A Close Critical Reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” Essay

Humans do not only learn from each other’s experiences. Sometimes, things in nature create within an observer or participant of a phenomenon in nature, a profound realization about life. Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” shares to the reader a said effect. The poem describes a simple fishing experience, but the event, prompted by a particular fish that the speaker catches, awakens within him a sense of awe as to the worth of the otherwise everyday sea creature. The narrative poem has a simple story.

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It is about someone who goes fishing one day. After the speaker catches the fish, however, it becomes an object of curiosity for him. The introspection begins an internal struggle as to whether he should keep the fish or not. In the end, he chooses to throw it back into the sea. Using a number of literary devices, however, Bishop is able to dramatize through words the internal struggle and in the process, illuminates and heightens the ordinary experience.

The fish, for one, is not described as an object. It is referred to as a “he”.

This personification, however, is not to give the fish human attributes but to clue the reader that the poem is about more than catching a fish. The fish remains a fish all throughout the poem, but it is in the speaker’s mind that it becomes symbolic and therefore to be treated as an ordinary fish by the reader. More than this, it is actually the imagery, the similes and metaphors, which the writer uses to physically describe the fish that appeals the reader’s senses and sympathy for the fish which, in turn, lifts the poem to its higher meaning.

“He (the fish) didn’t fight” (5) when the speaker catches him. Its skin is like “like wallpaper…stained and lost through age” (13-15). On its jaw “hung five old pieces of fish-line…all their five big hooks/grown firmly in his mouth” (51, 54-55). This set of imagery suggests that this particular fish is old and has fought a lot of battles already. Its body has suffered the scars of past struggles and is battle-worn.

The simile of the five fish hooks as being compared by the poet to “medals with their ribbons…a five-haired beard of wisdom” (61, 63) recalls to the reader’s mind the medals on the suit of a five-star general who has fought wars and come out of them battle-scarred yet proud of every ribbon and scar. There is a tone of respect upon the speaker for the fish. At this point in the poem especially, the second half of the long single-stanza, there is an irony in the transformation of the creature from ordinary fish in the first line to the revered creature in the latter part of the poem.

This reverence is what convinces the speaker to “let the fish go” (76). The act of letting go, too, is another ironic event in that any fisherman would not let go of something he has worked hard to get. But to the poet, it is not a waste of effort because it is a show of his respect for the fish. After staring at the fish for a long time, “victory filled up/ the little rented boat” (65-66), the speaker expresses. It is a score of victory for the fish because its scars have convinced the speaker that this fish has fought all its life and now deserves respect for being a survivor.

Ultimately, the poem could be seen as an allegory to the beauty of a survivor’s ugly scars and physical deformities. The fish, with its rough skin “infested with tiny white sea-lice” (19) hanged with “rags of green weed” (21) and “five old pieces of fish-line” (51) stuck in its mouth, has grown ugly with age. Yet, these marks are not simply brought about by age but from years of struggling and freeing itself from past attempts of other fishermen to catch it. Those are its own marks of beauty and honor.


Bishop, Elizabeth. “The Fish”.

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