Among the unique features of literary works is the ability to reflect quite common events through a number of literary devices that help the author represent those events as a powerful spiritual experience. As it is proved by the narrative poem “The Fish” written by Elizabeth Bishop, even such an ordinary pastime as fishing can become an outstanding occurrence full of emotional and spiritual significance.
By means of such figures of speech as personification, simile, symbolism, and irony, Bishop succeeds in rendering the theme of her poem, the necessity for spiritual unity with the nature and for the recognition of everyone’s unique identity.
One of the most widely used figures of speech with regard to animals is personification, and Bishop employs it generously to impart individuality to the fish in the narrator’s hand.
Starting from the first lines and till the very end of the poem, the narrator mostly refers to the fish as “him” instead of the more traditional “it”: “… held him beside the boat”, “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all. / He hung a grunting weight”, “his aching jaw” (Bishop 581–582). However, it is obvious that the narrator is startled at such humanization of a fish, since once in the whole poem the fish is still described through “it”: “with my hook / fast in a corner of its mouth” (Bishop 581).
In addition, the detailed account of the fish appearance is interrupted by the narrator’s questioning whether a fish can be described in human terms: “if you could call it a lip” (Bishop 582). Such fluctuations serve to emphasize the astonishment of the narrator when she discovers that she can relate to the fish as to an equal being.
The narrator’s indecisiveness regarding the treatment of fish is reflected in the similes Bishop uses to describe the catch. Especially remarkable in this respect are the lines
“…his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.” (Bishop 581)
In the first four lines Bishop uses the comparison to wallpaper twice, to describe both the texture and the pattern of the fish skin. This similarity to an artificial and inanimate object immediately distances the narrator from the fish, presenting the latter as unattractive. However, in order to get closer to the fish and to appreciate its appearance, Bishop employs a simile to “full-blown roses”, immediately spiritualizing the fish by this comparison to beautiful flowers (581).
By means of simile, Bishop vividly demonstrates how the narrator’s view of her catch connects the fish to all the universe around. On the one hand, the fish is compared to other objects of nature like flowers (roses and peonies) and birds covered with feathers (Bishop 581).
This comparison reveals the hidden meaning of fish as a living creature that is beautiful as a flower and free as a bird. On the other hand, Bishop draws a parallel between the fish and the man-made objects: weapons and medals (582). Consequently, the fish appears as a courageous fighter who has been struggling for existence and is rewarded by the gift of life it that gets from the narrator in the end of the poem.
Contributing to the message of the fish uniqueness, Bishop fills the poem with allusions to the symbolic nature of the fish. Standardly perceived as a symbol of freedom, with its ability to swim almost unrestrictedly in the seven seas, the fish is suddenly presented as very passive and unresisting: “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.” (Bishop 581).
These lines contain certain irony, misleading the reader who further on discovers how active and struggling the fish has been when he got in the fishing nets. The immense struggle for life does not go unnoticed: the fish is still carrying a row of fishing hooks in his lip. The narrator is fascinated by their shine, “Like medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering” the fishing hooks are symbolic of the heroism and the valor of the old fish (Bishop 582).
Not incidentally does the narrator call the row of hooks “a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw” (Bishop 582). Through this symbol of wisdom, the fish is seen as an old veteran hardened in battles for life and freedom. As it lies in the narrator’s hand, gasping for life, the narrator suddenly acquires a wisdom of her own.
Although the major objective of fishing is actually catching fish, the events occurring in the poem take a sudden turn. After a thorough contemplation of the fish in all the tiny details, the narrator realizes that she is holding a unique creature in her hand.
Having had a life full of struggle, the fish demonstrates its wisdom by not thrashing about but simply lying there and gasping for existence. The wisdom of fish who has suffered enormous pain in its life is transferred to the narrator who opens her eyes on the uniqueness of every being.
The association of fish with life helps the narrator to make a wise choice and to grant life to the creature who fully deserves it. The feeling of victory that fills her body is symbolic of victory over the old prejudice: the narrator opens her mind to understanding of the world filled with living creatures who are dependent on each other’s kindness and compassion. Thus, from the initial destruction and pain there emerge beauty, life, and freedom.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” reveals the idea of interdependence of all the living creatures and of the necessity for mutual understanding and support on the planet. Through wide usage of figures of speech, Bishops develops powerful images and renders ideas that are called to change not only the mind of her narrator but the whole world around.
Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2009. 581–82.