Resurrection means to rise from the dead or to revive. Resurrection is the narrator’s primary theme in “Fish.” Many of the narrator’s memories over the course of the story are concerned with little moments in which resurrection has occurred or nearly occurred, for example, the father’s birth a year after his stillborn brother; his childhood recovery from pneumonia; his depression and subsequent recovery as an adult; and the daughter leaving her marriage and starting her life anew. The imminence of death comes as a surprise to the father at the beginning of “Fish,” but he accepts it gracefully, sad only that he will miss watching his grandchildren grow. The memories the narrator recalls are a foil against death and its finality and serve to imbue a dying man with life, reviving him momentarily to the fullness of being. At the end of the short story, the family is not mourning the father’s death so much as seeing him in a new realm of existence. The narrator dreams that she is the only one who knows her father is really still alive. Then, in another dream he joins her, her sister, and her mother in a mirrored image that temporarily brings them together again. The idea that a loved one is in a different place rather than just dead and inanimate can be comforting to those left behind. The sense of transformation after death—resurrection to a new realm of being—gives the ending of the story an uplifted note. Death becomes a beginning of something new rather than an end of the mortal life.
The title “Fish” and the theme of resurrection also resonate with the Christian religion. In the early days of the Roman Empire, practicing Christians were persecuted, and these people may have kept their identities and meetings secret by using the ichthys symbol. The word, ichthys, is Greek for “fish” and may have been appropriated as a Christian symbol for a number of reasons; one is the story in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with only a small amount of fish and bread. Another idea is that letters of the Greek word for fish serve as an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
As given in her dream, the daughter believes in her father’s ongoing life despite the denial of others around her, which could be understood as a reference to Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion. She later discovered the sepulcher of Jesus was empty and saw a vision of angels that reassured her of his resurrection and ascension to heaven.
Familial love is immediately present in “Fish” with the narrator’s grief over her father’s impending death and the gathering of her family to be with him, to care for him, and to be with each other. But as the narrator reflects on her and her father’s past, the same strong love that ties this small family (father, mother, and two daughters) together is a thread that runs back through her father’s life as well. Despite the financial hardships his parents faced, his father’s alcoholism, and other unspoken tensions between father and son that the narrator alludes to, she affirms to her father, “you only said nice things and we grew up to love him.” This family has stuck together and cared for each other even when it meant the narrator’s father, as a young man, carrying his drunken father home from a high school football game after he caused a scene. Their love was not necessarily spoken, but it was unfailingly present.
The narrator remembers the absence of her father due to his severe depression. She did not blame him, only feared to lose him, to lose anyone. She clung to the story “The Little Match Girl,” by Hans Christian Andersen, when she was young. That story is about a child who sells boxes of matches on the street to earn money for her and her father. One cold New Year’s Eve night she lights match after precious match, using them up in order to keep warm. Eventually, she dies of the cold. The narrator acknowledges that her memories are like matches struck “in an attempt to hold on.” The final scenes after her father’s death are not ones of grief and mourning but instead of dreams the narrator has in which her father is alive, her family brought back together. In one she sees her father in a mirror. Her mother and sister enter the room and the three of them look at the family of four standing together in the mirror image. In this dream, her father repeats what he told her on his deathbed: “You are my heart; that’s all that there is.” As he dies, she whispers to him, “I’ll be looking for you.” The ties of love in this family are not broken by death.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Jill McCorkle, Published by Gale Group, 2006