Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Big Fish, Little Fish” unfolds in a series of visual images, almost like a film montage. The reader learns about characters primarily by seeing the world through their eyes or by looking at them, often through one another’s eyes. Zefferino’s father is introduced in “rolled-up shorts and an undershirt, a white duck cap on his head.” Signorina de Magistris is first described as “a white hand swaying” in the water, then, as a fat woman in a bathing suit. Zefferino, himself, is all eyes: “From every cranny of the rocks, or among the tremulous beards swaying in the current, a big fish might suddenly appear; from behind the glass of the mask Zefferino cast his eyes around, eagerly, intently.” It is, of course, a chance to gaze through his mask that Zefferino hopes will ease the ache in Signorina de Magistris’s heart. Later he wonders, if the sight of a bass or umbra will not make her stop crying, what will? The pronounced importance of seeing for Zefferino reflects its centrality to the story.

Contrasting visual images provide for characterization. Looking at the captured bass, Zefferino is thrilled by its iridescence, but Signorina de Magistris grieves instead to see evidence of parasites. Zefferino joyfully proclaims his bream to be a champion fish, and the narrator remarks that it was impossible for the boy to imagine seeing a bigger, more beautiful fish; but Signorina de Magistris sadly observes “the throat that had just swallowed the little greenish fish, only to be ripped by the teeth of the spear.”

Even Zefferino’s father’s only perception of Signorina de Magistris as “the woman,” contrasts tellingly with Zefferino’s fixed perception of her as “the fat woman.” By having the boy consistently describe Signorina de Magistris as “the fat woman,” Calvino playfully reminds us that this is a story about subjectivity and points of view. Among the many possible interpretations of Calvino’s title, “Big Fish, Little Fish,” one may refer to Signorina de Magistris alone, as she is first perceived by Zefferino and later by his father.