What does the fish most likely symbolize in Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Fish"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One interpretation of "The Fish" by Elizabeth Bishop allows that the imagery of a rainbow of colors on the fish symbolizes the victory of the fish, which affects the epiphany of the speaker.

This epiphany begins with the speaker's realization of the great accomplishment of the old fish to have survived so long. Viewing the "medals with their ribbons" that the green and black lines seem to represent as well as the "five big hooks" that have "grown firmly" into his mouth, the poem's speaker begins to feel a sense of awe and respect for the old fish who has defeated several others who have tried to catch him. In addition, the speaker's emotions are aroused from examining the old fish and the light upon him as the speaker examines the "medals" which lead to the epiphany that this fish is a victor who deserves respect:

and victory filled up
the little rented boat

The steady progression of colors that seem to form a rainbow symbolize the victory of the fish over all those who have tried to conquer him. This victorious rainbow of all colors causes the speaker to have an epiphany that this venerable fish should be allowed to live and continue in his victories.

Until everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Well, the first option is that the fish doesn't symbolize anything at all. Never leave that option out, even in poetry. Some poems try to capture vivid experiences in vivid verse.  In that reading, the poet caught a fish that looked strange, stared at it, and let it go. Again, don't underestimate that. Confronting other forms of life can be striking and meaningful without metaphor.

But if we assume it is a metaphor, then we find its meaning in those vivid images: the beard, the speckling, the loose skin, the multiple fishhooks, the scarring, etc. In catching a fish, the narrator has accidentally confronted age and mortality. The fish looks old and scarred by life, and if she keeps it, it dies. Releasing it lets life continue (and denies mortality).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial