“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop is saturated with vivid imagery and abundant description, which help the reader visualize the action. Bishop’s use of imagery, narration, and tone allow the reader to visualize the fish and create a bond with him, a bond in which the reader has a great deal of admiration for the fish’s plight. The mental pictures created are, in fact, so brilliant that the reader believes incident actually happened to a real person, thus building respect from the reader to the fish.
Initially the reader is bombarded with an intense image of the fish; he is “tremendous,” “battered,” “venerable,” and “homely.” The reader is sympathetic with the fish’s situation, and can relate because everyone has been fishing. Next, Bishop compares the fish to familiar household objects: “here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper;” she uses two similes with common objects to create sympathy for the captive. Bishop then goes on to clearly illustrate what she means by “wallpaper”: “shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age.” She uses another simile here paired with descriptive phrases, and these effectively depict a personal image of the fish. She uses the familiar “wallpaper” comparison because it is something the readers can relate to their own lives. Also the “ancient wallpaper” analogy can refer to the fish’s age. Although faded and aged he withstood the test of time, like the wallpaper. Bishop uses highly descriptive words like “speckled” and “infested” to create an even clearer mental picture. The word “terrible” is used to describe oxygen, and this is ironic because oxygen is usually beneficial, but in the case of the fish it is detrimental. The use of “terrible” allows the reader to visualize the fish gasping for breaths and fighting against the “terrible oxygen,” permitting us to see the fish’s predicament on his level. The word frightening does essentially the same thing in the next phrase, “the frightening gills.” It creates a negative image of something (gills) usually considered favorable, producing an intense visual with minimal words. Another simile is used to help the reader picture the fish’s struggle: “coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.” This wording intensifies the reader’s initial view of the fish, and creates a visual, again, on the reader’s level.
Bishop next relates to the fish on a personal basis: “I looked into his eyes… …I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw.” Through this intense diction, a tone of respect is produced. It is as if, for a moment, the poet descended to the fish’s level, and the reader then has more respect for the fish’s situation and the narrator’s position regarding the fish. She described the fish’s stare “like the tipping of an object towards the light;” this very astute observation shows the reader that the poet is thinking deeply about the fish, and there is a connection made on the part of the poet. The lip “if you could call it a lip” is the next part observed. It is described as “grim,” “wet,” and “weapon-like,” giving the reader, through personification, a “fishy” view of the creature as he actually exists. As she explains the hooks and lines caught in his lip, the reader learns that his lip has grown around the hooks, thus becoming part of the fish. These appendages hang “like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering,” creating the image of a hero winning many competitions or battles. This simile creates another level of respect for the fish on the part of the narrator, and following the simile is a metaphor which emphasizes the narrator’s ensuing admiration for the fish. The fish is now considered “wise” with his “five-haired beard of wisdom trailing behind his aching jaw;” and he is now on a higher plateau of respect.
The narrator then compares this little fish’s greatness with her boat. This “rented boat” “leaking oil” from its “rusted engine” created a rainbow so beautiful that she became overwhelmed and released the fish. The boat started out imperfect, but so overwhelmed the poet, that she released the fish. Here, the boat can be compared to the fish, in it’s initial imperfection, then to its final magnificence. The descriptive words allow the reader to, again, visualize the moment vividly through the eyes of the narrator.
Bishop does an outstanding job in describing every moment in her growing relationship with the fish. She creates, first, an image of a helpless captive and the reader is allowed to feel sorry for the fish and even pity his situation. The narrator’s relationship with the fish then grows to one of personal regard as she looks into his eyes and describes his stare. Because the reader is following the story with the poet, the reader’s relationship to the fish evolves as Bishop’s does. Next, a level of admiration is reached, when Bishop notices his five hooked jaw; she realizes his situation of capture and imprisonment and releases him as he’d gotten away five times before. The reader’s admiration also reaches this level of respect, in that the fish had been caught five times previously and still managed to be alive. The fish’s “badges of courage,” described by Bishop, allowed the reader to grow and create a bond with the fish and understand his life. The imagery and description were the vital tools in implanting this growing admiration for something as trivial as a fish.