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fish elizabeth bishop

In Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish,'' why does the speaker let the fish go at the end of the poem? Please defend your answer.


Bishop's narrator in this poem develops empathy with the fish she has caught by observing it minutely. This observation and empathy leads her to release the fish back to freedom. The poem moves from the words "I caught a tremendous fish," which might lead the reader to anticipate a recounting of an epic battle with the fish, to the words: "He didn't fight/ He hadn't fought at all." Instead, he hangs there and the narrator describes him: "skin ...like ancient wallpaper ...speckled with barnacles ..." He looks like a peony and then the narrator stares into his eyes and the five hooks in his mouth. She "stared and stared," saying "victory" filled the little boat. This seems to be the fish's victory, not the narrator's, as she releases it back into the water: "I let the fish go."

To an extent, the narrator anthropomorphizes the fish, seeing him as wise and sullen, which builds her sense of connection to him. He becomes more than just an object to her. In her 2016 biography of Bishop, called Elizabeth BishopMegan Marshall interprets the poem as, among other things, Bishop's struggle to break free of her mentor, poet Marianne Moore, calling it "Elizabeth's declaration of independence." This only underscores Bishop's deep identification with the fish, and in this reading, the "victory" becomes both Elizabeth's in breaking free and the fish's. Interestingly, too, despite her powers of observation and description, Bishop never specifies what type of fish this is: that doesn't matter. What is important is the empathy the narrator develops for it, and by extension, the empathy we all can develop if we take the time to observe the world around us. 


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