“The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” by W. D. Wetherell
“The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” is an initiation story in which the symbols of fishing and Sheila Mant illustrate how the character of the narrator transforms from youth and innocence to sophistication and maturity. At age fourteen, it is typical for a boy such as the narrator to be beginning this transformation.
Being innocent and naive in a sense, the fourteen year old narrator gets an enormous crush on a seventeen year old girl named Sheila Mant and comes to believe she is what he loves most in life. For him, Sheila is a symbol of the maturity and sophistication he will eventually become a part of. When the narrator finally works up the nerve to ask her out to a concert, she agrees to go. On the way to the concert, we see some other symbols such as the bass and his fishing rod. These symbolize the pleasures in life the narrator truly loves more than anything.
In hindsight, the narrator realizes this is the case when he reflects on how Sheila and fishing have affected his life separately. His maturity is shown in his ability to realize later on what is actually most important to him in life. At the beginning, the narrator is a character of much innocence and naivete, but as the story develops, he becomes more mature and sophisticated. His love for fishing and Sheila Mant is that of one who has never had to worry about the problems love can cause.
His first step towards the transformation comes through his asking out of the older Sheila Mant. In doing so, he is opening himself to the troubles that come along with involving himself in love. Opening himself to the pain he knows this may cause is a sign that he will no longer have the ignorance that allows him to avoid pain. As the story progresses, these love problems begin to identify themselves. During the ride on the canoe, Sheila states that, “[fishing] is boring and all . . . definitely dumb” (4).
Immediately, the narrator knows that he must separate his love for fishing from his love of Sheila, but does not yet realize he will have to choose one not both. The realization comes later after he has accidentally hooked the biggest fish he has ever hooked. By reeling in the bass, he would be losing Sheila, but cutting it loose would make him lose the catch of his life. When the narrator finally knows a decision must be made between the bass and Sheila, he chooses Sheila believing it is a more mature thing to do.
When he “pull[s] a penknife . . . and cut[s] the line,” (7) he makes a conscious decision that Sheila Mant is to be more important than his fishing. When the night is over, and Sheila goes off in a different guy’s Corvette, the narrator comes to the realization that she was not worth giving up the fish. Later in life, after being with other girls and catching other fish, what “haunts [him] still” is losing the bass, not Sheila Mant. Ultimately, the narrator’s maturity came from finding out what he actually loved the most and sticking to that.
The symbols of the story, mainly the fishing rod, the bass, and Sheila Mant, are symbols of the transformation the narrator undergoes. To begin with, when the narrator “automatically . . . mount[s] [his] Mitchell reel . . . and [sticks] it in the stern” (2) he shows that he is unable to consciously separate his love of fishing from his love of other things. By bringing his rod on a date with Sheila, his maturity is shown as being undeveloped due to his inexperience. Furthermore, the bass and its struggle is a symbol of the narrator’s struggle of growing up.
The fact that the bass is “the biggest bass [he] had ever hooked” (3) and that it put up a massive struggle parallel the narrator’s growing up (in body and mind) and his painful struggle to become more mature. Even so, letting the bass go was a sign that he was not yet to the point of being completely grown up, and that he still has some changing to do. Lastly, Sheila Mant and the narrator’s “love” for her is viewed by the narrator as “the epitome of sophistication” (1) at the beginning. Being older, she seems to be the maturity he is looking for so he thinks choosing her is the mature thing to do.
Though in retrospect, the narrator would come to see her as “the incarnation of innocence and youth” as the Dartmouth heavyweight crew had viewed her before (1). This is because it had been a childish decision to choose Sheila over the bass. Even so, it was this decision that led him to learning not to make the same mistake in giving up what really mattered to him for something childish. As an initiation story, “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant” uses the symbols of the fishing rod, the bass, and Sheila to depict his transformation from youth to adulthood.
His love of both fishing and Sheila Mant show his innocence at the beginning of the novel. As the narrator begins to change and develop as a person, so too do the symbols change in their meaning to him. The fishing rod becomes his true passion, the bass becomes his inward struggle of becoming more mature, and instead of being sophistication, Sheila becomes the symbol of what the narrator would later see as his childhood innocence. As a result, the reader can view the narrator as a changed man, who has learned from his experiences and grown into a mature adult by the end of the story.