Literature Study GuidesGrimms Fairy Tales SelectedThe Fisherman And His Wife Summary

Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Fisherman and His Wife | Summary

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Summary

A fisherman and his wife, named Ilsebill, are so poor they live in a pigsty. The fisherman fishes every day, waiting patiently for a bite. One day he catches a huge flounder who turns out to be an enchanted prince. "Why in the world would I want a talking flounder?" asks the fisherman. He releases the fish and goes home to the pigsty.

When his wife hears about the adventure, she becomes angry. What's the point of catching a magic fish if you don't ask it for anything? She orders her husband to return to the sea, find the flounder, and ask him for a little cottage to replace the pigsty.

The fisherman returns home to find a nice little cottage waiting for him. "Isn't this wonderful?" asks his wife. He answers, "Let's just hope it stays that way," to which his wife says, "We'll see about that."

For a little while the fisherman's wife is content. But then she decides the cottage isn't big enough and tells the fisherman to find the flounder again. He obeys with a heavy heart and returns home to find a castle.

But the fisherman's wife still isn't content. She keeps asking for more, and the flounder keeps granting her wishes. The fisherman comes to dread his walks to the sea; he's sure the flounder will lose patience as the wife's ambitions continue to soar. She's not even satisfied with becoming the pope, and asks her husband to tell the flounder she now wants to be "like our dear God."

The fisherman quakes at the request, but his furious wife orders him out of the house. A storm rages as he reaches the shore and calls to the flounder. But when the fish learns what the fisherman's wife wants this time, he says, "Go back home. She's sitting in her pigsty again." And they live in the pigsty for the rest of their days.

Analysis

A "fishwife" is a woman who either sells fish or indulges in coarse, vulgar rants. The fisherman's wife in this story seems to fit both definitions.

Variants of this plot are found in many cultures. A human somehow becomes involved with a supernatural being and exploits its power to grant wishes. When the human goes too far, he or she loses everything. This particular version is extra-painful because the fisherman is punished along with his wife. Then again, the message might be that he should have stood up to her. There's a hint of role reversal, at least with traditional folk-tale roles, in this story. The husband is passive, patient, and apologetic; his wife is boundlessly greedy and ambitious. She bosses him around. She wants to become first a king and the pope, men's jobs. The nerve! No wonder this story reads more like a fable than a folk tale. A moral at the end is clearly necessary.

The supernatural being—a flounder, in this case—doesn't quite fit the traditional pattern. He's an enchanted prince who never mentions the possibility of becoming human again. He also bleeds; the other enchanted princes in Grimm don't do that. The flounder has been wounded by the fisherman's hook, which may suggest that he'll want revenge.

The fisherman knows from the start that his wife, Ilsebill, is a grasping woman. The first time he calls the flounder up from the sea, he explains that he's only there because his wife wants it. "She sent me here against my will." For person intent on supernatural favors, asking for something better than a pigsty isn't too outrageous. But even on that first visit to ask for a wish, the sea is "dark green with shades of yellow and not nearly as calm as before." The fisherman and his wife roil the waters from the beginning.

The cottage is certainly nicer than a sty, but three times the narrator uses the word "little" to describe it. The description is also somewhat childlike; the cottage sounds like a dollhouse. It has a bedroom "with a bed for each of them." It's "everything you could ever want." It even has "a little farmyard with chickens and ducks."

In this story, the wife seems to take on a traditional, stereotypically "male" role: she's aggressive, competitive, and preoccupied with material success. The fisherman, by contrast, is passive and conflict-averse. He lets his wife boss him around without resisting, though he has his doubts about the wisdom of returning to the flounder for more wishes.

Instead it's nature that objects. The sea and sky become progressively stormier as the wife attempts to rise above her station. By the time she decides she wants to be king, the water is "gray-black and the water was churning up from below and had a foul smell to it." When the fisherman's wife decides she wants to become pope, tempests are raging on both sea and land and ships at sea send out distress signals. Now her greed is hurting other people. By the time she decides to become God, the setting turns apocalyptic.

Notice that the fisherman never stands up to his wife, and the flounder never stands up to the fisherman. He betrays no impatience, just grants the wishes and goes back under the water. He doesn't so much as warn the fisherman. That's because the story needs to play out fully. The wife must ask for something so monstrous that it seems fair to return her to the pigsty. The goal is to teach the wife and husband (and the reader) the lesson, "Don't try to be better than you are." Both members of the couple need to learn this lesson. The wife's greed revolts even her husband, but he meekly continues as her messenger. He's not blame-free here.

By the time she decides to become God, the world is starting to end. Oddly, one of her reasons for asking to become God is that she wants to control the sun and the moon. Each of her wishes has a greater effect on the weather, so in a way she already has what she wants.

And when the fisherman relays his wife's wish, the flounder ends the adventure. The story ends as well. Since the story ends where it began, it turns into what's known as an anti–fairy tale. The fisherman and his wife are no better off. In fact, they're arguably worse off than when they started, since they now realize what they've thrown away.

It might seem sadder if the fisherman's wife hadn't been so hateful.

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