Critical Analysis of Charles Bukowski's A Smile to Remember

A Smile to Remember [1]
Charles Bukowski

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

Brooks discusses the paradox of paradox itself by saying, “Our prejudices force us to regard paradox as intellectual rather than emotional, clever rather than profound, rational rather than divinely irrational” [2] (p. 28). Bukowski’s “A Smile to Remember” is a shining example of the use of paradox. Like Wordsworth, Bukowski’s work is often very straightforward, but this poem finds its strength in strong paradoxes.

The first obvious paradox is that of Mother’s instruction to, “be happy Henry!” while she lives the life of an abused wife and watches her children also suffer from the hand of an abusive father. Happiness is further placed against sadness in the line, “and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw.” What can better describe the desperation of the family’s situation than a forced, sad smile.

The father is portrayed in a slight paradox that almost makes the reader feel sorry for him… almost. While the father is abusive and causes his family unspeakable pain, he suffers from an unknown attacker that comes from within. Perhaps this is Bukowski’s way to express empathy for his father in spite of the pain he has caused?

The subtlest paradox reveals itself in the use of the family’s goldfish. The reader wonders about the abrupt shift from the description of the goldfish to the mother’s instruction to be happy, but is shown their purpose in the line, “my mother, poor fish.” The poem concludes with the father throwing the dead fish to the cat with no expression of concern for them, or even the feelings of the children at the loss of the fish.

The fish paradox interests me the most because it is so penetrating. There are several things that come to mind that build the paradox of happiness to sadness. The fish may have been a respite, especially for the children, from the world of pain that surrounded them. It probably brought a few minutes of real happiness, as they would help mother clean the bowl, take turns feeding them, or just watching them swim about thoughtlessly in the sparkle of the afternoon sun coming through the window.

When mother is referred to as a “poor fish” there are physical contrasts that come to light. A goldfish has no ability to express emotion, yet it appears to wear a frown when looked at head-on. Like the goldfish, the mother flits about in her little world by rote; smiling like a goldfish “the saddest smile” you could ever see. We see her smiling again as father feeds the dead goldfish to the cat. The dead fish “smile” and do nothing while consumed by the cat.

Shklovsky’s work also comes into play with the fish. Shklovsky states the art of technique is to slow down the process of recognition in order to make observation deliberate and to see the subject in a way we would not have otherwise (p. 16). As the father tosses the dead fish to the cat, the cat takes on the role of the father and the fish the role of the family.

This gives the reader further insight into the capability of the father to commit cruelty to his family, and also to the inner fights the father suffers with him. The reader can see the family watching this transpire. Perhaps the children are crying as they look for some compassion from their father and some tenderness from their mother. It leaves me wondering about the fate of the family at the father’s hands? More surprisingly, at first I was empathetic with the mother, but now find her to be as bad or worse than the father because of her lack of action, because she is teaching her children to accept the cruelty of their lives rather than the value and worth of striving for something better.

The paradoxes and art as technique in this poem give a much deeper meaning and portray a more hopeless sadness and a greater sense of loss. It allows the reader to move beyond the surface-level sadness and connect with the hopelessness and despair of the child.

[1] Bukowski, Charles. “A Smile to Remember.” PoemHunter.com. N.p., 3 Jan. 2003. Web. 23 June 2012..

[2] Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

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2 comments

  1. great I have to do an acting version of it, so i relly appriciate your analysis, it have given me more depth to the role, so thanks 🙂

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