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Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

“ [M]y father hadn’t been dying after all. He was just changing, transforming himself into something new and different to carry his life forward in.” —Big Fish


ABOVE Daniel Wallace, author of the novel

Big Fish (right), and Tim Burton, director of the film adaptation



is answering his son’s request in the only way he knows how, a joke, which Freud explains as “a diversion of the train of thought from one meaning to the other” (61). By “My Father’s Death: Take 3,” William’s narration has become more dramatic. The old Dr. Bennett, who has seen it all, “breaks down in a storm of tears, and for some time can’t speak he’s crying so much, shoulders heaving” (106). Edward has become less realistic and more godlike – in fact, the word “god” to describe Edward is used five times on one page (107). The doctor, William’s mother, and William himself all seem disbelieving that a man of Edward’s stature should be actually dying. When William enters his father’s room, Edward is laughing at the absurdity of death. William and his mother are feeling frustrated that Edward is “dying and not dying right” (108). Heroes do not die in their beds; they die on their feet, sword in hand – or they do not die at all but are merely transformed into something else: William notes that his father is “not a man in the same way now. He’s something else altogether” (109). He is getting closer to the man he will become in the final version of his death, and Edward hints that it will be magical: he tells William, “‘I know when I’m going to die. . . . I’ve seen it. I know when and how it’s going to happen and it’s not today, so don’t worry’” (114). This remark plants a seed in William’s mind, and when he next and finally revises the story of his father’s death, he knows he must give his father the mythical sendoff he deserves, William’s final gift to his father. Joseph Campbell describes the death of a hero this way: “The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man – perfected, unspecific, universal man – he has been reborn” (20). And so William’s mythologizing of his father must include a death in which his father does not die but is transformed into something magical and worthy of his life of adventures and myths. William has mentioned several times that his father wanted to be a big fish in a big pond and he tells enough of his father’s “fish stories” to create the inevitable end: his father must literally become a big fish. “My Father’s Death: Take 4” and the final chapter, “Big Fish,” describe this process. No longer is William frustrated by his father’s jokes and stories. He recognizes them for what they are and responds by telling back one of his father’s jokes to him as a sign of acceptance and understanding. In the novel’s final chapter, William creates his own tall tale, describing an escape from the hospital, a drive to the river, and the release of his father into another world. The water that his father has asked for and drunk in the first three takes is poured over Edward’s head instead, as his skin begins to turn “scaly” (177). His father is not afraid; he is excited about the change that’s coming to him and eager to get to the river. This fits exactly with what Campbell describes in the classic hero’s death: “The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of the life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.