A short-story that uncovers the relationship of Art and society. Art fills a void, gives essence of individual existence, and gives an opportunity to find our feelings in its products. How far is Art useful? Is it possible at all to interpret a piece of work? In what level are the interpretations objective or subjective? These are the questions, for which Carol Shields' The Orange Fish attempts to find answers, in a very original and destructive way, which seemingly destroys everything: the short-story itself, the reader, the Orange Fish, and the universal ideology of Art. But at the same time, it calls the attention to the cohesive force and to the necessity of Art as well. Is it the disillusionment of the author from Art or only a mockery on it? The next few pages intend to analyse these problems of the short-story, and touch upon the narrative technique and the structure of The Orange Fish.
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Originally, the picture about a fish was bought to fill the void on the kitchen wall and to decorate the house. But the fish later becomes a tool for the characters to analyse themselves, as well as for the reader. This picture gets an elevated meaning, becomes overrated, but not only for the couple, but also for those who possess the other pieces. With this, the Fish gets a mystic function, and brakes through its own boundaries, steps out of its frame. It is not only a poster that hides a blank hole on the wall, but something that gives an opportunity to the owners to interpret their own feelings, and to be present in a socio-cultural programme. While the totally unrealistic, technically impossibly summoned social gathering is being held, the readers find themselves forgetting about the original function of the picture, and start to look for their own feelings in the Orange Fish. In this sense, the readers act the same way as the characters do. But this is when they probably find themselves out of the situation, and observe the scene from an alternative perspective, from outside, from above the characters: it turns out, that the reader is the victim of a harsh irony. The writer makes fun of the "artificial" interpreters, not only of us, but also of the couple. Carol Shields places the reader to a position where the petty argumentation is ridiculed, and where the readers and the characters are not on the same level any more, destroying the validity of all interpretations, as well as the short-story itself. The problem of the deconstruction will be discussed later in this essay.
What does actually the Orange Fish mean for the characters? The husband projects his fears of aging and emptying of his life to the picture. "The orange fish will never grow old"- he says. For him the Fish symbolises eternity and a complete life. In the beginning, he is sitting in the kitchen, and is meditating on his unfulfilled dreams, while the blank hole on the kitchen wall shows the emptiness of his soul, what is about to be come with aging. This makes the parallel between his soul and the kitchen wall evident. By putting something on the wall, he finds the meaning of his life, which is far from acceptance, because it cannot be a permanent solution, what he fails to recognize. He observes himself from an outer point, does not admit that his feelings just hide the real problems, just like the way the fish hides the blank hole on the kitchen wall. It is still a help for him to confess his problems in a way, with the help of which he comes to a relief: "Each of us feels our deepest concerns have been given form." For Lois-Ann the fish means something different. As she puts it, it symbolises an unknowable and constant world, and something that decodes and interprets the "wordless world". For her it can mean the desire to understand life and her husband, therefore she also needs a solid psychological background, which she found in a picture. Still, the most important changes brought by the fish concern their life together. The picture instantly brings a calm and sweet atmosphere to their relationship, and they get closer to each other through minor gestures and little steps they take to improve their marriage. It renewals their life, resolves unuttered tensions, which is - after so many years of marriage - is a real relief. The fish is a universal cure for people's problems, since during the social gathering each person interprets differently. In this respect, without the fear of exaggerated generalization, it can be said that Art can cure psychological problems. But is it really what the short-story intends to explain to us?
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As discussed above, the irony which is present constantly beneath the surface deconstructs the work itself, as well as the fish. Both have the same ultimate role: being ridiculous for its mock-interpreters, but still they are different. On the one hand, the picture is ironical because of its over-idealization and place in the life of the characters. On the other hand, the work is deceiving because it parallelises the readers and the characters in a sense that they both lack the knowledge to realise their own situation, at least until a certain point. Readers do not recognise their own position as victims, and as mock-interpreters.
The clue for interpretation is that the self should break its own boundaries and place itself to an outer point of view. On the one hand, the readers should get through their own interpreting behaviour and empathy, and get to a point where they have the chance to examine the characters, and their behaviour towards the fish, more carefully. As a result, the readers recognize the identity with the characters, not only in a sense, that they look for their feelings in the Orange Fish as the narrator does, but also in a sense, that they are also the victims of the illusionist mockery of a work of Art. On the other hand, the narrator hears himself talking from an outer point of view, still it is not enough for him, he does not have the knowledge to realise his own deception, because he is still too busy with his problems. Therefore, though it may seem a dangerous claim, the reader's self-awareness and knowledge is placed above the characters power to realise their position as victims.
The climax of the total destruction of Art is in the last few paragraphs. The uniqueness of the fish is dissolved by the fact, that it becomes a mass-product. Firstly, it means that the inner feelings of the characters towards the picture disappear, and the authenticity, uniqueness for them is lost. The fish does not provide any opportunities for individual interpretations any more, especially for those who gathered to share their ideas about it. It is the greatest lost for the original owners. Indeed, the fish is no more the object of interpretations, no more a tool to project the psychological problems on something. The blank hole on the kitchen wall appears again for the narrator, and the world becomes unknowable for Lois-Ann again. Secondly, the fact that the fish becomes a mass-product can be perceived differently: the author means to criticise all works of Art which is famous and well-known all over the world. According to this viewpoint, Art loses its magnificence by getting loved by everybody. The subjective interpretation is replaced by an objective, most commonly used interpretation, which means less value in the case of this picture. The validity of this statement can be questioned just by referring to well know works, like Mona Lisa: known all over the world, still valuable. Of course there is no one-single good interpretation, still the work suggests, that the only "useful" and constructive viewpoint is if the work remains unique and personal. But this is when the decisive questions arise: What is the role of Art? Is it for self-interpretation, or for something that touches and moves masses of people? Is not it the ultimate goal to reach everybody? These are the questions which are almost impossible to answer to a certain extent, that is why this essay does not make an attempt to find an ultimate solution.
Of course, it would be a mistake to investigate the intentions of the author, but still: Is this work a disillusionment from the universal meaning of Art? From one point of view it is, since until this point, the ironical technique of the short story was discussed. It mocks the uniqueness and the possible interpretation of a picture, and the short-story itself. From another point of view, it is paradoxical, because the power of Art to get together people, as well as the power to project problems on a picture is maintained and emphasised. Art has this kind of supernatural force to gather people form all over the world. Carol Shields does not tell how it is possible at all to get know who possesses the pictures, and how can so many people from all over the world find a decent place and time to speak about their problems. Thus, until the few paragraphs Art is a powerful force, which can solve psychological and personal conflicts, but this force is dissolved by the end. It seems that this question remains unanswered, at least in this essay.
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As a conclusion, it is evident, that the Orange Fish deconstructs itself and the meaning of Art, as well as the readers. To draw a final conclusion is very difficult, because these universal questions are impossible to answer. What needs a summary is that the characters find the Orange Fish very good cure for their inner conflicts, and they enjoy the possibilities that are provided in the form of a social activity. There are still points that can be further discussed, for example, the mentioning of other literary works which deal with this problem, or the analysis of great thinkers' ideas on the role of Art.