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Literature / The Fisherman and His Wife

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"Flounder, flounder, in the sea, come, I pray thee, here to me."

The Fisherman and His Wife is a fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It is notably one of their few stories to have a Christian theme, given the tale's ending.

A kindly but poverty-stricken fisherman catches a magical fish. The fish begs him to let it go, claiming to be a prince. The fisherman lets it go and tells his wife all about it. The fisherman's wife is overbearing and greedy, and she demands that he go back and ask the fish to grant him a wish out of gratitude. The fisherman does not have any desires, so the wife tells him to make the fish give them a nicer house, which is what she wants.

The fisherman meets the fish and asks for a nicer house, the fish obliges. When the fisherman returns home, he sees his wife in her dream house. A few days later, the wife loses interest in their new house and demand that the fisherman wish for a castle. The fisherman reluctantly does so, noting that the sea becomes less welcoming every time he asks for a wish.

The fisherman's wife can not be satisfied. After gaining her castle, she demands wealth and political power. The poor fisherman is sent to ask for everything she wants. Each time, the sea becomes more turbulent and stormy. It gets to the point where the fisherman risks his very life to have his wife's wishes granted. When the wife demands to have power over the Sun, Moon and stars, (and be more powerful than God) the fish refuses to grant this wish and undoes all the other wishes. The fisherman then goes home to his now humbled wife in their meagre hovel.

It is perhaps one of their more well-known stories, and has its own number in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system.

In the original Grimm collection, this tale is in Low German (Plattdeutsch); it was written by the painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810). For another Low German fairy tale by Runge, see "The Juniper Tree".

The Fisherman and His Wife provides examples of the following tropes:

  • An Aesop: You can't always have what you want, but you can always want what you have. The wife's desire for more and more costs both her and her husband everything.
  • Animorphism: In some versions, the fish was originally a human prince who had everything (including his own species) taken from him and must serve the peasants he originally looked down upon. Could be seen as Foreshadowing.
  • Benevolent Genie:
    • The fish, until the fisherman's wife demands to have the powers of a god.
    • In some adaptations, the fish asks what the fisherman's wish is, and the fisherman says he wishes his wife would be happy, upon which the fish makes the wife happy with what she already has.
    • In one version, the fish tells the fisherman to wish for something for himself, or the fish will turn his wife into a jellyfish. The wife doesn't believe this, and guess what happens ...
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Inverted. The fisherman has to risk life and limb to grant his wife's wishes. The wife, meanwhile, gets to stay in her increasingly lavish home, wondering what else she should wish for.
  • Godhood Seeker: The fisherman's wife ultimately wishes for this.
  • Happily Ever After: In a way, the fisherman. He doesn't have to risk life and limb to keep getting his selfish wife wishes anymore, and gets his shack back when he never wanted any of the lavish houses his wife wished for.
  • Henpecked Husband: The fisherman never gets a say in any of the wishes. He doesn't even want anything from the fish.
  • It's All About Me: The wife could not care less what her husband has to go through for her wishes. She believes that as long as she gets what she wants, the world is a better place.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: In one version, this is what the fisherman wishes for when asked by the fish. It's implied that the fisherman would keep doing this whole routine if the fish didn't step in when he did.
  • Jerkass: The wife. She never does any work to get the wishes herself and treats the fisherman terribly even after all the work he does to keep her happy.
  • No Name Given: The fish and the fisherman. Played With concerning the wife, as in some versions she's not named; in others she's called "Isabelle" or something similar.
  • Pinball Protagonist: The fisherman never refuses his wife's growing demands of him, continues to brave the sea no matter how turbulent it grows, and doesn't make a wish for himself until the very end. In some versions of the tale, he even goes through with carrying his wife's wish for godhood even while knowing how blasphemous it is, and it comes down to the fish to solve everything either by reinterpreting her wish, urging the fisherman to make a wish for himself, or just forcefully undoing everything.
  • Rags to Royalty: The wife's increasingly powerful wishes sees her going from a peasent to a rich woman to a princess to a queen to a lord to the ruler of the entire world. The fish draws the line when she asks to be greater than God.
  • Reset Button: The ending. Apparently sick of the wife's selfish desires, the fish reverts everything back to the way it was before the wishes, much to the delight of the fisherman.
  • A Storm Is Coming: With every wish, the sea gets increasingly turbulent.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: The wife is never thankful for anything her husband does for her, or whatever the fish gives her. All she ever does is demand more and more of them.
  • Wealthy Ever After: Subverted. The fish takes away all the wife's wishes, and her and her husband go back to living in their shack.