Myths and Tales in Big Fish
by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former
editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and
editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including
religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography:
The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.
Much of this novel is about the HEROIC—the biography is, according to the subtitle, "of mythic proportions." It is the episodic biography of Edward Bloom, as told by his son William. There is a sort of Homeric, epic quality in the adventures of this man who both appears to the son as a god—at least a demigod—and at the same time often irritates the hell out of him.
As I jotted down notes on the text, I noted any number of happenings or circumstances or actions here that typically appear in mythological hero stories: the frequent absence of the father; Edward has miraculous powers over rain; he can speak to animals; he performs astonishing feats in a singular Alabama snowstorm; he exhibits unusually fast physical growth; he is a careful student of wisdom; he follows a call to leave home—an odyssey-like wandering, as for instance to Auburn University, where he becomes an A student, is initiated, and comes into contact with a witch, who helps him. And he is faced with adversaries who seek to steal a magical talisman—a glass eye—in his possession.
He saves others from danger, and serves the country-store owners; he kills a feral dog and domesticates a giant man who—in the Tim Burton movie at least
—has the deepest voice in history, and like Herakles, Edward performs assigned labors. He transforms people magically, such as the chubby lady for whom he produces the perfect slimming girdle. He fights for the hand of his beloved Sandra. He breathes underwater, and is finally transformed into a large fish in the river.
Both the original novel and the movie are, especially at first reading or viewing, hilarious. But this hero becomes just a bit too, too after awhile, and the reader/viewer may become exasperated after Edward has told a seemingly endless series of stories and jokes. His son William has heard them a thousand times and tends to fade from presence when Edward begins yet another.
The stories and jokes, as a matter of fact appear dysfunctional in terms of communications between the father and the son. I'll talk about that relationship a bit more shortly, but here I want to emphasize the hilarity, the jocularity, the constant use of shaggy dog stories to avoid direct answers to deeply relational questions. I would go so far as to suggest that Big Fish is in some ways a postmodern parody of the heroic monomyth identified by several students of literature who each developed a summary of items familiar in many of the world's stories about heroes—notably Joseph Campbell in 1949, Lord Raglan in 1956, and Otto Rank in 1964.
The essential pattern of the heroic monomyth is that of unusual birth; leaving home; followed by various tests of prowess such as fights with monsters or against impossible odds—in the progress of which apparently insignificant or magical helpers lend a hand. He gains a lover or wife; often undergoes a perilous journey to another realm such as that of the dead; and returns to the homeland with a restorative boon (a magical potion or the laws which establish civilization; this is a summary from Doty 1992: 340).
Few of the mythological hero myths and epics that I teach have nearly as many details or episodes as Homer's Odyssey or Big Fish, but most display the essential three parts of separation, initiation, and return. In Campbell's summary: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man" (cited Doty 341).
The pattern has been analyzed in the stories about the biblical Jesus (by Alan Dundes), and it has been expanded beyond the male mythical hero (especially by Carol Pearson, Maureen Murdock, and others) to treat female heroes as well-where reconciliation with the mother is often prominent. We are dealing, then, with a sort of archetypal pattern, typical and recurrent items in a heroic scenario found in many cultures; this is the hero, in Campbell's title "with a thousand faces."
And such scenarios are frequent in mythological materials, which are indeed often narratives, stories. In my notes, I especially noted the number of times the term "story" appeared—even at the end when Edward is apparently dying of cancer and is housebound, confined in the "guest room" (ghost room?): William says: "He became just a man, a man without a job, without a story to tell, a man, I realized, I didn't know" (Wallace 17, my emphasis).
On his deathbed, Edward instructs his son, "Remembering a man's stories makes him immortal" (20), and so we begin to realize that this biography will have some of the traits of the ancient saint's tale, or contemporary accounts of popular actors or athletes-both of them replete with mythological overtones. Wallace states in an interview that "Edward Bloom is mythologized while he is still alive" (Big Fish Penguin Readers Guide, 6).
Clearly the biography is replete with mythical references, such as the guard dog that keeps people in Ashland, a parallel to "Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades" (ibid.) But this fiction-biography is not really hagiography, scriptural, since as we learn about the perspectives of people in Edward's idyllic town of Specter, "the story keeps changing. All of the stories do" (Wallace 159).
And when William is with his father in the hospital at the end of the book, the almost-immortal Edward has nearly vanished, since the life support machines "had become him. They were telling me his story" (171)—although on the final page of the novel we learn that the sophisticated medical machines had less transformative power than Edward's stories.
William realizes that his father "was becoming a fish," but that simply meant "He was just changing, transforming himself into something new and different to carry his life forward in"—that is to say, he becomes the last of the stories of this man who became his own story.
The last sentence of the book is "No one believes a word" (180), and yet we have believed the story, in that manner that fiction can be truer than reality, fantasy more important than arithmetic, and a myth as big as a universe. Now we understand the last sentence of William's supposed preface: the father has become a child again, although he will grow up into a very big fish in the river now, generating stories that will surround his ongoing miracles "of lives saved and wishes granted" (180). That is to say, in that concluding sentence of the preface, "My father became a myth" (2).
I want to conclude by looking at the father:son dynamic that I mentioned earlier. It is less an issue of love for one another than it is an issue of perception and communication. William is constantly puzzling how to perceive the possible realities behind his father's stories. And he repeatedly tries to break through the Lucite ceiling of his father's many anecdotes and jokes.
Some foreshadowing appears already in the first pages of the novel (5-6), where Edward's father is absent at his own son's birth. And in one of those curious revisionings and flashback-and-forths that Wallace uses to reiterate the final days of Edward, William discovers that the father in the guest room is a "guy who looks not like my father anymore but like a version of my father, one in a series, similar but different, and definitely flawed in many ways" (17). Two pages later Edward admits to William "I wasn't there for you, was I, son?" and reminds William that his "father was gone a lot, too, [...] So I know what it's like" (19).
William recognizes that it is not just his perception of his father that is crucial, but that for Edward, "if a man could be said to be loved by his son, then I think that man could be considered great" (22, my emphasis). On page 68 William realized how the shift in perception and love has taken place: "In the past year we have switched places; I have become the father, and he the sickly son," but that doesn't mitigate the fact that William resents the fact that his father could be present-absent to him in emotional terms: "He's lived his whole life like a turtle within an emotional carapace that makes for the perfect defense: there's absolutely no way in" (72, this is just after Edward has retold the Pinocchio joke).
In the Part II chapter, "My Father's Death: Take 3," it turns out that Edward has exasperated his long-patient physician: "'Honestly,' he says, in a confidential tone, 'I think it was my jokes'" (110). Speaking to his father, William tells him "Even when you're serious you can't keep from joking. It's frustrating, Dad. It keeps me at arm's length" (112).
I am not going to do an extensive psychological analysis here, but I can point to a couple of books by psychotherapists I know that provide rich insights and cautions. They are Guy Corneau's Absent Fathers, Lost Sons: The Search for Masculine Identity, and Gregory Max Vogt and Stephen Sirridge's Like Son, Like Father: Healing the Father-Son Wound in Men's Lives.
Both books treat some of the pathology of the disconnected father-son relationship—for one thing Corneau makes reference to studies showing that the average time American fathers spend with their children is nine minutes a day (18), and points to the 2000-year-old ideology marked by "the Christian myth" of "the silence of the Father and the suffering of the Son" (11). It has been a climate in which "All men live more or less in a hereditary silence that has been passed down from generation to generation, a silence that denies every teenage boy's need for recognition—or confirmation—from his father" (10).
Corneau indicates some of the problems of the fundamental hero pattern (what Campbell labeled the heroic monomyth) in western culture: the son always has to overcome the father to start out on his quest. A healthy model of masculinity can sometimes only be found within the personal self—a sort of benign narcissism in which the young man comes to admit to his own nobility and competence, since praise has not come from the so-important father figure. This and other resources now available within gender studies departments and literature promise paths of healing and self-fathering, as noted by Corneau in his final chapter entitled "Breaking the Silence" and in my own Myths of Masculinity.
Max Vogt also has some pretty trenchant criticisms in his own book, entitled Pathological Christianity: The Dangers and Cures of Extreme Fundamentalisms, but I close here with the first paragraph of the work he wrote with Sirridge, Like Son, Like Father. The book deals with pathologies, but it opens with this strongly positive and hopeful orientation:
A new kind of man is emerging in our time. He is a man with a strong sense of masculinity, yet he is breaking through limiting stereotypical roles. He is rediscovering the meaning and joys of being a man, a father, and a son. He is unearthing the sleeping being within him, a creative, zestful, emotionally connected man. He is productive in the work world, yet involved in raising his family, available to his children and to his partner. He is finding new possibilities of friendships with other men which deepen and strengthen the bonds he already has with them. He is finding the value of equal and enduring relationships with women. He is sexual and passionate, yet nurturing and empathetic with others. He is learning how to play, how to enjoy himself, and yet to be highly dedicated and efficient in his work. He is reconnecting with his family of origin and is deeply interested in the history of the generations before him. He does his best to promote and remain in contact with men of his own age as well as older and younger men [....] These new men [...] are beginning to appear in ever-increasing numbers. They are challenging the idea that men must conform to the definitions of men that they were scripted to follow. (3-4)
Of course I am not suggesting that Daniel Wallace ought to have taken his novel into such positive terrain. I am grateful to him that he did not just shelve the shadow side of the father-son relationship, but indeed gave us an enlightening exposition that has truly not been "just a fictional story" in the lives of many in our culture.
Mythic patterns inform the ways a culture presents important behavioral areas such as gender, race, and power. Far from being the "dead hand of the past," as Marx labeled religion, vibrantly-living myths continue to change and reflect cultural developments. Wallace's book helps us to imagine—through insighting Edward's mythic story—just how our own culture is developing as we swim through the troubled waters of the early twenty-first century.
Burton, Tim, dir. Big Fish. 2003. Culver City CA: Columbia Pictures. (DVD 2004.)
Campbell, Joseph. 1968-2nd ed.  The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP.
Corneau, Guy. 1991. Absent Fathers, Lost Sons: The Search for Masculine Identity. Trans. Larry Shouldice. Boston: Shambhala.
Doty, William G. 1993. Myths of Masculinity. New York: Crossroad.
Doty, William G. 1992 [published 1995]. "From the Traditional Monomythic Hero to the Contemporary Polymythic Hero/ine." Foundations and Facets Forum 8/3&4.337-69.
Dundes, Alan. 1980. "The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus." Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana UP; 223-61.
Murdock, Maureen. 1990. The Heroine's Journey: Woman's Quest for Wholeness. Boston: Shambhala.
Pearson, Carol. 1989 [expanded ed.; orig. 1986]. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Raglan, F.R.R.S. 1956. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama. New York: Vintage.
Rank, Otto. 1964. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and Other Writings. Ed. Philip Freund. New York: Vintage.
Vogt, Gregory Max.1995. Pathological Christianity: The Dangers and Cures of Extreme Fundamentalisms. Notre Dame IN: Cross Cultural.
Vogt, Gregory Max, and Stephen T. Sirridge. 1991. Like Son, Like Father: Healing the Father-Son Wound in Men's Lives. New York: Plenum.
Wallace, Daniel. 1998. Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions. New York: Penguin. (With 9 page Readers Guide.)
This column was presented as part of Gadsden Reads: A Literacy Project of Mythic Proportions, at the Gadsden Public Library in November 2006.
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