Themes and Meanings
This story contains two major themes, one concerning Pendleton’s situation, the other the symbolic meaning of Damaso, the mysterious man from Chihuahua. The meaning of Damaso and his singing is kept deliberately ambiguous throughout the narrative because the reader must understand that his way of being in the world is not really accessible to Pendleton or to the other customers in his restaurant. Damaso appears to be an otherworldly figure whose singing suggests that he is bearing a message from a remote and mystical land far from American shores. Although some characters attempt to attribute Damaso’s isolation and strange singing to a broken heart, it eventually becomes clear that his singing is about spiritual longing or spiritual suffering. The crucifix Damaso wears and the mention of Jesus Christ in association with him at the end of the narrative also lead to an interpretation of his singing as expressing a deep and tragic spirituality.
The use of the sea in relation to the almost extraterrestrial Damaso also allows a distinction to be drawn between him and the other characters in the story, who are associated with the land. The fact that the title of the story suggests Damaso is a fisherman not only suggests the wider liberty of the sea but also points symbolically to early Christianity, which had a fish as its symbol, and to the promise of Jesus Christ to make his disciples “fishers of men.”
The second theme involves the emotional and spiritual limits of the modern American sensibility. Evan S. Connell, Jr., adds a couple from Iowa to include a more satiric depiction of the stultifying effects on individuals of too much social propriety and conformity—this narrow-minded and naïve couple are contrasted not only with Damaso but also with Pendleton, who forms a bond with Damaso and in the process is able to deepen his emotional and spiritual life. Pendleton comes to understand that Damaso’s wild, inspired cries enlarge and extend the borders of reality and validate an expressive and creative consciousness that can explore the side of life associated not only with the sea but also with an inner world of intuitions and feelings that are as powerful and as mysterious as the ocean itself.