There are many things in life that restrict progress, whether it be circumstance or people. What if life itself restricts living? What if living was forces you into an isolated world of stagnancy? The story “The Secret Goldfish” by David Means deals with themes of restriction and isolation by drawing parallels between the life of a neglected goldfish and that of a recently divorced, suburban woman. The marriage, which appears on the outside to be as neatly organized and pleasantly dependent as the life of a fish, is in fact a glass prison, restricting life to ever narrower circle and isolating its inhabitants both from each other and the outside world.
The neglected goldfish, Fish, is seen being restricted by his environment. The story states that the children are “dumping too much food in no matter how often they are told to be careful.” No matter how much they dump in, Fish always consumes it all because “the level of Fish’s hunger is permanently set too high,” (288). The hunger of the fish is representative of the wife’s hunger and longing for connection, specifically with her family. She craves deeper relationships, but it seems that every relationship she is in, she is bound, stuck in a tank. She consumes emotions until she, like Fish, is restricted by her own need.
Not only is the wife being restricted, the husband too is found being restrained by their marriage. When he goes off to have a love affair, the husband creates an excuse to hide it from his wife. He explains that in Japan it is custom for people to sleep overnight in town. He describes how “they rent cubicles just wide enough for a body, like coffins” (290). To him, his marriage is like a coffin, restricting, allowing him no movement. The affair is an attempt at freedom, an act to sever the chains their marriage holds on him. Another example of the husband’s confinement is when he is found trying to remove his wedding band. “It’s too tight,” he explains (290). He is trying to loosen the bond the marriage has between them.
While not only being restricted, the wife is also being forced into isolation, despite her craving for connection. When she describes the conditions of her honeymoon, “standing naked with him at the balcony door in the dusky night air,” the reader is conveyed the sense that she is attempting to connect. She stands before him, naked and vulnerable. She gives herself up for their relationship. She quits her career to stay home with her children. She has “to be assured the right connections were fused.” There is a sense of irony in her life. She gives up her life to form connections with her family, and it seems that none were produced whatsoever. The wife initially believes her decisions to be of her own choosing, “an act of free will,” but now she feels as though it was merely a decision forced on her. It was act of fate that was destined due to the betrayal of her husband that would come about later (291).
In the story, the wife reflects on a time when she bought a figurine for Fish’s tank. She had bought the figurine “to please the eyes of the children,” but they did not like it. It therefore serves one purpose in Fish’s life. It arranges the space in the tank so it appears as though Fish has something to do (291). This memory parallels her life. The wife uses her marriage and her children as a sense of purpose. She believes that her family is the reason she does all of the monotonous tasks around the house. The text explains that “she had given up plenty in order to stay home for Teddy’s and Annie’s formative years,” (291). The wife seems stuck in a false reality, separated from real life. She is caught in a restricting tank, being mesmerized by her life tasks, yet they really are accomplishing nothing. She is being captivated by an illusion of purpose her family creates.
Another sad element about the wife’s life is that she is trapped in her own reality, separate from actuality. She sits watching Fish, questioning whether or not he realizes that he is caught in his “eternal hell, caught in the tank’s glass grip?” Does Fish feel free with merely some glass obstructions in the way every now and then? (292). The questions mirror her own thoughts toward herself and her current situation. The wife seems to be trapped in a glass “eternal hell,” but she thinks she is swimming freely. Yet as she swims through life, the glass restricts tighter and tighter. As she becomes more constricted and isolated, her husband begins to take a flight to freedom.
Throughout the story, there are no direct interactions of the wife and her husband, signifying their lack of connection. There is however, a scene where the wife looks outside a window and sees her husband. He seems agitated, his arms “flapping” with emotion. The term “flapping” implies that the husband is leaving, flying away to freedom. This message is proven in the next few lines of the story, which read, “Shortly after that, the tank began to murk up,” (292). Their marriage fails and she remains fixed in an isolating reality.
The wife is then described glancing at the tank, its murky waters showing no sign of life. She searches the tank and realizes that Fish is alive. She watches in awe, and cynically contemplates the possibility that hope might exist. We are conveyed her cynicism through her thought, “it was only Fish. Just frickin’ Fish.” She wants Fish, an ugly creature who had somehow managed to survive, to serve as some miraculous sign from God that things are going to be all right (292). Then she realizes the implications she is making and sees that Fish is only a fish. With her consideration of hope, she flashes back to a memory of her childhood fish, Fred, being released into the wild. The memory is “profoundly clear.” This scene seems to charge her with a sort of hope that life will be better. She then begins to clean the tank as a last attempt to rescue her forgotten hope of freedom. When she finishes, she thinks about Fish and the fact that although he is worn down with the wear and tear of life, there seems to be a newness in his swimming (293). He seems to be more beautiful in his clean tank. This scene is analogous the wife. Now that her husband has left, she can finally experience the freedom that she had witnessed in the release of Fred. The wife betters herself and even though she has emotional scars, she can live a more vivid life.
The problem with the wife’s hope is that it does not last long. “The tank fell back into its murk, got worse…” (293). She again fell into the mess of her life and the separated isolation. Like Fish, who “did not die,” she did not die (294). She lost the fight in life. She lives purposeless and without hope.
Living in his tank alone, Fish begins to connect with the figurine in his tank, and sometimes, even the glass walls themselves (295). The wife, now living in her isolated suburban home, is companionless. Her husband has left her and she shares no bond with her children. She longs for connection so she begins to attach to lifeless things. Her goals and way of life are centered on her house, cleaning and doing the monotonous day-to-day chores. She is more comfortable in maintaining appearances than she is relationships. She shares more connection with her house than she does her family.
The story then alters perspectives from someone living inside the home to an onlooker. From the outside, it appears as though the home is in order. The house is neatly tucked away in a background of beautiful trees and the children play contentedly in the yard (295-296). Despite the charming scene, inside the house is crumbling. The marriage is severed. No life exists inside the home. There is no connection, only isolation and a life long-dead to reality.
The perspective then switches back to the wife’s. She looks at the tank. Due to the current murky condition of the tank, the wife assumes Fish is dead. She begins to plan a memorial for Fish, something to show value to his life. “But Fish is alive.” So instead she decides to celebrate the resurrection of his life by cleaning his tank. They ceremonially place plastic wrap over the top of his bowl and carry Fish like “a unison of pallbearers, being careful not to slosh the water.” They carefully set Fish down to his new home, right in front of the television (296-297). The word “pallbearers” is significant to the meaning conveyed by the scene. Pallbearers are the last to carry the casket at a funeral. They are, in a sense, an acceptance of the knowledge that a person is really gone. Therefore, it seems as though Fish’s new home is an acceptance, or rather the wife’s new life is an acceptance. The television represents an illusatory purpose, a reality that is not real in any way. The freedom that the wife could potentially have is thrown away as she remains watching a life that she is not really living. She continues to stay stuck in her own reality, a life that is not a life at all. It is only an ever going day of mindlessly doing tasks, living without connection, purpose, or hope.
Means, David. “The Secret Gold Fish.” Chabon, Michael and Kennison, Kathy, eds. The Best American Short Stories, 2005. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2005. 288-297.