From the onset of civilization, society has increased its capabilities in the quest for survival. Methods of achieving fundamental needs have been belittled through modernization. In 1946, a time period defined by abundant technological advancement, Elizabeth Bishop describes the art of capturing a fish from water, an act once used simply as a food source, in her poem “The Fish.” As the narrator caught the fish only to observe and then release the creature, the reader develops a desire to discover exactly what is being observed. Upon analysis of the work, the poem represents Bishop’s personal life, historical events of importance to her, and her views on American society.
First of all, as the fish is held beside the boat, Bishop sees elements of her own personal existence in the animal. For instance, as the fish struggled for air, its gills were “crisp from blood (because breathing) can cut so badly”(Bishop 1211). The fish represents previously repressed inner thoughts, and its advancement into the conscious environment creates extreme pain. Like the fish, most creatures can exist only in an aquatic condition, or a terrestrial condition, just as an individual’s thoughts can occupy either a cognizant or a subliminal setting. Next, as the speaker attempts to look into the fish’s eyes, the vision is “seen through the lenses of old scratched isinglass” (Bishop 1211). Isinglass, a product from the internal organs of fish used to produce windows, creates a paradoxical statement, showing that one cannot completely connect with their internal feelings. The hazy circular relationship between the fish and mariner displays the struggle for an individual to connect with their inner self. Finally, preceding the release of the animal, five hooks from earlier retrievals are described as the fish’s “beard of wisdom” (Bishop 1212). The collection of strings symbolize past personal revelations that Bishop arrived at by connecting with herself. In order to validate this argument, one must visualize the body of water that contains the fish as a private place only accessible to its single user, just as an individual’s mind is perceived. In summary, Bishop’s fish represents her internal existence.
After providing reflections of her personal life, Bishop’s story provides a window to important historical events. First, the texture of the fish is referred to as “ancient wallpaper” and “tarnished tinfoil”, and the fishing boat’s components are “rusted” and “sun-cracked” (Bishop 1210-12). The fish, in this case, represents the decay of common objects, providing evidence of the temporality of earthly possessions. The vessel shows aging blemishes as it journeys through the water, depicting the mortality of human life during their interim presence on earth. Next, as the fish and boater part ways, the water, potent of gasoline from the boat, provided a rainbow display. In this example, Bishop uses the fish to represent mankind and the fisherman as a symbol of God, recounting the story of Noah’s Ark. In the Biblical tale, after punishing mankind for God shows his promise to end mans’ suffering with the rainbow. For instance, the animal showed five wounds as it was pulled from the water. These scars are connected with Jesus’ injuries obtained at His crucifixion. The ease of acceptance of and the ability to reject religion are clearly shown at the beginning and end of the poem.
Finally, Bishop’s fish represents the society that produced the poem. According to commentary from Bonnie Costello, author of Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, the fish is a sexless creature exhibiting both male and female traits. First, the fish is male when its “untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses.” (Costello 63) The uncontainable characteristics parallel features of the culture of 1946, the year that Bishop wrote the poem. The pen of the female poet shows both frustration and remorseful acceptance for her man dominated society. Later, the fish’s beholder imagines the interior features such as “shiny entrails, and the pink swim bladder, like a big (flower)” (Bishop 1211). The female features are covered from view by the rugged exterior, portraying the woman’s submissive role. A secondary interpretation shows the conflict between the masculine society and “Mother Nature”, the feminine force. In this example, the struggle between