The Fisherman and His Wife

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"The Fisherman and His Wife" illustration by Alexander Zick

The Fisherman and His Wife is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, tale no. 19. It is Aarne-Thompson type 555, the fisherman and his wife. Its theme was used in The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, an 1835 poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. Mrs Ramsey reads the story to James, her son in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Günter Grass's The Flounder is also loosely based on the story, as is Emanuele Luzzati's retelling, Punch and the Magic Fish.


There once was a poor fisherman who lived with his wife, Ilsebill, in a hovel by the sea. One day the fisherman catches a golden flounder who claims to be an enchanted prince. The fisherman kindly releases it. When his wife hears the story, she says he ought to have had the flounder grant him a wish. Ilsebill tells him to go back and ask the flounder to grant her wish for a nice house. The fisherman returns to the shore but is uneasy when he finds that the sea seems to be turning dark when it was so clear before. He makes up a rhyme to summon the flounder, and it grants the wife's wish. However, the wife gets greedy and makes increasingly outrageous demands: a castle so she can become queen, then empress and finally pope. The fisherman knows this is wrong but there is no reasoning with his wife. The flounder grants the wishes, but the sea grows increasingly stormy every time the fisherman goes to summon it.

Eventually, the wife goes too far when she wishes to become equal to God. The flounder revokes everything it granted, and the fisherman and his wife are back in their hovel.


The major theme in this tale is greed. The wife is the embodiment of greed and she continues to want more and more as the story progresses. She becomes greedier more quickly every time that she gets what she wants. When her wishes are granted, she hardly appreciates what she has before she is unsatisfied with it. This eventually leads to her downfall: the wife continues to get what she wants until she has gone too far and the flounder teaches her a lesson about greed by returning her life to the way it was before her wishes were granted.


The moral of this story is that greed can become unstoppable and lead to one's downfall, so one should be content. In the tale, the fisherman’s wife lets greed get the best of her and she wants more and more, but becomes less satisfied every time she gets what she wants. Once the wife has asked for too much, the flounder that gave her everything takes away everything he gave her. The wife could have been Pope but her greed left her with nothing. The flounder teaches her and the reader that too much greed can lead to losing everything, so one must be content with what one has.

Adaptations in modern Literature and Television[edit]

In 1977 the German writer Günter Grass published the novel The Flounder (German: “Der Butt”), which is loosely based on the fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife”.

There was a short cartoon based on this story as part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The Flounder was replaced by a beautiful mermaid who grants the wishes in exchange for her freedom. Additionally, the wife does not request to be empress or pope but rather goes directly from queen to wishing to be a 'goddess'. The mermaid then points out to the fisherman that all his wishes have been for his wife, and asks him what he desires. The fisherman replies that he just wants his wife to be happy, and the mermaid replies, "Go; she is happy." As in the later 1997 version, the fisherman and his wife are reduced to living in their hovel, but the wife is happy that it is poor yet neat.

In 1997, the story was given a Spanish-flavored adaptation on the animated cable series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. Edward James Olmos and Julia Migenes provided the voices of the fisherman and his wife. In this version, the fisherman is unable to figure out what his last wish is, and says, "I want only for my wife to be happy". Immediately, he and his wife and reduced to living in the hovel again, but she is contented and happily embraces him.

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