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The Role of the Goldfish in “The Secret Goldfish” by David Means


The authors of short stories have to work hard and use their best writing skills to present interesting ideas within a limited amount of words. It is not enough to choose several characters and raise a topic that appeals to the reader. In the majority of cases, the success of such narratives depends on the context and the use of effective literary devices. Symbolism is a common technique with the help of which short story writers produce an impact, develop meanings, and twist the plot. In other words, a number of symbols and properly chosen images make an ordinary story an outstanding piece of writing. In 2004, David Means wrote his short story “The Secret Goldfish” for The New Yorker. This work is full of symbols and crucial lessons about one of the most important social issues, family. In this essay, the goldfish’s role will be discussed to demonstrate how the author combines symbols and generates themes. Means’ “The Secret Goldfish” is a unique interpretation of family relationships, where the role of a wife (the goldfish) is criticized through the prism of action, standstill, and perseverance that determine human life.

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Story Summary

The creation of a happy family could hardly be called an easy task. Both partners have to take responsibility and make their contributions to their relationships. Means introduces “The Secret Goldfish” as a story of a woman whose life is challenged by her father’s leaving in her childhood and her divorce in the present. First, the character’s father “slopped the fish out of the pail and into the pond,” hoping that the latter could survive (Means 2004, para. 3). Then, the woman enjoyed her happy 15-year-old marriage, including the honeymoon in Spain and buying a new tank for a fish named Ted (Means 2004). However, with time, “the tank began to murk up,” as well as the relationships within a family started falling apart (Means 2004, para. 9). Although the woman gives up her career, completes household chores, and watches the fish, everything goes wrong. The husband leaves the house the same way her father did many years before. However, instead of throwing the fish away and regretting her past, the woman decides to celebrate the event as the resurrection and another attempt to improve the quality of her life.

Family Relationships as a Social Issue

Family relationships turn out to be a serious theme for analysis in the short story “The Secret Goldfish”. The author does not give the names of the wife and the husband, showing that similar problems and concerns may be developed in different families. The wife is introduced as a caring woman who is involved in “cleaning, cooking, washing, grocery shopping, snack-getting” (Means 2004, para. 5). The husband works as “a corporate banker” who leaves the house every day, comes back late, or even stands in office “under the vague pretense of work obligations” (Means 2004, para. 6). The child’s behavior also meets social expectations and corresponds to some common ideas. It is a usual story when kids want to buy a fish, and they promise to take care of the pet. However, with time, children forget about their responsibilities and like playing in the yard and pretending to be parents (Means 2004). This family situation is perfectly described in the story, proving the importance of the surroundings and the existing social norms or judgments.

“The Secret Goldfish” is a perfect representation of a family theme and the role of each member in it. Although Means (2004) choose the wife’s perspective, he does not allow some gender biases to penetrate the development of the events. In the beginning, the woman represents the position of a daughter, who was left by his father. In the middle of the story, she explains (never judge) her children’s attitudes toward the situation. In the end, the relationships with the husband are shown, focusing on cultural issues (Japanese employers’ expectations from employees) and men’s desires. A family cannot be understood through the prism of one member only, and it is a strong observation chosen by the author.

Importance of Symbols

Symbolism is one of the major distinctive features of Means’ story that may be noticed either in its title, “The Secret Goldfish,” in its metaphors, or in its parallel constructions. According to Kinasih (2020), symbols are hardly characterized as words with a single meaning and aim at providing images with rich insight. Therefore, it is wrong to search for one particular symbol in the chosen story but try to interpret the essence of each subject, decision, or action.

Attention should be paid to a tank in which a fish lives. On the one hand, Means (2004) describes it as a large space with “some water-pre drops and a filter unit… some turquoise gravel and a small figurine to keep the fish company (para. 7). On the other hand, the reader could easily find out the symbol of human life in this source of water. People choose the best available means, subjects, and opportunities, and the owners of tanks try to create perfect and nice living conditions for their pets. However, if nothing is done to keep the cleanness or overfeeding is used as an option, the tank will lose its properties and become spoiled with mud. Similar changes are observed in a family and the methods to strengthen relationships. If the husband brings money only to “overfeed” his wife, such a family will turn into a mess soon. Happy life usually consists of hard work and serious decisions. Instead of giving up when one problem occurs (throwing a fish away), it is better to take one step back and try to change something (clean the tank).

The goldfish is a symbol of marriage that depends on a number of factors, including the environment and caregivers. Today, many young people get married quickly and create families without thinking about the consequences or their direct obligations. In the same way, it does not take much time or work to go to Pet Universe or another store and bring a new fish “in a plastic baggie of water” (Means 2004, para. 7). However, in the majority of cases, when people buy a fish, they cannot imagine how much care and time they should devote to their new pets. Means (2004) represents the fish as a survivor, with “the usual scars of an abused fish, a wound or two, a missing scale, a new, smaller growth of some kind down near his anal fin” (para. 10). However, under the light of the tank and the decorations, people see the fish looks healthy and happy, just like this marriage. The fish can no longer be a symbol of marriage only but a symbol of hope that is cherished by many men, women, and children who believe in the power of family.

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Lessons from the Story

The extensive use of symbols makes “The Secret Goldfish” reading provocative and unpredictable. Kinasih (2020) defines symbolism as “the extended metaphor” that “runs throughout the whole piece of writing” (p. 91). Therefore, sometimes, it is hard for the reader to define symbols even though the author uses them along with comparison, metaphors, and other literary devices. For example, just like the fish that “didn’t move at all, unless someone came into the room and knocked on the tank or the floor,” marriage can stand still and mean nothing (Means 2004, para. 12). At the same time, the wife compares herself to fish whose world is a murky mess, full of gunk and no hope. She does not see the light under the burden of her responsibilities and understands her emancipation only when the husband goes away. Therefore, the role of the goldfish is not to represent one idea, action, or person but share the meaning that survival is possible even under the worst conditions.


In general, “The Secret Goldfish” cannot be called a simple story with a clear synopsis and well-determined symbols. Using one fish in the tank, Means is able to describe the complexity of family relationships, the vision of human life, and the importance of understanding personal responsibilities and social roles. In the story, the goldfish becomes a symbol of hope for people who do not know what they should do with their resources, knowledge, and positions. The theme of family relationships and life transience is explored through symbolism to show how circumstances, obstacles, and experiences may be elaborated.


Kinasih, Putri Rindu. 2020. “The Application of Reader-Response Theory to Teach Symbolism in Literature Class for EFL Students.” Journal of Research on English and Language Learning 1 (2): 87-100.

Means, David. 2004. “The Secret Goldfish.” The New Yorker, Web.

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