The Tragedy of Rainbow Fish

The 1992 short children’s story The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister, was read to nearly everyone in my age-group as they were growing up. The Rainbow Fish was “the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean” because of the sparkling poly-chromatic scales that covered his body. The other fish revered the Rainbow Fish for his beauty and longed for his attention. Rainbow Fish, being a pompous jerk, would simply swim on by when the other fish would call out to him.

When another fish asks Rainbow Fish for one of his scales, scales being a part of his essential being, RF responds “You want me to give you one of my special scales? Who do you think you are?” Now a simple “no” would have done the trick, but RF didn’t want to rip off a piece of his awesome skin and give it to someone else.

After this event and RF’s heinous desire to keep his own skin, the other fish no longer revered him and would no longer call out to him to play.  (Keep in mind that RF didn’t play with the other fish in the first place because he was a pompous jerk.)

Saddened by the new nature of his loneliness, RF consulted the expertise of the Wise Octopus. Wise Octupus decrees that RF should “give a glittering scale to each of the other fish.” After a silly bit of “how dare I give away a piece of being and get nothing in return,” RF complied and started to give his scales away.

At the end, every fish has one shiny scale and everyone was happy.

Okay, I don’t even know where to begin.

First of all, maybe Rainbow Fish was unhappy and lonely because he ignored the other fish, not because of his possessions that set him apart from the rest. Rainbow Fish was not ostracized for being different; he was idolized for being different. He was ostracized for being a jerk.

The popularly accepted “moral” of the story is that when you are fortunate, you should share your fortune with your community. This is true, and certainly we should engage in private charity, but there are so many more dangerously implicit messages conveyed through this story.

Mr. Pfister attaches personal wealth to arrogance. In fact the only way that RF was able to escape his arrogant loneliness is to give away his wealth. Wouldn’t a better message be simply to avoid being rude to your fellow fish?

I was taught growing up, by my parents and my environment, to take great pride in myself. Although I didn’t have a plethora of material possessions, my parents worked long hours and sacrificed to help give me everything I’ve been blessed with. I would not give any of that up, nor do I want anything from anyone else.

I never bought friendship and I never gave the cold shoulder to those calling out to me; this, not a requirement to give away your possessions to make friends, should be common sense and common courtesy. 

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