Big Fish Summary

Daniel Wallace

Big Fish

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Big Fish Summary

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Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions is Edward Bloom’s life story, as told by his son William Bloom. Bloom’s past efforts to get to know his father have been met with evasion, mainly in the form of old jokes and fabulous stories. “The truth is, most things are hard to talk about with him,” William says of Edward. “By that I mean the essence of things, the important things, the things that matter.” With Edward’s death imminent, William draws on the American folkloric tradition of the ‘tall tale’ and elements of ancient Greek literature (particularly Homer’s Odyssey) to construct a biography of his father, interrupting his story with imagined versions (or “takes”) of a deathbed conversation between the two. In recreating the life of Edward Bloom, William attempts to understand the father he never really knew.

Edward Bloom spent his childhood in Ashland, Alabama. On the day of Edward’s birth, rain began to fall, breaking a drought caused by the driest summer in forty years. Edward had a way with animals, and knew their “special language.” His ninth birthday was marked by a freak snowstorm. By the age of twelve, he could identify everyone in his hometown by the sound of their footsteps in the shoes they wore. He grew so fast, he was confined to bed for several months, during which time he read a thousand books. “He was a big fish,” narrates William, “even then.” One day, Edward saved a beautiful young woman from a snake in the Blue River. In gratitude, the young woman decreed that the spot be named “Edward’s Grove.” When a ravenous giant began pillaging Ashland for food, Edward charmed him into becoming a farmer. Later, there were heavy rains, and part of Ashland was flooded. Edward went fishing in the flooded part of the town, only to be dragged underwater by a man-sized catfish. Submerged, Edward saw life going on as normal in the underwater homes and farms.

When Edward reached manhood, he felt called to leave Ashland. To do so, he had to pass through a sinister, desolate town with no name. A vicious dog guarded the way out of the town, preventing most people from crossing into the world beyond. However, the dog allowed Edward to pass. William relates the next episode in his father’s story through the reported speech of Jasper “Buddy” Barron, who (William says) succeeded Edward as President of Bloom Inc. Buddy liked to tell this part of Edward’s tale, William explains. According to Buddy, after leaving the town with no name, Edward was robbed and beaten by two men of the woods. Hobbling onwards, he came across an old store run by the Jimson family. The Jimsons took Edward in and nursed him back to health. He repaid their kindness by coming up with the concept of ‘buy one get one free,’ making the store extremely profitable. Resuming the narration, William recounts how Edward moved on from the Jimsons and their store to a city called Auburn, “a great centre of learning.” In Auburn, an old woman, whose magical glass eye had been stolen by a gang of boys, gave Edward room and board. In return for her hospitality, Edward recovered the glass eye from the youths. Their leader, William says, would turn out to be the man his mother almost married.

Edward attended college in Auburn, and there fell in love with the most beautiful woman in the city, Sandra Kay Templeton, who was considering a proposition of marriage from a man called Don Price. Don confronted Sandra and Edward while they were out on a date, asserting that Sarah was rightfully his, and eventually attacking Edward in a jealous rage. Edward won the fight – and Sandra. After marrying, the couple moved to Birmingham, Alabama, “a metropolis full of hope.” Before assuming “his rightful place,” Edward had to undertake “great labors,” which included facing a wild dog that was terrorising his neighbourhood. Ground down by life, Edward was unable to use his way with animals to pacify the beast, but when it tried to attack a little girl, he ripped its beating heart from its chest. Later, Edward served on a ship called the Neried during a time of war. Abandoning the ship after it was hit by a torpedo, Edward saw in the distance a vision of the little girl whom the dog had attacked, and swum towards her. His sense of purpose inspired many men to follow him; those who did not were sucked under the water when the ship went down.

After his son was born, Edward felt increasingly alienated from his domestic life. “Coming home he felt like a stranger,” William says. “Everything had changed.” William’s growth made Edward feel as if he were shrinking. Still, Edward was a good father. On two occasions, he saved his son’s life, rescuing William from an old riverbed that was about to be flooded, and catching him when he was propelled from a swing-set. At the age of nine, William saw Edward fall off the roof of the house and survive. This affirmed William’s belief in his father’s immortality. Edward “made cameo and yet heroic appearances in my own life, saving my life when he could, urging me toward my own manhood,” says William. “And yet he was called away by forces greater even than himself; he was, as he said, riding the tiger.” Edward’s greatest power, William reflects, was his ability to make him laugh.

William switches to the present tense to tell the next part of his father’s story. Edward grows richer and more successful, but more distant from his wife and son. There is even talk of a separation, but this comes to nothing. At around the age of forty, Edward becomes enamored with a little town called Specter, so he starts to buy it up. He meets Jenny Hill, the owner of the one property in Specter he has yet to buy, and they fall in love. For many years, Edward visits Jenny in Specter, but stays for only a few days at a time, always returning to his old family. Jenny finds Edward’s absences more and more difficult to bear – sometimes a month will go by before she sees him again. She becomes severely depressed, and torrential rains cause an impassable swamp to appear around her house. Grief-stricken, Edward still goes to Specter to see Jenny, but he can no longer reach her.

Switching back to the past tense, William recounts how his father became ill in his old age, and was confined to his house. Instead of resigning himself to death, Edward began swimming every day in the pool in the backyard. On watching his father swimming one day, William was certain he saw a fish in the water. He noticed that his father had stopped swimming, and asked him if he had seen the fish too. Edward did not reply – he was drowning. William called an ambulance, and his father was taken to hospital. At Edward’s request, William sneaked his father out of hospital, and took him to “Edward’s Grove.” He carried his father to the water; Edward became a fish and swam away.