Why does the statement "We should not judge by appearances" apply to the poem "The Filling Station" by Elizabeth Bishop?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“The Filling Station” by Elizabeth Bishop elicits the speaker’s need for her mother. The tone of the poem varies from stanza to stanza. The poet is disgusted by the dirt, yet this is her home. In this intriguing poem, the author proves the statement that one cannot judge anything or anyone by its appearance.  There is always more to see and understand.  

1st stanza

The speaker describes a roadside filling station. This kind of facility is almost extinct.  In the past, the servicemen filled the tank, washed the windshield, checked the oil and the air in the tires.  It has been replaced by the unfeeling “get and go” businesses devoted to taking the person’s money and forgetting any personalized service.

Oil and grease permeated  this little filling station. When something is touched by the oil, nothing is done to clean it up. To the first person unnamed narrator,  this station is disgusting. She sarcastically notes that a person better not light a match for fear that because of the oil everything might go up in flames.

2nd stanza

The narrator attempts to make the poem impersonal; however, the first word of this stanza lets the reader know that this girl’s father is the owner of the station.  The father is a mechanic because he wears a monkey suit [a grease monkey is a colloquialism for auto mechanic].  His overalls are too small; he has not taken the time to buy a larger size. The sons help him at the station. The narrator describes them as fast yet sassy---this station belongs to the family; due to the work, all of the men in the family are dirty.

3rd stanza

The narrator asks the question---where does the family live?  Do they stay in the station itself. There is a porch with oil covered wicker chairs---probably where the boys sits in between their work.  There is a dirty dog who sits comfortably in one of the chairs.

4th and  5th stanzas

This verse changes the tone and impetus of the poem.  Inside the station, there is a special place. The comic books give color to the place.

The doily is important because someone made it and places it on a little table beside a bushy flower. The narrator asks why the plant and table are in this place.  She is particularly drawn to the embroidered doily that has been made by someone with loving hands.

6th  and 7th stanzas

 Somebody

Arranges the rows of cans

So that they softly say:

Esso—so—so—so

 

To high strung automobiles

Somebody loves us all

 

There was someone who made the doily and watered the plant. There is a person that arranges the cans in a special way.  Obviously, there is someone who speaks softly with love toward the  family.

As the poem progresses, the attitude of the narrator changes. Someone loves us….not someone loves them.  She now takes her place as a member of the family.  The author lost her mother at an early age.  It is easy to assume that the narrator is longing for her own mother who loved her.

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