The poem explores the wretched, miserable existence of a man who’s life is controlled by alcohol. The poem deals with the exile of the alcoholic. It explores the isolation, deception and lack of control experienced by a person battling with their addiction. Bishop gives us an insight into a person’s state of mind. She explores the spiritual and physical loneliness felt by an alcoholic. The poem tells the story of one individual but also appeals to people on a universal level. There is enormous human understanding in the poem. Bishop feels sorry for the prodigal and her imagery makes us feel sympathy towards him too.
The prodigal lives in dire conditions where the ‘enormous odour’ is so overwhelming and overpowering that it has impaired his judgement. He has lost all sense of there being another world other than the one he is living in. The prodigal has lost touch of the world in which he is living, and the only world he knows now is the one in which he is living with pigs. Some mornings after he has been drinking, the rising sun transforms the ugly pigsty into something beautiful. Bishop admires the strength of the human spirit where he can find beauty in the midst of great filth. She celebrates the fact that in the midst of despair human beings can find a glimmer of hope.
‘the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure’
The world of nature, and in particular the rising sun, has become a source of consolation for him. It made his life more bearable and helped him to cope with his suffering and loneliness. His exile is both literal and metaphorical. He is physically isolated from his family, and he experiences a spiritual isolation.
‘And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more’
The lantern gives the prodigal a sense of hope. He compares the light from the lantern to an ‘aureole’ or a halo. The religious image could suggest that the prodigal begins to think of his spiritual life.
‘The lantern – like the sun, going away –
laid on the mud a pacing aureole’
The prodigal is constantly searching for meaning in his life, but the image of the bat suggests that this search is futile and ‘uncertain’. The physical darkness and blindness experienced by bats reflects the spiritual darkness of the prodigal.
‘he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight’
There is an image of hope at the end of the poem as the prodigal decides ‘to go home’. As is evident in the fist stanza, the light makes the prodigal realise and accept that he must change his life. Once again Bishop admires the human spirit as he makes the brave decision to return home and ask for forgiveness.
‘But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home’