The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop: Summary and Critical Analysis

Elizabeth Bishop's poem The Fish displays her ecological awareness that leads her to accept a relationship of coexistence between human beings and nonhuman beings. This ecological awareness in the poem is reflected when she leaves the fish free. It is one of her typical and representative poems.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911- 1979)

In it, she deals with a commonplace incident of hauling a big fish, and after looking into its body and eyes jubilant, suddenly realizing that she had been one of the agents of cruelty upon animals, and also that she is also not very different a victim of atrocity from the fish. This empathy, realization and identification are epiphany in the poem. Out of the 76 lines of the poem, the first 65 lines do not tell us (except in a few evocative similes) that the fisherwoman has any sympathy for the fish, indeed she changes from the common fisher into a humanly compassionate being.

Her decision to set the fish free comes only after her identification of herself with the fish. The identification asserts the belief in the nature as an ecological system in which the existence of individual element depends upon other elements. Through the narrative of the speaker, it becomes clear that she is a commercial fisher woman; she uses a ship, hoot and other instruments that are used in commercial fishing. Towards the end of the poem it becomes clear that she has come to the ship many times as suggested by “rusted engine” of the ship.

The poem at the beginning is simply a narration about what happen in a particular day. The speaker narrates her catching of a big fish and other small fishes too. In her narration about the fish the commercial attitudes are reflected. She begins with the description of the skin and includes other parts like ‘white flesh’, ‘gills’, ‘bones’, ‘lip’, ‘jaw’ and so on. Reflecting the commercial attitude, she in her imagination unskins the flesh of the fish for commercial sale/benefit. The description of the fish in terms of its parts can be related to cutting of the fish into parts that can be used for different purposes.

The poet attempts to look into the eyes of the fish marks a crucial point in the poem. Perhaps this is an attempt to identify the human existence with the existence of the fish. As she continuously stares at the fish, she becomes aware of interdependent existence. The awareness of the speaker is the awareness of the transitoriness of human glory, human domination over animals or even of commercial benefit. The rust in the engine and rainbow can be related to this awareness. The killing of the fish can rust the ecology. And rainbow reinforces the awareness of transitoriness of that achievement. When the poet or speaker decides to set the fish free in terms of ecology, she not only saves of life of that fish but also saves many lives. In that sense the poet gains big things by losing some small thing.

The behavior of the fish is very strange; so it is not only fish but also a victim of human atrocity of every kind. Instead of trying to slip from the hands of its prey, the fish "didn't fight.... , He hadn't bought at all". Then the narrator finally realized that she is the one responsible for the fish's deplorable state. Ashamed and horrified by the abuse she had infected on the fish, she experiences a dramatic change of heart. The life of the fish she believes, is far more important than her victory. In an introspective, sensitive, and heroic movement, she decides to let it go. By avoiding the Romantic and phallic attitudes, the poem "The Fish" invokes a non-European, non-Christian, non-male and human attitudes. It is also written in folk narrative style.  

The poet is ironically telling us that the bible’s silly theory about the man’s superiority cannot be justified by following its advices to dominate the innocent animals. We can be superior only by our behaviors, by being better than them in terms of love and understanding.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, Kedar N. "The Fish by Elizabeth Bishop: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 9 Nov. 2013,

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