Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop: Summary and Analysis

Filling Station by Elizabeth Bishop, an American writer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1956 published this poem in her third volume, Questions of Travel. Filling Station provides many possibilities of different interpretation due to its play with sound and language.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911- 1979)

Elizabeth Bishop reflects her gender consciousness by exposing the gendering of space and work in the patriarchal social structure. The patriarchal structure assigns different places of works differently to the males and females. Males are given the privileged work and public space, whereas the female are given the opposite other.

To expose this discrimination, Bishop creates two different settings for the different genders. Filling station is one setting where father and sons are working, it is the public space where they can earn money and built identity. The female figure is absent from this public space.

Besides this filling station, there is somebody working in the porch. She keeps everything in order. She arranges the cans, waters the plant, decorates home, and puts everything in order. Since she has managed everything at home, father and sons have been able to work outside. If she has not worked, they would not have come out. Using the technique of epiphany, the speaker makes us realize that her small contribution does the great significance in the public world outside. Therefore, her work is as great as the work of father and sons.

She works, but her work is not recognized anywhere. Society behaves her as if she has not done anything. Realizing this discrimination of society, the speaker presents her as somebody. She works, but remains somebody in the society without any identity. Neither she nor her work is identified. So, this poem Filling Station is a theatre where the gender discrimination is performed again and again.

From the linguistic point of view, this poem is a brilliant example of sounds that simultaneously connects with its meaning. To create visual imagery of the setting of the filling station, the poet uses (oi) sounds and greasy images such as ‘oil soaked’, ‘oil permeated’, ‘greasy sons’, and ‘over-all black translucency.’ To make the setting more clear and to enforce the setting is highly dangerous and inflammable to work in, the poet warns ‘Be careful with that match!’ Both father and son are working with dirty and greasy clothes in the oily, greasy, dirty and most importantly dangerous place of filling station. This setting and the atmosphere depict that male members work outside in a challenging atmosphere, which help them to get recognition and identity easily.

The domination of the (oi) sound in the whole poem is noticeable. It flows like oil throughout the poem similarly as the male members dominate the public sphere of the setting of the poem. The oil and its greasiness is everywhere and it makes the filling station dirty. But, the porch behind the pumps where ‘somebody’ lives is properly managed and comfortable. ‘Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant, or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans’ these lines in the poem vividly states that this unidentified ‘Somebody’ is a female member of the family, probably the mother. It is noteworthy that everything is pleasantly managed and arranged in the porch by the ‘somebody’ lady and it is neat and clean. Here, despite her hard work and proper management, she does not get any recognition and identity. Her identity is merely confined to ‘somebody’. It clearly shows the domination of the patriarchal society over the female and Bishop’s anger, frustration, and revolutionary attitude towards the male dominated society is clearly seen through this poem.

The sharp and clicking sound of (k) in the words ‘comfy’, ‘crochet’, ‘comic’, ‘color’ and ‘cans’ produce cacophonic impression, but as the meaning of words are related to a kind of comfortable environment, the poet wants to say that despite the unfavorable and undesirable condition of the society, there is love, peace, comfort and kindness in the family. There is ‘somebody’ who cleverly and lovingly manages everything, even if her work is not appreciated. She is always there to love all, even if she has to lose her identity.

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