Last Updated on July 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
The central character in "The Fish" is the eponymous fish itself, described by the speaker in the opening line as "a tremendous fish." The word "tremendous" at first seems to allude to the size of the fish. By the end of the poem, however, we might infer that the fish is also "tremendous" in other ways. The speaker says that the fish "hadn't fought at all," which implies that perhaps this is a weak, rather lifeless fish that the speaker has caught. However, the fish is then described in such a way as to perhaps elicit our sympathy. He is "infested / with tiny white sea-lice," and his gills inhale "the terrible oxygen," meaning of course that he is suffocating.
The speaker then describes the fish's lower lip, from which, "grim, wet, and weaponlike / hung five old pieces of fish-line." At this point in the poem, we may begin to realize how much suffering this fish has endured. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker says that the fish didn't seem to fight back. Perhaps, at this later point in the poem, we realize that he didn't fight back because he was so tired and so damaged by all the fights he has fought before. We start to think of the fish now as an old warrior, forced to fight one battle too many. He obviously used to be strong. Indeed, he has defeated the fishing line five times before.
The second main character in "The Fish" is the speaker. In the first half of the poem, the speaker doesn't reveal much about her thoughts or feelings. She merely observes the fish, and, because the poem is written in the first-person perspective, we observe it, too, through her eyes.
In the second half of the poem, however, we are given more direct access to the speaker's thoughts and feelings. She says that she "thought of the coarse white flesh, / packed in like feathers." The language in this quotation implies that the speaker is here beginning to pity the fish by way of metaphor. The word "flesh" perhaps reminds her, and us, that the fish is a living creature made up of flesh and bone, just like us. The simile comparing the flesh to "packed in . . . feathers" implies that that the fish's freedom (symbolized by the feathers, which connote flight and freedom) has been curtailed. It's "feathers" have been "packed in" close together, inhibiting its movement.
The speaker then looks into the fish's eyes, which are "far larger" than hers "but shallower." This eye contact with the fish compounds the impression that the speaker is beginning to empathize with the fish. It also reminds her, though, that the fish does not return her interest—that, in a way, it is still remote from her:
I looked into his eyes . . .
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
She then says that she "admired" the fish's "sullen face," indicating that her sympathy has given way to admiration.
Finally, the speaker says that she "stared and stared" at the fish, implying that the speaker is in deep thought. Likely, the speaker here is wondering about the morality of catching this fish, which of course also tells us something about the morality of the speaker. The speaker then, in the final line of the poem, lets the fish go. This climax represents the speaker's realization that the fish deserves to live, and, by extension, perhaps the speaker's realization that she had no moral right to catch it, or other fish, in the first place. In this way, the poem represents a key moment in the moral development of the speaker's character.
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