Why does the speaker let the fish go at the end of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish"?

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The speaker examines the fish closely and sees right away that it is aged. It hangs heavily on the hook, and its body and eyes speak of the long history of its survival. The speaker visualizes what it looks like on the inside, and those images reflect beauty: "white flesh...like feathers" and a "swim-bladder like a big peony." The speaker appreciates what he or she sees and regards the fish as an entity without explicitly humanizing it.

When the speaker's gaze settles on the fish's jaw, he or she sees that the fish has escaped death at least five times. Its lip contains hooks and lines that have scarred over. Five people have hooked the venerable fish, and all have gone home without this particular prize.

Because the speaker has the fish out of the water, this time it will not escape. However, the speaker comes to the rapid and overwhelming realization that just landing this old warrior of a fish is a "victory" because he or she has succeeded where five others have failed. The speaker apparently believes that is a more satisfying and perhaps more noble act to release the fish and preserve its life than to take it home as a meal or a trophy. He or she respects the fish's will to survive and perhaps does not want to be the agent of its destruction.

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In "The Fish," the speaker catches a "tremendous" fish. This old fish doesn't even fight her as she reels him in. She notes the details of this fish—his skin, which hangs off of him, is covered in barnacles. As she realizes the history of this fish, she realizes that there is no victory in taking his life.

He has survived so much. She sees that this fish has been a fighter in the past as she notes:

grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.

Like a war veteran, the fish displays his medals from former victories with a quiet reverence of spirit. These battle scars are a part of him, both metaphorically and physically. The speaker notes that it gives him an air of "wisdom" as the lines trail from his jaw.

And now this old guy can fight no longer. He has lived his best years and seen stronger days. But the speaker recognizes the victory of a life well-fought. As she sees this reflected in the old fish she's caught, "victory filled up / the little rented boat," and she cannot kill him. She spares his life because of what he represents: perseverance, struggle, and strength. The world becomes a rainbow, connoting hope and promise, as she lets this wise old fish live.

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Bishop's narrator in this poem develops empathy with the fish she has caught by observing it minutely. This observation and empathy leads her to release the fish back to freedom. The poem moves from the words "I caught a tremendous fish," which might lead the reader to anticipate a recounting of an epic battle with the fish, to the words: "He didn't fight/ He hadn't fought at all." Instead, he hangs there and the narrator describes him: "skin ...like ancient wallpaper ...speckled with barnacles ..." He looks like a peony and then the narrator stares into his eyes and the five hooks in his mouth. She "stared and stared," saying "victory" filled the little boat. This seems to be the fish's victory, not the narrator's, as she releases it back into the water: "I let the fish go."

To an extent, the narrator anthropomorphizes the fish, seeing him as wise and sullen, which builds her sense of connection to him. He becomes more than just an object to her. In her 2016 biography of Bishop, called Elizabeth BishopMegan Marshall interprets the poem as, among other things, Bishop's struggle to break free of her mentor, poet Marianne Moore, calling it "Elizabeth's declaration of independence." This only underscores Bishop's deep identification with the fish, and in this reading, the "victory" becomes both Elizabeth's in breaking free and the fish's. Interestingly, too, despite her powers of observation and description, Bishop never specifies what type of fish this is: that doesn't matter. What is important is the empathy the narrator develops for it, and by extension, the empathy we all can develop if we take the time to observe the world around us. 

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"The Fish" is a poem in which the speaker, as a respecter of life, becomes sympathetic to the fish.  In line 34 the speaker says she

looked into his eyes/which were far larger than mine/but shallower...the irises backed and packed/...seen thruogh the lenses of old scratched isinglasss

It is at this point that the speaker perceives the old fish as a venerable character from whose lip hang

five old pices of fish-line...Like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing from his aching jaw.

That this old fish has beaten five other fisherman causes the speaker to revere the fish.  She thinks, she "stares" and "victory filled up the little rented boat."  Who is she to reel in this venerable fish, who has survived for so long against five other adversaries?  Out of respect and sympathy for the fish who has won these previous battles, she throws him back.

In her calm, understated tone, Elizabeth Bishop moves from the ordinary description of a fish similar to a ling or cod to a philosophical insight.  As the speaker states and "victory" fills the boat, she remarks that "everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" before she lets the fish go.  It is at this point that the speaker realizes the wisdom of revering life, especially the life of one who has struggled to live and endure. 

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