiences can see the images of the wondrous fish that flash through the narrator’s mind and lead to a revelation. This downplay of the fisherman’s actions is exactly what Bishop had intended; the poem is not about the fisherman who catches the fish, but about the difficult life of the fish itself. Bishop’s abundant descriptions of the fish serve to exalt the wonder and majesty of nature and to downgrade the significance of mankind.

            The first image Bishop uses to exalt the fish occurs when the fish seemed to allow the fisherman to extract it from the water. “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all” (5-6). Here Bishop illustrates the unusual calmness of the fish by writing that the fish had not fought against the fisherman. It had given the narrator a chance to kill it, putting its own life in the hands of the fisherman. This point is emphasized by the fact that the surprised narrator repeats himself, noting twice that the fish did not fight. This is the first hint in the poem that humans forget about nature’s capabilities; in this case the fisherman did not expect the fish to seemingly give itself up.

            Right away Bishop awards a higher status to the fish than a mere worthless object by calling the fish “He.” If the fish were called “it,” it would not be as clear that the fish is to be as highly regarded as a human. To call the fish “it” would be impersonal; that would downgrade the fish to an unimportant object lacking worth and character. Since it is called “he,” the fish is entitled to a personality, much like a human. Because of its personality, the fish serves as a lesson to the narrator.

            This personality is described when Bishop elaborates on the appearance of the fish: “battered and venerable / and homely. Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips” (8-10). The fish had survived many struggles to stay alive. This is evident in the narrator’s description of the fish being “battered” and its skin being “hung in strips.” Both phrases suggest the fish has incurred some sort of violence. In addition, parasites had already begun to feast on the aging fish: “He was speckled with barnacles” (16) and the fish was “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” (18-19). Parasites had taken advantage of the opportunity to profit from another animal’s defenseless condition. All of these dismal images add up to create an overall picture of a disgusting, rotten fish that is literally falling apart at its seams.

Yet at the same time the narrator creates an image of an ugly, “battered,” decaying fish, she also describes it as “venerable” (8). Written in prose, the complete sentence would have been “He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely” (7-9). Bishop, however, separated the sentence into three parts in order to add emphasis to certain parts of the sentence. Bishop purposefully used enjambment to separate “battered and venerable” from the rest of the sentence to suggest a connection between the two adjectives. One might think that “battered” should possess a negative connotation while “venerable” should have more positive connotation because the former involves suffering and the latter involves being held in high esteem. Nevertheless, this is not the case. Since they are joined by the conjunction “and,” and the use of “and” joins two ideas, the two adjectives must complement each other instead of contrast each other. In other words, the fish is worthy of reverence because it is so battered, cut, barnacle-speckled, and lice-infested. The suffering it has undergone makes the fish worthy of praise in the eyes of the narrator. This is the personality of the fish: disgusting yet honorable. It is highly regarded because it has endured so long under such dangerous conditions.

When the narrator observed the fish’s lips, he discovered the cause of all this torment: fishermen trying to catch the fish. The fish’s lower lip was full of “five old pieces of fish-line” (51). At least five times before, fishermen had attempted to reel in the great fish, but they had not succeeded. The fish had fought back for his life and escaped from sure death.

The fish wore proof of his escapes “Like medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering” (61-62). The suggestion that the fish wore the old hooks and line as if they were medals indicates that the fish seemed as proud of his accomplishments as would an Olympic medalist. He had defied man’s insistence on catching and eating him, and he had some frayed strings grown into his skin to show for it.  

Again the narrator exalts the fish when she writes that the five lines and stuck in the fish’s lip are not only medals and symbols of pride, but also a “beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw” (63-64). His experiences escaping mankind had made him knowledgeable about survival. Although the medals he carries with him cause him constant pain, his tattered body and beard of fish lines serve as symbols for the venerability and wisdom of nature. Just as the fish’s struggles have made him venerable and wise, every time nature overcomes the destruction humans cause, nature displays its unique intelligence and majesty.  

The narrator believes this fish’s wisdom and enduring effort to survive symbolizes victory: “Victory filled up / the little rented boat” (66-67). The fish had fought on the front lines between nature and humanity and outlasted all of its opponents. The fish’s survival is a victory because he represents the endurance of nature despite the harsh conditions to which humans subject it. The fish surviving the adversities mankind created for it prove that the entire natural world is not apt to die without a fight. Another victory is that the fish bravely allowed the narrator to catch him without a fight for the narrator as if he knew the narrator would be sympathetic to the fish’s cause. Perhaps the fish in his wisdom had known that his body, rotten and filled with strings and wires, would serve as a reminder to whoever finally caught him that although humans feel free to abuse nature, nature can and will fight for its life. 

This victory is further signified by the narrator’s observation that “oil had spread a rainbow” (69) all around the boat “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (74-75). In the moment of the fish’s and nature’s victory, the narrator views the multi-colored smears created by mixing oil and water as being identical to rainbows. A rainbow is an appropriate symbol in this situation since it symbolizes hope for the future. This notion dates back to biblical times and Noah’s ark. As the story goes, when the flood waters finally began to subside after forty days and nights of rain, God sent Noah a sign: a rainbow. From then on rainbows were to symbolize hope for a better future.

Bishop uses the oil-created rainbow in “The Fish” to signify the hope for nature to survive mankind’s onslaught. The simultaneously battered and venerable fish proves that nature can find a way. In addition, the fish proves that Homo sapiens are not the only species with intelligence. Man’s assumption that he can drive out to a lake with his rented boat and easily catch fish indicates that he believes fish will be incapable of escaping his lines, hooks, and technology. Yet this fish is proof of the contrary; it mocks man by adorning the same inventions man uses to try to capture it as medals. Man, despite all his clever gadgets, can never fully conquer nature. Therefore, the ultimate victory goes to the fish and nature instead of fishermen and humanity.

            This realization caused the narrator’s decision: “And I let the fish go” (76). The fish would live another day and perhaps be discovered by another lucky fisherman, who could experience a moment of triumph similar to the one the narrator had enjoyed. For the narrator to keep the fish and kill it would be to ignore the lesson she had learned. She would have continued in the same uninformed mindset of belief in human superiority over nature, thereby missing out on a chance to discover how sublime nature truly is.

In her poem entitled “The Fish,” Elizabeth Bishop tells the story of a fisherman who catches an old, battle-worn fish. The experience led the fisherman to a discovery that inspired her to throw the fish back into the water. The revelation struck her when she realized that the fish had fought time and time again to survive fishermen’s attempts to catch it; she could see how difficult survival had been for the fish, which had calmly allowed the narrator to lift it out of the water. This fish served as a lesson for the fisherman that people often forget the intelligence the natural world possesses. The fish is a reminder that nature can survive despite the hardships mankind creates for it.

            Bishop wastes no time getting into the poem’s action; “The Fish” poem begins abruptly with a first line that concisely describes what fisherman physically does: “I caught a tremendous fish” (1). Yet the poem that follows is mostly description of the fish itself. In fact, someone viewing the scene from the third person perspective would hardly think much had happened at all. The sum of the fisherman’s main actions that occur in the poem are illustrated in only three different lines: “I caught a tremendous fish” (1), “I stared and stared” (65), and “And I let the fish go” (76). To a casual observer, nothing extraordinary happened. This is exactly the reason why the poem was written in first person. In order to appreciate the fish, one must delve into the mind of the fisherman to see her thoughts. Since Bishop wrote “The Fish” in first person, audiences can see the images of the wondrous fish that flash through the narrator’s mind and lead to a revelation. This downplay of the fisherman’s actions is exactly what Bishop had intended; the poem is not about the fisherman who catches the fish, but about the difficult life of the fish itself. Bishop’s abundant descriptions of the fish serve to exalt the wonder and majesty of nature and to downgrade the significance of mankind.

            The first image Bishop uses to exalt the fish occurs when the fish seemed to allow the fisherman to extract it from the water. “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all” (5-6). Here Bishop illustrates the unusual calmness of the fish by writing that the fish had not fought against the fisherman. It had given the narrator a chance to kill it, putting its own life in the hands of the fisherman. This point is emphasized by the fact that the surprised narrator repeats himself, noting twice that the fish did not fight. This is the first hint in the poem that humans forget about nature’s capabilities; in this case the fisherman did not expect the fish to seemingly give itself up.

            Right away Bishop awards a higher status to the fish than a mere worthless object by calling the fish “He.” If the fish were called “it,” it would not be as clear that the fish is to be as highly regarded as a human. To call the fish “it” would be impersonal; that would downgrade the fish to an unimportant object lacking worth and character. Since it is called “he,” the fish is entitled to a personality, much like a human. Because of its personality, the fish serves as a lesson to the narrator.

            This personality is described when Bishop elaborates on the appearance of the fish: “battered and venerable / and homely. Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips” (8-10). The fish had survived many struggles to stay alive. This is evident in the narrator’s description of the fish being “battered” and its skin being “hung in strips.” Both phrases suggest the fish has incurred some sort of violence. In addition, parasites had already begun to feast on the aging fish: “He was speckled with barnacles” (16) and the fish was “infested / with tiny white sea-lice” (18-19). Parasites had taken advantage of the opportunity to profit from another animal’s defenseless condition. All of these dismal images add up to create an overall picture of a disgusting, rotten fish that is literally falling apart at its seams.

Yet at the same time the narrator creates an image of an ugly, “battered,” decaying fish, she also describes it as “venerable” (8). Written in prose, the complete sentence would have been “He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely” (7-9). Bishop, however, separated the sentence into three parts in order to add emphasis to certain parts of the sentence. Bishop purposefully used enjambment to separate “battered and venerable” from the rest of the sentence to suggest a connection between the two adjectives. One might think that “battered” should possess a negative connotation while “venerable” should have more positive connotation because the former involves suffering and the latter involves being held in high esteem. Nevertheless, this is not the case. Since they are joined by the conjunction “and,” and the use of “and” joins two ideas, the two adjectives must complement each other instead of contrast each other. In other words, the fish is worthy of reverence because it is so battered, cut, barnacle-speckled, and lice-infested. The suffering it has undergone makes the fish worthy of praise in the eyes of the narrator. This is the personality of the fish: disgusting yet honorable. It is highly regarded because it has endured so long under such dangerous conditions.

When the narrator observed the fish’s lips, he discovered the cause of all this torment: fishermen trying to catch the fish. The fish’s lower lip was full of “five old pieces of fish-line” (51). At least five times before, fishermen had attempted to reel in the great fish, but they had not succeeded. The fish had fought back for his life and escaped from sure death.

The fish wore proof of his escapes “Like medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering” (61-62). The suggestion that the fish wore the old hooks and line as if they were medals indicates that the fish seemed as proud of his accomplishments as would an Olympic medalist. He had defied man’s insistence on catching and eating him, and he had some frayed strings grown into his skin to show for it.  

Again the narrator exalts the fish when she writes that the five lines and stuck in the fish’s lip are not only medals and symbols of pride, but also a “beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw” (63-64). His experiences escaping mankind had made him knowledgeable about survival. Although the medals he carries with him cause him constant pain, his tattered body and beard of fish lines serve as symbols for the venerability and wisdom of nature. Just as the fish’s struggles have made him venerable and wise, every time nature overcomes the destruction humans cause, nature displays its unique intelligence and majesty.  

The narrator believes this fish’s wisdom and enduring effort to survive symbolizes victory: “Victory filled up / the little rented boat” (66-67). The fish had fought on the front lines between nature and humanity and outlasted all of its opponents. The fish’s survival is a victory because he represents the endurance of nature despite the harsh conditions to which humans subject it. The fish surviving the adversities mankind created for it prove that the entire natural world is not apt to die without a fight. Another victory is that the fish bravely allowed the narrator to catch him without a fight for the narrator as if he knew the narrator would be sympathetic to the fish’s cause. Perhaps the fish in his wisdom had known that his body, rotten and filled with strings and wires, would serve as a reminder to whoever finally caught him that although humans feel free to abuse nature, nature can and will fight for its life. 

This victory is further signified by the narrator’s observation that “oil had spread a rainbow” (69) all around the boat “until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!” (74-75). In the moment of the fish’s and nature’s victory, the narrator views the multi-colored smears created by mixing oil and water as being identical to rainbows. A rainbow is an appropriate symbol in this situation since it symbolizes hope for the future. This notion dates back to biblical times and Noah’s ark. As the story goes, when the flood waters finally began to subside after forty days and nights of rain, God sent Noah a sign: a rainbow. From then on rainbows were to symbolize hope for a better future.

Bishop uses the oil-created rainbow in “The Fish” to signify the hope for nature to survive mankind’s onslaught. The simultaneously battered and venerable fish proves that nature can find a way. In addition, the fish proves that Homo sapiens are not the only species with intelligence. Man’s assumption that he can drive out to a lake with his rented boat and easily catch fish indicates that he believes fish will be incapable of escaping his lines, hooks, and technology. Yet this fish is proof of the contrary; it mocks man by adorning the same inventions man uses to try to capture it as medals. Man, despite all his clever gadgets, can never fully conquer nature. Therefore, the ultimate victory goes to the fish and nature instead of fishermen and humanity.

            This realization caused the narrator’s decision: “And I let the fish go” (76). The fish would live another day and perhaps be discovered by another lucky fisherman, who could experience a moment of triumph similar to the one the narrator had enjoyed. For the narrator to keep the fish and kill it would be to ignore the lesson she had learned. She would have continued in the same uninformed mindset of belief in human superiority over nature, thereby missing out on a chance to discover how sublime nature truly is.

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