The Fisherman and His Wife is one of the lesser known tales by the Brothers Grimm, but it is right up there with the best of them. It is has a gripping, imaginative plot that offers many lessons about the dangers of greed. Better still, those lessons are not black and white, so there is ample room for debate. Let’s begin by looking at the plot and then examine two controversial questions my students engage.
Exposition – The Background
A fisherman and his wife pass their days living in a shack by the sea.
Inciting Incident – The Problem
The Fisherman and His Wife by Alexander Zick
All of that changes one day when the fisherman catches a magical, talking fish who had once been a prince. The fisherman at first plans to cook and eat his catch like any other, but the fish begs him not to. Being of a generous heart, the fisherman releases the fish.
Rising Action – The Build-up
His wife, however, reprimands him gravely for letting the fish off the hook without first demanding a wish. She insists her husband go back the very next day, find the fish, and demand a wish in exchange for letting him go. When the fisherman asks his wife what they should wish for, she quickly responds that she wants a nice cottage instead of their “filthy” shack.
The husband obeys his wife, goes back to the seashore, calls out to the fish who readily comes swimming back, and presents his wife’s wish. The fish, in turn, changes their shack into a nice cottage.
When the fisherman returns home later that day, his wife seems happy with their new home. Feeling satisfied himself, he says, “This is quite enough.”
“We will see about that,” the wife retorts.
Thus ensues a daily progression of new wishes, each trading out one home for another and always increasing the wife’s station in life. She next contrives to have a palace over which she is lord, then a kingdom over which she is king, then an empire over which she is emperor, and finally all of Christendom over which she is pope.
The fisherman begs his wife not to keep demanding more wishes but fears her too much to refuse her bidding. Like an errand boy, he goes back day after day and fishes for wishes on her behalf. Though the fish keeps granting them in turn, the water and clouds turn ever more murky and grey.
Climax – The Point of No Return
Still not satisfied, the wife racks her brains all night long trying to think of what could be better than being pope. When the first rays of light streak across her bedroom, she asks, “Could not I cause the sun and the moon to rise?”
Falling Action – The Unraveling
The fisherman fears his wife more than ever as he realizes she wants to be like God. Amidst thunder and lightning, the man obediently runs away from her like a madman, calls out to the fish, and presents his wife’s newest wish.
Anti-resolution – Not So Happily Ever After
Upon hearing it, the fish simply replies, “Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.” And just like that, the fisherman and his wife lose everything they had gotten from the fish.
When reading this story with my students, it is always interesting to see how intently they follow the plot. Their inquisitive eyes and furrowed brows race through the storyline, eager to find out what will become of the fisherman and his wife.
With the first wish, it is not at all obvious what is going to happen. It even seems like a good thing that they get to upgrade their “filthy” shack to a nice cottage. As the wishes become greedier and the sky turns darker, however, the students soon realize things have not gotten better for the fisherman and his wife but much, much worse.
The First Wish
During our discussions, students unanimously condemn the fisherman’s and his wife’s greed. Many say familiar expressions like, they should have “quit while they were ahead.” Or, they should have been “careful what you wished for.” Indeed, there are dozens of similar adages that can be readily applied.
It gets a lot more complicated, however, when we discuss whether or not the fisherman and his wife should have wished for anything at all. Some inevitably think it was okay that they tried to improve their station in life. The problem, in their opinion, was that the fisherman and his wife went overboard.
Others argue that even one wish was too much because it set them on an insatiable path. Both viewpoints are certainly valid, so the object of debating the prudence of making the first wish is not to come up with the “right” answer. Rather, the goal is to have students think deeply about the nature of greed.
The Final Wish
We also have a rich discussion about the final wish. Specifically, I ask my students whether or not the fisherman and his wife got what they wished for. Did the wife get to become like God?
Of course, the literal answer is no. Indeed, they lost everything they had previously gained.
With a little prodding, though, they begin to come up with figurative interpretations that are extremely insightful. Some say they become slaves to their newfound wealth, distancing themselves further and further from God. As such, they end up losing any semblance of likeness they ever had to Him.
Others suggest that since the fisherman and his wife are humbled in the end, they have a newfound chance of being like God, who has perfect humility alongside absolute power.
Still others argue that the wife does get her final wish because she has power over her husband. In their little world, filthy as it is with the vice of greed, she has absolute power. She didn’t need an empire or a kingdom to “rule” over her husband, so she got her original shack back. Though hers is a corrupt kind of power, it is precisely the kind she foolishly sought.
The Fisherman and His Wife offers many real-life lessons about greed, albeit with plenty of grey area. While my students never agree on “how much is enough,” they certainly agree that too much is a bad thing. Likewise, they realize that fortunes can easily be turned into misfortunes. That is not to say wealth is bad, per se, but that it comes with a price.
Image in the public domain
"The Fisherman and his Wife," as told by the brothers Grimm, moralizes against uxoriousness and unsatisfied wifely ambitions. A poor fisherman who lives with his wife in a hovel by the seashore catches a flounder. The flounder tells the fisherman his catch would not make good eating and asks to be let go. The fisherman thinks that since the flounder can speak, this fish had better go back into the sea, which is described as clear except for a long streak of blood left behind by the flounder as it sinks to the bottom. When the fisherman reports to his wife that he had caught and released a talking fish, she complains about the dreadfulness of living in an evil-smelling hovel and tells her husband to call back the enchanted fish and ask it for a cottage. This the husband does, finding the sea now green and yellow, and not nearly so clear as before. Next, the wife asks for a castle in place of the cottage. Though the fisherman thinks it is not the right thing to do, he asks and receives a castle from the flounder, now in a watery realm grown purple, dark blue, grey and thick, not green and yellow as before. Transformed first into a king, then an emperor and finally pope, all from an increasingly darkening, ill-smelling, and land-invading sea, the wife at last asks for power over the sun and moon. In reply to this wish for divinity, the enchanted flounder transforms the couple's palatial and ecclesiastical splendors back into their old hovel, where the fisherman and his wife, says the story, are sitting to this very day.
David Ellison's recent study of the ethics and aesthetics of European modernist literature (2001) finds in Freud's essay "The 'Uncanny'" a model for the way modernist texts are eerily inhabited by pre-modern texts and thus can produce purgatorial life-in-death/death-in-life effects in their readers. In analyzing Virginia Woolf's use of "The Fisherman and his Wife" in To the Lighthouse, where Mrs. Ramsay reads the tale to her son James in chapters VII, IX, and X of Part One, Ellison suggests that the embedded fairy tale casts uncanny light on the existential plight of the Ramsays' marriage and on the unhappiness that awaits the romantic alliance between Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, whose marriage Mrs. Ramsay promotes, says Ellison, because misery loves company (198-200).
Ellison sees the transformation of the palace into a hovel as "an uncanny metamorphosis," a wish spinning out of control in unconscious imaginative transformation. He thinks the darkening sea indicates not only the morally transgressive quality of the wife's longings but a plunge into madness. He reads Woolf's use of the tale as exemplifying her struggle between formalist beauty, ornamentation, art and the whirlpool of the uncanny drive toward death. Just as the wife's wishing presupposes the flounder's untold history before enchantment, so Lily's painting depends on the death of Mrs. Ramsay ten years before its completion.
The fisherman's wife's greed undermines itself...