“A Prodigal” by Elizabeth Bishop is based on the biblical parable the “prodigal son.” The focus of Bishop's poem is not the happy homecoming of the prodigal son, but the time that he lives away from his family. Concentrating on the time when the prodigal has spent his inheritance and survives any way that he can, the poem’s imagery creates an unpleasant, unspeakable world of filth and degradation.
Living and working with the animals, the prodigal no longer separates himself from the animals. The poet’s descriptions place the reader in the midst of the squalor and pig sty where the man survives. The pigs engage with the man as they watch him do his work. So used to these circumstances, the prodigal scratches the head of the pig that eats her young.
The man subsists in this world by alcoholic binges. The farmer that he works for apparently is unaware of the man’s drinking because he hides the bottles behind some boards. In the mornings after his night of alcoholic stupor, he sees the sun shining and the day does not look so bad.
Where do the animals sleep? According to what the poem states, the barn has stalls for the cattle and horses. The pigs sleep in their sty with the hooves sticking out through the fence. Even the bat has a place in the barn. The poet compares the barn to the Ark where the animals find a safe haven from harm.
Apparently, the prodigal has a place in the barn for himself. Nothing in the poem actually states if he has a separate place to live. He works and drinks in the barn. This may be his safe haven as well.
Obviously, the prodigal is not happy where he is. As a flawed human being, he is there punishing himself for his stupidity in taking his money and wasting it. In addition, he has made it difficult to return to his family, or so he thinks. In the last half of the poem, the poet indicates the true feelings of the prodigal.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats' uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
The wayward son shudders in his surroundings without being able to stop. He has debased himself to the level of animals and survives only by drinking to the point of oblivion. Yet, his pride and fear keep him from returning to his home anytime soon. On a positive note, he does find the courage eventually to rise above his wretched condition and find his way back to his family and the world of human beings.