In The Fish, Elizabeth Bishop uses metaphors to describe the human condition and obtain an appreciation for the quality of life lived. The human condition is defined as the aspects and stages through which a human is born, grows, struggles, and eventually dies. The human condition describes how we live, handle challenges, fight, and then perish. In the beginning of her poem, Bishop’s language is literal. She describes the fish she caught – lifeless, substantial in size, “battered,” striped in color, smattered with barnacles, and “infested with sea-lice.” Her description is a typical description of a fish that has lived through many fishing seasons. She continues her literal description by indicating the fish is breathing “terrible oxygen.” Since fish remove oxygen from the water and not directly from the air, the fish’s breathing was labored. Bishop next describes the fish as a food source, not a living, breathing creature of any greater value than a sportsman’s prize, a Sunday dinner, or an exaggerated fish tale. However, Bishop’s literal fish description metaphorically describes the stages of the human condition as we develop, traverse trials and tribulations, age, then ultimately die.
Prior to birth, infants are surrounded by a warm fluid and obtain oxygen and nutrients directly from their mothers. The watery environment an infant experience is identical to that of a fish. Initially, the child is lifeless as the delivery room doctor and nurses wrestle the baby’s body from its mother. Upon being born, infants struggle to take their first breath of “terrible oxygen,” which is necessary for life outside the womb. The child is completely vulnerable at this point; the fish was also vulnerable and exposed as the fisherman held its body against the boat. Upon delivery, a child can be covered in a waxy, white, cheese-like substance called vernix, which resembles barnacles on Bishop’s fish.
Bishop’s description of the fish’s eyes was symbolic of an ill, aged person potentially with dementia who has given up hope and the fight for life. The fish’s eyes were “shallow, yellow” as if with jaundice, and scratched like a thin sheet of mica or “isinglass.” Aged dementia patients often display the far-away stare and appear absent in mind when interacting with others.
At this point in the poem, Bishop transitions from viewing the fish as a lifeless, worthless beast that is lice infested and corroded with barnacles to describing the fish as a valiant fighter who has survived many battles victoriously. Five fish hooks were imbedded in his lower lip, which gave his jaw a “weaponlike” appearance. Bishop admired the fish because he had been a warrior during his life and had survived many attacks. She viewed his scars as medals of honor. The same can be said for human beings who have lived long, honorable lives. The battle scars might not be as evident as the fish, but they provide character and define our fortitude. The scars we receive by living life help to define our character and build our inner strength so we are prepared for life’s future struggles and battles. Each time the fish was caught, he fought and outsmarted the fishermen to live another day.
Bishop even had sympathy for the fish when she described his jaw as aching from the imbedded hooks. Humans who can look beyond the physical aspects of other individuals often sympathize with their circumstances. Being able to look beyond physical characteristics allows humans to have deeper appreciation for others. Bishop continues to see a greater appreciation for her surroundings as she examines the fish’s physical appearance. She admires her old, rusted, rented boat not as the vehicle that allowed her to go fishing, but as the vessel that allowed her to gain a greater appreciation for life. Instead of an oil slick on the water, she sees a beautiful rainbow full of color and shimmering on the water’s surface. It is at this moment that she realizes the value of life and the struggles the fish has endured. She finally views the fish as more than a trophy, a meal, or a fish tale. She admires the fish as a fighter and a strong survivor. Bishop sees her life struggles in the fish. She releases the fish because it is human nature to want to be free.
Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish uses metaphors as a vehicle to view the human condition, their struggles, and their mortality. As a result of her catching the fish and taking the time to admire its scars and battle wounds, she learns to appreciate the importance of the quality of life, its finite nature, and beauty in the smallest things.
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