Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Big Fish, Little Fish” is a fable about illusion and reality, conveyed in contrasting perceptions. Zefferino perceives the world as an exciting novelty. “This was a place rich in fish, like an enclosed pond; and wherever Zefferino looked he saw a flicker of sharp fins, the glint of scales; his joy and wonder were so great, he forgot to shoot even once.” A child, his perceptions are spirited and naïve.

By contrast, Signorina de Magistris’s perceptions are darkened by her grief. When Zefferino first asks her if she appreciates how full of fish the pond is, she responds that she cannot see anything because she cannot stop crying. When Zefferino yearns to have her share his contentment with the size and beauty of the fish around them, Signorina de Magistris can only notice the evidence of suffering on their bodies. Afflicted with an agonized sense of herself as victim, she sympathetically regards the alcove as a refuge for animals sentenced to agony, while Zefferino, secure in his innocence, knows only the excitement of the hunt and the dazzle of the moment.

Innocence and experience offer conflicting points of view, but neither adequately comprehends reality: Both are solipsistic and illusory, based on expectations, falsified by projections of the self. Should the flicker of sharp fins arouse a throb of fear in Zefferino that perhaps a shark is near? It does not. Signorina de Magistris’s perceptions are more knowing, informed by...

(The entire section is 597 words.)