Summary: Symbolism and Plot of the Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden Poem

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Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden is a poem written by Keith Douglas in 1951 describing the behavior of various types of fish as they discover a white stone on the seafloor. The female white stone draws in the attention of many male fish through seduction, her beauty fascinates them regardless of their age or appearance. The shoal of male fish all swim to stare and pay attention to the white stone, only to abandon her in the end, continuing with their everyday lives. Throughout the poem, a cynical tone is used which scrutinizes the behavior of all subjects that encourage readers to question the true intent of the stone and fish’s actions. Douglas develops key ideas such as superficial relationships between men and women, the blinding effect caused by gender roles, the short duration of passion/interest between the sexes, and woman’s social status being under control of male forces to bring out the nature of the relationship between men and women as one of mere short-lasting, instinct-driven ardor with no genuine devotion.

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Douglas exposes the objective desires men and women want from each other to highlight the phoniness of their relationships. Douglas utilizes a powerful extended metaphor throughout the poem which compares the white stone to a beautiful woman and various fish to gallants. The white stone is described to be unique and attractive with ‘carmined’ fingers, its beauty ‘draws down men’s glances and their cruel wish for love’. The physical attractiveness of the white stone brings in the stares and attention of many fish, just as how women would adorn themselves to attract men. However, the physical attraction only draws in more of those seeking for immediate pleasure as opposed to a dedicated relationship – Many fish were indeed drawn in by the white stone, but they soon left after satisfying their curiosity to the stone’s beauty, to which in the end the stone is left by herself. The extended metaphor used by Douglas compares women to a white stone seeking attention, as well as men to ignorant fish that could be satisfied by a moment’s pleasure and quickly moves on. This communicates the idea of shallow romantic connections as both men and women look for different things in each other instead of attempting to appreciate who they truly are – The white stone only wants to draw the attention of as many fish as possible without the intention to form emotional attachment to any of them, while all of the fish only went to adore the white stone for her appearances as opposed to her individual qualities or personality. This results in both parties acting half-heartedly towards each other as a real stone would to a fish or a real fish would to a stone which in the end causes the root of short-lasting or undevoted relationships between men and women.

Douglas uses specific diction choice to construct the idea that the objectification and gender expectations for women blinds men from seeing the true redeeming features of their partner, which likely cause splits in their relationships. Douglas specifically selects diction that assigns women to be a ‘white stone’ and men to be groups of ‘fish’. A stone is an immobile object which is ‘useless’, the diction that associates women to a stone objectifies her as a mere object of men’s sexual desires, its immobility represents the gender roles of women in the 1950s – They mostly stay home with minimal mobility, unable to live her own life or make her own decisions without others, as opposed to all the fish (men) that is able to move and live freely. A stone is not valuable on its own and regardless of its unique white beauty, ‘red lips [or] carmined fingers’, those outward façade does not make it any more valuable, for stones will only ever be stones – What is seen on the outside will never truly reflect on what it is as a whole. This vividly establishes the connection that although women may be easily seen as just another vessel for sex, her true worth is determined not by her appearances or what is expected of her to act like according to women’s gender roles. However, instead of making the stone be an object of appreciation to the fish, Douglas describes it as it being an object ‘useless except for a [rich man]’. This conveys that what is expected of the stone to be a useless collectable has blinded all fish from trying to see anything beneath its appearance. Men’s objectification of women makes their attention span for them to be short-lived and to see women as only objects that can be used and replaced. This takes away a chance for men to love women for their personality, traits or anything on a deeper level, which often results in a relationship to develop into a shallow one driven by lust.

Douglas uses ice cream as a symbol to conceive the short-lasting and meaningless flirtation between men and women, symbolism also works in correlation with structure to emphasize how the encounter leads to no true development in their relationship. The white stone begins to eat a morsel of ice cream at the start of the poem. While the ice cream had lasted, many fish came to give the white stone attention and admiration. However, once the ‘ice cream is finished’, all ‘the fish swim[s] off on [their own] business[es]’. The ice cream consumed by the white stone/woman in the poem symbolize the transience of passion between her and other fish. Ice cream is pleasurable while it lasts but will eventually melt/be finished and lose its significance to consumers – the white stone is the attraction for many fish, but only for a short time while the interests of the fish crowd lasted. Once the ice cream is finished, all the fish leaves the white stone as if nothing happened. This technique works alongside structure, which assigns the peak of the white stone’s attractiveness to when the ice cream is still there, and the fish’s abandonment of the stone to when the ice cream is finished towards the end of the poem. This emphasizes the short-lasting passion that could be described within a poem’s length, and the speed to which fish is able to detach themselves from the white stone’s distraction – the first 6 stanzas were describing how various fish closes in on the stone, admiring and staring at it, but only one stanza is enough to describe their departure. The two techniques work together to show the shallow nature of men and women’s flirtation as they are able to leave one another as soon as their needs are fulfilled. The short lasting encounter makes it difficult for men/women to understand each other beneath surface level which in the end causes their relationships to be one without true devotion.

To highlight the reduction of women’s social status when without a man to depend on, Douglas uses juxtaposition which contrasts one moment when the white stone is crowded by impressed fish to the next moment when the white stone is left alone with no value by herself. In the second to last stanza, the white stone is described to be surrounded, talked to and stared at by ‘gallants in shoals’. The use of the word ‘gallant’ expresses the attitude in which the fish tends to the white stone as if she is a treasure, and the use of the word ‘attraction’ instead of ‘stone’ to describe the white stone in the stanza signifies the raise in its status. This juxtaposes the last stanza, when all the fish left and the white stone is seen alone and apparently ‘useless’. All the value given to the white stone in the previous stanza is taken away with the fish’s abandonment, indicating that a woman’s worth is subjugated by what is appealing to men – without the presence of male support, the stone representing a woman becomes ‘useless’. Conformity to traditional gender roles and the concept of ideal femininity is prominent in the 1950s, a woman cannot survive without a man’s attention hence considered ‘useless’. The juxtaposition used by Douglas showing the contrast of a woman’s worth with or without male recognition indicates a clear message to which woman is seen as more of an object rather than a person as a whole, as their value can be determined on a scale with ‘useless’ on one end. This contributes to the idea that romantic relationships are often only driven by instinctive lust, which causes the connection between men and women to be weak.

Douglas demonstrates the pretentious and undesirable state of romantic relationships established between the two sexes through the poem Behavior of Fish in an Egyptian Tea Garden. A cynical tone established throughout the poem evokes curiosity and encourages readers to peruse the actions of the white stone and fish, which helps to unveil the superficial intentions behind social interactions between men and women in the 1950s. This is supported by the usage of various techniques such as extended metaphor, diction, symbolism, structure and juxtaposition; which creates many aspects to the matter that works together to achieve Douglas’ comment.

 Though written in the 1950s, Douglas’ message about the insincere socialization of the two genders is still relevant to today’s society – many females still seek male’s attention through outwards appearances and seduction, and heterosexual flirtation as a casual social interaction remains common. Though it is widely accepted to have informal romantic interplay between men and women, it is important to recognize Douglas’ comment on the unsavory view of the social situation in which neither of the sexes express heart-felt devotion in their potential relationship, as well as the reduction and objectification of women as mere ‘attractions’ for men. 

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