What do Rumble Fish symbolize in Rumble Fish?

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The rumble fish in Hinton's novel of the same name is symbolic of the violence and the possibility for violence that exists throughout the narrative. Motorcycle Boy looks to them at the end of the novel and wonders if the Siamese fighting fish would be less violent if they were freed in the river instead of in a cage in a pet store. For Motorcycle Boy, the fish are symbolic of his own violent past that he tried to free himself from but ultimately, in the end of the novel, is unable to escape from.

The Siamese fighting fish end up being analogous to Motorcycle Boy's own story. He was violent in the place he was stuck in as a young man, but when he was finally free to leave, his behavior changed. The inherent violence that surrounded Motorcycle Boy went away with his own freedom and possibility for exploration. The Rumble Fish symbolize the potential for violence when we are trapped; they also represent the possibility for change and redemption when we are free.

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A "rumble fish" is a nickname for a betta fish, a beautiful fish that is popular with aquarium enthusiasts. It is also the title of S. E. Hinton's novel and is a symbol rich with meaning.

The betta fish is also known as a fighting fish because the males of this species are extremely aggressive and territorial, much like the gang members whose lives are depicted in Rumble Fish. Both the fish and the gang members are born aggressive, and they are somewhat trapped by their environments; when they come too close to each other, they inevitably fight to the death.

The symbol of the fish is a powerful one. Neither the fish nor the gang members appear to know that a different, less violent way of life exists. Only when the Motorcycle Boy is in a different environment to the one in which he was born does he gain knowledge about a more peaceful way to live.

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The "Rumble Fish" that this question refers to is asking about the Siamese fighting fish that the Motorcycle Boy likes so much from Mr. Dobson's pet store. The Siamese fighting fish have to be kept apart from each other because otherwise they would fight to the death:

They try to kill each other. If you leaned a mirror against the bowl they'd kill themselves trying to fight their own reflection.

The fish and their behavior are symbolic of the warring gang members and their constant affinity toward using violence against one another. Rusty-James and the gang members are like the fighting fish. He is a gang member, and he fights different gang members simply because they exist and are within sight of him and his territory. It's what he does, and it's all that he knows how to do. It's a part of genetic fiber in the same way that the fish have no other outlook on life. It's normal.

The Rumble Fish are tied to another symbol in the book too. The Motorcycle Boy is curious if the fish would act that way if they were given a new environment with additional space from other fighting fish:

"Wonder if they'd act that way in the river," the Motorcycle Boy went on.

The Motorcycle Boy eventually steals the fish and releases them into the river. He hopes that the new environment and freedom will result in a behavioral change. The fish store is captivity, and the river is freedom. This is essentially what happened to the Motorcycle Boy when he spent time away from the town and the violence.

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A rumble fish is a betta, or Siamese fighting fish.  It is symbolic of the difficult situation that the boys in the story find themselves in, destined for conflict.

When Rusty-James sees the Siamese fighting fish in the store, it is a not so subtle connection to his own fate.

If you leaned a mirror against the bowl they'd kill themselves fighting their own reflection…

The betta fish will fight themselves while thinking they are fighting someone else.  Symbolically, they are the same situation.  They fight because they only know how to fight.  The boys are the same way.  They fight for silly, self-destructive reasons.  Like the tiny fish in the bowl, the characters in the story are trapped.

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