Eric Caswell technically does not appear in the story. Readers learn about him only through comments the other two characters make about him. Sheila talks more about Eric than the narrator does and is flattered by Eric’s complimentary remarks about her. She tells the narrator that Eric owns a fancy car and has told her she has the right looks to become a model. Eric obviously has gained Sheila’s attention through his flattery and because of his status as a college (older) boy who also has money. In the end, Eric wins the honor of taking Sheila home in his car, sparing her the more unusual trip via the river with the narrator. In many ways Eric is the complete opposite of the narrator.
Although Sheila makes only a brief appearance in this story and has little to say, she appears to be a major character because the protagonist is so focused on her throughout the narrative. Sheila is a seventeen-year-old beauty used to a lot of attention—especially from young men. From her attitude toward the narrator readers might conclude that Sheila thinks every boy around her age is enthralled by her. Like the narrator, Sheila is not only aware of her looks but is somewhat obsessed with them. During the canoe trip with the narrator, one of the main topics she discusses deals with how she plans on improving her appearance. She watches other women who have attracted media attention and hopes to emulate them—at least on a physical level. She wants to copy their hair style and considers sunbathing less so she can have whiter skin. She thinks of women in terms of their appearance rather than their talents or skills. This suggests that Sheila’s thoughts are rather shallow. For instance, even though she plans to attend college, she makes no reference to what she might study but rather how she will entertain herself while on campus.
Sheila also demonstrates a lack of compassion. For example, she is unwilling to help row the canoe despite the fact that the narrator has provided an extra paddle. This unwillingness does not appear to be a conscious decision since it is unclear if she even notices the extra paddle or ever considers helping out. She merely takes her cushioned seat, removes her shoes, and leans back, assuming the narrator will do all the work. Unlike the narrator, who is completely at home in nature, Sheila is apprehensive and lacks basic information about nature. She is squeamish about the unfamiliar sounds she hears and somewhat naively accepts the lies the narrator tells her about what is happening around them. She has little interest in what is occurring because she is so caught up in her own selfish thoughts. She never asks the narrator about his life and has no knowledge of the narrator’s dilemma concerning the bass he has caught. She does not recognize the signs around her, such as the bent fishing rod, the narrator’s distraction, or the pull on the canoe. Sheila spends most of the time in the canoe talking about herself. She appears content with who she is and could care less about anyone else. This lack of compassion is fully apparent when she decides to let Eric Caswell take her home, leaving the narrator to row his canoe home alone and not considering that she might have hurt his feelings.
The narrator is never given a name. Readers only know he is fourteen years old and has a passion for fishing. He also has a serious crush on Sheila Mant. For the narrator the events of this story represent a turning point in his life. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is innocent and a bit naive about girls. He is easily blindsided by his crush on Sheila. Her beauty and confidence stun him. He is two years younger than she is, and her extra years make her seem as if she were living in a different world—one that the narrator longs to enter. He hopes that if he can manage to develop a relationship with her, Sheila will invite him into the world he imagines she inhabits.
The narrator is also very enthused about nature. He loves being out on the water in his canoe, both during the day and at night. He understands the river, including its currents and ecology. He has researched the habits of the wildlife that lives in and around the watery world. He knows why the fish head for the rocky shores and why they hide among the shoreline’s vegetation. He knows what the fish eat and at what times of day and night they do so. Other aspects of nature are also within his comprehension, such as the names of the stars and constellations. He loves to watch the stars travel across the night sky. He is most comfortable when immersed in the natural world. Dealing with girls is beyond his comfort level. He knows Sheila only from a distance—if he knows her at all. What he believes he knows about her he has merely made up inside his head. He has not tested his hypothesis. His attraction to Sheila is based on her physical self, a body the narrator finds beautiful and alluring. When he finally is close enough to her to gain her attention, he has very little to say. Much of what he does say is fabricated information.
As the story progresses, it is obvious that the narrator makes the mistake of misunderstanding Sheila. Though he spends hours watching her and assumes that certain of her body positions reflect her various moods, his conclusions may, in fact, have nothing to do with Sheila and everything to do with the thoughts he is experiencing. What is certain is that he does not see the obvious. Sheila is self-absorbed and has little interest in him. She considers him a curiosity. It takes a jolt of reality—when he learns that Sheila is leaving the concert with his rival—for the narrator to see Sheila for what she is. This wounds him, but not so much for losing her but rather for the fish he let get away. Once he is aware of Sheila’s flaws, he vows never to allow himself to be blindsided again. Thus, he proves to be smart enough to learn a lesson from his own shortcomings. In the end, he appears stronger and wiser, able to move on with a positive attitude and a willingness to keep fishing, both for another large bass and other girls.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – W. D. Wetherell – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.