The Fisherman and His Wife

This is a classic tale by Brothers Grimm, being classified as KHM 19 in the collection.

Short Summary

A fisherman caught a fish which happened to be a very special one. It said it’s actually an enchanted prince and it won’t taste very good so it’s best to be freed. The fisherman was a bit shocked at the talking fish and after a while let the fish go.

Act of Mercy

He told his wife about his caught when he returned to his poor home. She said the fish should show some gratitude. If it could talk, it could probably fulfill some wishes. They could, for instance, have a better home. The fisherman was not very excited about that but he went to the seashore again and called the fish.

The fish really made his wish come true. They got a lovely house and the fisherman was very happy. Yet his wife wanted more. She sent her husband back to the coast and their status improved even further.

The Reward

They got a huge castle, she became a queen, and finally a pope. Her husband went to the sea again and again and each time the ocean became darker and more violent. The fish was grumpier and grumpier but the wishes were still coming true. Yet it still wasn’t enough. She demanded to become a god. She wanted to rule the sun and the moon directing their rises.

When the fish heard that it sent the fisherman home again saying they got back what they had before. They were in the same very poor hut as before the fish was caught.

The Punishment


It’s a very stylish story from a dramatic point of view. We have only three characters, one in static and two in dynamic modes.

Fisherman’s wife is static. She is greedy, unsatisfied, and always wants more. While she acts at first as a helper suggesting her husband he should get a reward for being so kind to the caught fish at first, we realize her real motivation right after her (not his!) wish came true.

The fisherman is dynamic. He starts in the position of the judge having power over the fish’s life. He looks very gracious at first but in the next scenes we know him better – he is actually so weak character, everybody (the fish at first and his wife from then on) can convince him in anything, even if it’s against his moral principles (if we can say somebody like him has his principles). He acts as a helper and a messenger.

Grimm’s fairy tales present many weak men who are empowered by their wives (think about Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Snow White, …).

The fish is dynamic as well. It starts in the role of a victim. Then it became a helper and gradually transforms into a judge.

Moral of Fisherman’s and His Wife

The moral of the story is pretty obvious. If you can’t find happiness in things you already have, you’ll never be happy no matter which of your wishes will come true. Fisherman’s seemingly good heart was not enough to make him happy because his wife was so greedy. The lesson of the fisherman and his wife can be written as: be grateful for what you have. Or: the greediness will eventually get you nothing.

The symbolism of water and other symbols in the story

The fisherman and his wife use several symbols. All characters carry their own but the power of the water is the most obvious. In each scene where the fisherman meets with the fish, the ocean is different. It starts as a clear, crystal water, suggesting the perfection and balance of the world as it is. Then is became darker and more violent until the storm at their final meeting sending a strong message against the greed of fisherman’s wife (and his weakness).

Water is generally a medium between life and death. It’s fluid and evasive, changing shapes all the time. It represents emotions and wisdom.

In the story it changes colors from clear (perfection, prosperity) to yellow (joy, optimism), and green (growth, renewal), to dark-blue (importance, stubbornness) and purple (extravagance, royalty), and finally to gray (depression, loss) and black (death, power).

You can read about the symbolism of colors in this post:

There is also mentioned the ocean after so many fisherman’s demands eventually started smelling bad. Bad smell is characteristic for death and hell.

The fish is a symbol of good luck. But a wounded fish suggests distress and sorrow. When the fish is released in the story, a stream of blood is mentioned.

The fisherman was an initial occupation of Saint Peter, the first Bishop of Rome – The Pope. The Fisherman is still his nickname, suggesting his fishing for the souls. He is a patron of all fishermen as well.

Fisherman’s wife represents a rude, always grumpy person, who used to do low paid jobs in bad conditions, never being satisfied as is still characteristic of most fish sellers today. Thanks to this story the phrase fisherman’s wife represents all greedy and ungrateful people in the world.

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