“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop


The poem is about an inward struggle of the speaker between enjoying a triumph and empathizing with the prey. The speaker has just caught a fish that apparently has managed to break free from the hooks of many fishermen. However, the speaker is unable to enjoy his triumph as he develops feelings of empathy for the fish evidenced by the detailed description of various aspects about the fish. The feelings of triumph are quickly replaced by feelings of appreciation towards the beauty and the strength of the fish and then later by feelings of empathy. Tracing back from the title, it is easy to realize that the poem is about the fish not in terms of being caught and turned into a meal, but in terms of being appreciated and finally being let go. It is not easy for the speaker to just let go of such a big fish that many fishermen would have loved to catch but the speaker does exactly that. A considerable portion of the poem has actually been dedicated to provide a detailed description of the fish. The speaker describes the color and the body of the fish. This helps the speaker to generate appreciation towards the fish. It is as if the speaker regrets catching the fish and by trying to study the fish in detail the speaker seeks to justify the final decision to let go of the fish. From the beginning it is observable that the speaker has no intention of killing the fish because no predator catches a prey and begins to build an attachment with it. The speaker makes the decision of not killing the fish immediately after retrieving it from the water. However, because the speaker is a fisherman and perhaps the boat has been rented and letting go of the fish just like that would be a total loss, the speaker decides to build emotional attachment with the fish that soon emanates to empathy. This provides the speaker with grounds enough to release the fish.

Analysis of the Poem

The poem is about the unlikely attachment that exists between a predator and the prey. However, we can only realize the existent of this attachment from the eyes and words of the predator. The prey is hapless after being caught by the trap of the predator. It is the predator who develops the feelings of empathy towards the prey that soon leads him to let go of his catch. However, one does not fail to question the reason why the prey does not even struggle after being caught but looks at the predator with eyes empty of any emotions. Perhaps the predator has over the years realized that most fishermen have soft spots that could be manipulated and that could make the fishermen let go. This is evidenced by the fact that the speaker observed five other hooks that had been embedded in the mouth of the fish. The speaker refers to the hooks as medals, perhaps appreciating the hooks that the fish has broken free from. However, from the speaker’s description it is understandable that the fish does not struggle or fight back, but rather takes the predator through a guilt trip. The speaker catches the fish enjoys victory but finally lets the fish go. This presents an unlikely situation due to the fact that instead of the speaker going on to catch other fish, he indulges himself in describing the fish. The fish has developed understanding of the predator and has therefore built a defense mechanism that has ensured its continual survival. The fish does not struggle when caught, puts on a stage shoe to evoke empathy from the predator and the predator finally gives n and releases the fish.


The personification of the fish in the poem shows how intelligent the fish has become. The speaker describes the feelings of the fish as if he were describing a human being. Both the speaker and the fish are finally content. The fisherman realizes that by letting the fish go he has rid himself of all the guilt and his conscience is clear. On the other hand the fish goes back to the water to continue with its life. The fish has become wise enough to realize that by struggling it would only make the fisherman more eager to kill it. Furthermore, by struggling the hook will continue to cut into the flesh and would not give the fisherman time to study its beauty and perhaps build emotional attachment. From the time the fisherman catches the fish; he studies it and describes it. We only get to know very few details concerning the fisherman. The details we learn about him, is that he is emotionally weak, his priorities are misplaced and he is not wise. A wise fisherman would not have been drawn into the traps of the fish and would have immediately killed his catch and proceeded to look for other fish. Considering that the boat was rented and that the fisherman would have to pay for it eventually shows that the fisherman does not understand what his priorities are. The poem is a case of a prey that has outsmarted the predator not through brawl but through brains.