Symbol in "The Fish"

It seems likely that the fish is symbolic of something, because why else would the speaker pay so much attention to it? It strongly symbolizes power, or the potential for power, and the speaker’s interaction with the fish plays on the notion of power. Their interaction can also be seen as symbolic of human interaction with nature. The speaker finally lets the fish go, which proves that she is in control, but it is the fish’s strength, wisdom, and beauty that force her to let it go: It has innate qualities associated with nature that are larger than her.

- lines 5/6 - "He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all"
As we explore the fish’s symbolism, we should not ignore its passivity (despite the hooks in its jaw). Fish are associated with freedom, because they must be caught before they can be controlled. They are also associated with the mysteries of nature: Some of the most enduring fantasies about nature’s power have to do with enormous fish that cannot be caught (as in Moby-Dick) or with horrible sea creatures. Although this fish is linked to these issues of freedom and control through its past, in this instance it is rendered powerless, almost anticlimactically.

- lines 22/23 - "his gills were breathing in / the terrible oxygen"
The fish had been described as “a grunting weight” (7), rather lifeless. Here it is full of life, almost terrifyingly so. Its ability to be both of these things represents the mysteries of life and death, or the fine line between them. Fish are associated with Jesus in the Bible, whose promise of eternal life was represented by allegories such as the story of the loaves and fishes, in which a few fish provide sustenance for multitudes of people. In such a context, a fish can represent the benevolence of the Christian God. Fish are also an important evolutionary link; all life forms on earth developed from organisms in the sea. Through either interpretation, the fish’s association with life and its potential for death, as well as the fact that its life is suspended as it gulps for air while suspended in air, partially account for the speaker’s fascination with it.

- lines 45, 49 - "I admired his sullen face” and “if you could call it a lip"
In these two lines, the speaker displays symbolically another contradiction in the fish’s status. It is personified when she admires “his sullen face,” using a gender-specific pronoun (“his” as opposed to “its”); it is a face to be admired and even has an expression (“sullen”), as though the fish had control over its face in the same way a person would. Yet a few lines later, as she is describing the fish’s lip, the speaker calls this personification into question. Her control over the fish depends largely on what it represents to her. If it has human characteristics, the potential for control is much more significant than if it doesn't.

Questions for response
1). How does this examination of symbols change your understanding of how the poem works as a whole?

2). Find other examples of symbols in the poem. What do they contribute to the work?

Bedford/St. Martin's | Order a Book | Instructor Registration | Contact Us | Contact Your Sales Representative