Compare and contrast "The Fish" by Mary Oliver, and "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop.Consider the tone, voice, form, use of figurative language, symbol and themes in these two poems. How are they...

Compare and contrast "The Fish" by Mary Oliver, and "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop.

Consider the tone, voice, form, use of figurative language, symbol and themes in these two poems. How are they similar? How are they different? Are both women reaching the same conclusions or different ones based on their experiences with the fish?

Asked on by japi

1 Answer | Add Yours

booboosmoosh's profile pic

booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Your question has many parts to it, but I can, unfortunately, answer only one. I have selected the last part:

Are both women reaching the same conclusions or different ones based on their experiences with the fish?

The response that I have for each poem is based primarily on the different experiences of each woman in catching her fish.

Oliver's poem lists the physical attributes of the fish, and discusses how the oxygen is so deadly for it. It describes rainbows, which I assume refer to the light refracting off of its shiny skin. However, the speaker conquers the fish, kills, cleans, and eats it so that they become one. Oliver seems to describe how the death of the fish nourishes the speaker. But she also addresses the shared experience the fish and the person both have in the pain of this "mysterious" thing called life. The poem left me feeling that the fish was a victim, somehow a sacrifice for man's betterment.

Bishop's poem also has wonderful imagery. She describes the danger of the oxygen to the fish also, but her rainbows are those of oil from the boat creating colors on the water. However, her observations are more engaging and personal. She describes its appearance in detail: its skin like old wallpaper; age indicated by its barnacled sides; its eyes that glitter and shine, though not with a human intelligence.

Everything changes when she describes evidence of others who have attempted to catch the fish. The broken fish lines protruding from its "lip" are described:

...Like medals with their ribbons

frayed and wavering,

a five-haired beard of wisdom

trailing from his aching jaw

Bishop makes us care about that fish by personifying it. It is old, has medals from previous encounters where it "beat" mankind, to live on, and yet its jaw is aching from those "war wounds."

Then there is a moment of fear on the part of the reader who knows something of human nature:

I stared and stared

and victory filled up

the little rented boat

As the reader, I am afraid that the speaker's sense of winning, of conquering that which others could not conquer, will cost the fish its life.

However, Bishop renews our faith in mankind. She does not set us up to care about the fish only to dash us against the rocks—as a bear might kill a fish.

And I let it go.

This line makes the reader feel victorious not only for the fish, but for the speaker as well. A private victory in catching the uncatchable fish is all right; allowing the fish to escape again is better.

Both women definitely do NOT reach the same conclusions about the fish. Oliver's speaker kills the fish and eats it. This is a victory for the speaker, but it brings no satisfaction to him/her. There is a note of shared pain and a sense of finality, like death.

On the other hand, Bishop's story revolves around catching, admiring, respecting, and releasing the fish. The end is affirming and hopeful. The "race" is still on; perhaps the speaker will fish another time and catch the old fish again, but death is not necessary in the speaker's "battle" with the fish. Mercy leaves the reader with a sense of fulfillment and grace.

We’ve answered 318,944 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question