Thoughts on “The Fisherman and His Wife”

by crfricke

“The Fisherman and His Wife” sticks out for me, among the Grimm tales. Something about it is different, and I can’t quite put my finger on what that something could be.

Maybe it’s the ironic twist at the end that comes dangerously close to an explicit moral (which most tales don’t have). Maybe it’s the fact that the wife makes six requests of the enchanted flounder rather than the usual three, drawing this tale out into almost epic proportions. Maybe it’s the intensely colorful descriptions of the state of the sea throughout the tale, which lend it a tone closer to magical realism than straight, to-the-point, fairy tale.

In fact, I think that’s pretty close, at least on a personal level: when I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” it reminded me not only of the tale “The Fisherman and His Wife” but also of the John B. Gruelle illustration of the tale (below), of the fisherman standing on the rocky beach, his arms flung wide in amazement. This is a tale that relishes the visual more than most fairy tales — the descriptions of the increasingly-angry sea, as well as the ever-more-ornate descriptions of the fisherman’s changing abode support the growing dread of the story. In magical realism, the environment and the aesthetic details (scuttling crabs, cloudy skies) do similar work to set the tone, whereas in fairy tales, magical realism’s undoubted predecessors, tone is usually conveyed quickly and starkly, if at all. Here are some lines in the “The Fisherman and His Wife” that set it apart, in this respect:

“He then put the fish back into the clear water, and the flounder swam to the bottom, leaving behind a long streak of blood.”

“So he went back to the sea. When he got there, the sea was very green and yellow and no longer so clear.”

“The tables sagged under the weight of food and bottles of the very best wine.”

“When he got to the sea, it was completely gray and black, and the water was twisting and turning from below and smelled putrid.”

“In the distance, the fisherman could see ships firing guns in distress as they were tossed up and down by the waves.”

All culminating in the wife’s insistence that she won’t be satisfied until the flounder makes her God, so she can cause the sun and the moon to rise.

Fairy tales feel elemental to us, and there’s no doubt that nature is often a character unto herself — places and things like woods and rivers take on ominous or helpful qualities that help convey a larger power at work than man’s. But never is that so clear than in “The Fisherman and His Wife.”

And I also get a real kick out of the man and wife and their matter-of-fact attitude in regards to her social climbing, before it’s all stripped away:

“‘Wife,’ the man said as he looked at her carefully, ‘now you’re the pope, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m Pope.'”

End scene.

Read the full tale as translated by D. L. Ashliman, available at, and you can read my writing response here.

Illustration by John B. Gruelle

Illustration by John B. Gruelle