The Fisherman and His Wife by Brothers Grimm: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

A talking fish grants the requests of a fisherman's wife, but nothing ever seems to be enough. Learn more about their story, and an analysis of the story's warning, in this lesson's summary of ''The Fisherman and His Wife'' by the Grimm Brothers.

Throwing Back the Catch

Imagine you're fishing. The water is calm, and the sun is shining. All of a sudden, you feel a bite on your line. You reel in a huge fish, only to have the fish open its mouth and ask you to let it live! What you're picturing is the beginning of the Grimm brothers' fairy tale, ''The Fisherman and His Wife.'' As we open this story, a poor fisherman is surprised during his daily catch when his catch of the day can speak. Turns out this big fish is ''an enchanted prince.'' Prince or not, the fisherman doesn't want anything to do with a talking fish. The fisherman figures that's the end of it when he sets the fish free again, but this is only the beginning. Let's find out what happens by summarizing the story, followed up by some analysis.

The First Requests

When the fisherman heads back home to the tiny, run-down shack where he lives with his wife, the first thing he does is tell her about the talking fish. But where the fisherman had been content to let the fish go, his wife is amazed he didn't think to ask the fish for a favor in return for freedom. She demands he go ask for a ''snug little cottage'' to replace their ''nasty dirty pigsty'' home.

The fisherman feels uncomfortable with the idea, but doesn't feel like he can refuse his wife. The ''sparkling'' water from that morning looks ''yellow and green'' when he gets there. He calls out for the fish, explaining that his wife, Ilsabill, has sent him to ask a ''boon,'' or favor. The fish comes pretty quickly and asks what she wants. When the fisherman explains she wants a new house, the fish tells him to go home and he'll find her wish is granted.

Ilsabill sends the fisherman to ask the fish for favors.
Fisherman and Wife

The fisherman's wife is excited to show him around their new sweet little house when he gets home, and the fisherman is happy to think ''how happily we will live now!'' His wife seems less sure, but they will try. And try they do. At least, for a couple of weeks. But then his wife begins to feel like maybe they need a bigger place after all. The fisherman doesn't want to anger the fish by asking for more, but she insists he go back to the water which is now ''blue and gloomy.'' All goes as before, and the fish gives them the castle Ilsabill wants.

Reaching Higher

This time it doesn't even take an entire day for Ilsabill to decide she's not quite satisfied with the beautiful castle. If she's going to live in a castle, she figures she might as well be King. The fisherman is even more reluctant to go back to the fish, but he makes his way to the water, which is now dark gray with ''curling waves and the ridges of foam.'' The fish grants her request yet again, but this time the fisherman is barely home before his wife again declares she's grown unsatisfied. If she can be King, why can't she be Emperor?

The fisherman is sure this is going to be the last straw, and when he gets to the water this time, it is ''quite black and muddy, and a mighty whirlwind blew over the waves and rolled them about.'' As before, the fisherman has underestimated the fish, and his wife's wish is granted yet again. No sooner is he back through the door, though, than she announces she has decided she should be pope.

Now the sky is red, the ''wind was raging and the sea was tossed up and down in boiling waves.'' But the fish still grants Ilsabill's demand and makes her pope! At last, the fisherman is certain she will be satisfied. After all, what could possibly be a more important role than pope? At first she can't think of one either, but a sleepless night turning the question over in her head leads her to an answer: the lord of the sun and moon.

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