In Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish,'' why does the speaker let the fish go at the end of the poem? Please defend your answer.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"The Fish" is a poem in which the speaker, as a respecter of life, becomes sympathetic to the fish.  In line 34 the speaker says she

looked into his eyes/which were far larger than mine/but shallower...the irises backed and packed/...seen thruogh the lenses of old scratched isinglasss

It is at this point that the speaker perceives the old fish as a venerable character from whose lip hang

five old pices of fish-line...Like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing from his aching jaw.

That this old fish has beaten five other fisherman causes the speaker to revere the fish.  She thinks, she "stares" and "victory filled up the little rented boat."  Who is she to reel in this venerable fish, who has survived for so long against five other adversaries?  Out of respect and sympathy for the fish who has won these previous battles, she throws him back.

In her calm, understated tone, Elizabeth Bishop moves from the ordinary description of a fish similar to a ling or cod to a philosophical insight.  As the speaker states and "victory" fills the boat, she remarks that "everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" before she lets the fish go.  It is at this point that the speaker realizes the wisdom of revering life, especially the life of one who has struggled to live and endure. 

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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Bishop's narrator in this poem develops empathy with the fish she has caught by observing it minutely. This observation and empathy leads her to release the fish back to freedom. The poem moves from the words "I caught a tremendous fish," which might lead the reader to anticipate a recounting of an epic battle with the fish, to the words: "He didn't fight/ He hadn't fought at all." Instead, he hangs there and the narrator describes him: "skin ...like ancient wallpaper ...speckled with barnacles ..." He looks like a peony and then the narrator stares into his eyes and the five hooks in his mouth. She "stared and stared," saying "victory" filled the little boat. This seems to be the fish's victory, not the narrator's, as she releases it back into the water: "I let the fish go."

To an extent, the narrator anthropomorphizes the fish, seeing him as wise and sullen, which builds her sense of connection to him. He becomes more than just an object to her. In her 2016 biography of Bishop, called Elizabeth Bishop, Megan Marshall interprets the poem as, among other things, Bishop's struggle to break free of her mentor, poet Marianne Moore, calling it "Elizabeth's declaration of independence." This only underscores Bishop's deep identification with the fish, and in this reading, the "victory" becomes both Elizabeth's in breaking free and the fish's. Interestingly, too, despite her powers of observation and description, Bishop never specifies what type of fish this is: that doesn't matter. What is important is the empathy the narrator develops for it, and by extension, the empathy we all can develop if we take the time to observe the world around us. 

 

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