The young Fisherman goes out fishing every evening, and the success of his catch depends on which way the wind is blowing. One evening after he casts out his net, he notes it’s extremely heavy, and then realizes he has accidentally caught a little Mermaid, who is fast asleep. He observes her appearance in detail, and finds her so beautiful that he is “filled with wonder.” He then leans over the boat to clasp her in his arms. This causes the Mermaid to wake up and realize she’s been captured; she begins to weep and asks the Fisherman to let her go. The Fisherman agrees on the condition that whenever he calls for her she will come and sing for him, “for the fish delight to listen to the song of the Sea-folk” and his nets will be full. The Mermaid agrees, and so the Fisherman lets her go.
As this is a fairytale, the fact that the mermaid is a supernatural creature is not presented as unusual. Rather, it is her beauty that entrances the Fisherman and makes him reluctant to let her go. Importantly, the Fisherman only agrees to release the Mermaid on the condition she returns to sing for him every day. Although they will later fall in love and the story will portray power of love to bring harmony to the world, it is notable that their relationship is built on a power balance and a promise the Mermaid is forced to make. Promises, as well as the repercussions of failing to keep them, will recur throughout the story.
Now the Fisherman catches a huge amount of fish every evening because the Mermaid comes to sing for him. The song she sings is about all the creatures, natural and supernatural alike, who live in the sea. Each day, her song becomes sweeter to the Fisherman’s ears, so that eventually he forgets his fishing entirely and has “no care of his craft.” Entranced by the Mermaid, he tells her that he loves her and asks her to marry him, to which the Mermaid replies that she could only love him if he sends away his soul. The Fisherman readily agrees to do so, saying that his soul is without value, and asks the Mermaid how he can send it away. The Mermaid responds that she doesn’t know because “the Sea-folk have no souls.”
The Mermaid’s song embraces all manner of creatures. This inclusive way of looking at the world will prove in stark contrast to the harsh, exclusivist beliefs of the Priest. Once the Fisherman has fallen in love with the Mermaid, he abandons his livelihood, which was previously the most important thing to him and the basis of his identity. The Fisherman handles so lightly his decision to give up is soul that is seems he has not fully considered the consequences. Importantly, the Mermaid does not return the Fisherman’s love at first; rather, she immediately makes it clear that they can only be together if the Fisherman makes this grand sacrifice. While the Fisherman previously held the Mermaid captive in a physical way, the Mermaid now holds the power because the Fisherman will do anything to be with her. Wilde’s decision to place obstacles in the way of their love is a typical trope of fairytales, but the Mermaid’s seeming indifference introduces an interesting degree of ambivalence around romantic love and the sacrifices people might feel compelled to make in its name.
Early the next morning, the Fisherman goes to the Priest and asks him how he can send away his soul so that he can be with the Mermaid. The Priest is appalled at the request because “the soul is the noblest part of man.” The Priest then goes on to describe how the Sea-folk and Fauna are lost because they are without souls, to which the Fisherman responds “what doth my soul profit me, if it stand between me and the thing that I love?” The Priest, however, will only tell him that “The love of the body is vile” and repeats that the supernatural creatures are “Accursed,” before sending him away.
The Fisherman’s desire to give up his soul is handled in a very literal and matter-of-fact way. Considering that Christianity views the soul as the thing that separates humans from the rest of the creatures on earth, it is unsurprising that the Priest rebuffs the Fisherman. The level of aggression with which the Priest responds, however, is perhaps a critique of Christianity. Not only is the Priest shocked by the Fisherman’s decision, after all, but he refuses to engage in meaningful conversation over the Fisherman’s decision. Even when the Fisherman demonstrates genuine confusion, the Priest does not offer any explanation or spiritual counsel; he carries on in an admonishing tone and turns aggressive, expecting the Fisherman to simply do as he’s told. With this, Wilde is possibly suggesting that Christian values as outlined in the Old Testament, specifically blind faith and loyalty to God, often manifest harshly, and are incompatible with romantic love.
The Fisherman now goes to the marketplace where he meets some merchants to whom he tries to sell his soul, but they reply that a man’s soul “is not worth a clipped piece of silver.” The Fisherman reflects on how strange it is that the Priest has told him the soul is the most valuable thing imaginable, while the merchants have told him the opposite.
The value of the soul is again called into question matter-of-factly. The Fisherman cannot understand how the Priest can attribute such value to his soul while the merchants view it as almost worthless. Two kinds of value are being pitted against one another: immaterial, spiritual value and material, worldly value. While the Fisherman remains confused, Wilde seems to suggest that the value of the soul is relative and depends entirely on the subjective opinion of the observer. If the soul does have a value, it is an intangible one that the merchants and the Fisherman either do not understand or do not rate as important.
The Fisherman wanders to the shore and wonders what he should do. Remembering there is a young Witch who dwells in a nearby cave, the Fisherman quickly makes his way toward her. The Witch offers him fish, treasures, and the love of the Queen, telling him “But I have a price […] thou shalt pay me a price.” When the Fisherman says he desires to send his soul away, she becomes pale and tells him “that is a terrible thing to do,” though she asks what he will give her in return. The Fisherman finds the Witch can’t be tempted with “gold nor silver,” but that she wants him to dance with her that night, saying, “It is a Sabbath, and He will be there.” The Fisherman asks “Who is He of whom thou speakest?” but she refuses to answer. The Fisherman runs back to the town “filled with a great joy.”
The Witch makes clear that she can provide the Fisherman with virtually anything he might desire, offering him both material and immaterial wealth so long as he can pay the price. Even the Witch, however, is reluctant to tell the Fisherman how to give up his soul, and again the soul is portrayed as having an inherent value the Fisherman has not yet considered. As far as the Fisherman is concerned, it is simply an obstacle between him and his love for the Mermaid. Although the Witch decides to help him, her decision has sinister undertones. Indeed, the reference to a male figure who will appear on the Sabbath suggests that, as she is a witch, her intention is to involve the Fisherman in some sort of Satanic ritual. In this way, Wilde reiterates that the Fisherman’s decision to part with his soul is a perilous one.
That evening, the Fisherman climbs the mountain, and witches come flying through the air at midnight. When the young Witch arrives, she leads the Fisherman into the moonlight where they begin to dance. A man dressed in a suit of black velvet appears on a horse, and he is “strangely pale” and “weary.” When the Witch leads the Fisherman toward the suited man, the Fisherman, “without knowing why he did it,” makes the sign of the Cross and “calle[s] upon the holy name.” The witches scream and fly away, and the man whistles for a horse that whisks him away. The Witch is distressed and has to be forced to tell the Fisherman how to send away his soul, which is by cutting away his shadow with a knife.
This passage strongly hints that the man in the suit is the devil—not only does he appear on the Sabbath to be worshipped by witches, he arrives on a horse and is dressed in black. It seems possible, given the nature of the ritual and the fact that the male figure is “weary,” that the Fisherman is being tricked into partaking in a ritual which will rejuvenate the devil. When the Fisherman is lead towards this man, his instinct is to make the sign of the cross and to call upon God. Even though the Fisherman has previously disavowed the value of the soul, he nonetheless displays an instinctive connection to Christianity and uses it to protect himself. The effect this has on both the man and the witches underscores their evil nature. Interestingly, despite the Witch’s seeming plan to trick the Fisherman, she is still hesitant to tell him how to send away his soul, implying that doing so would be unwise. As such, Wilde implies that if the Fisherman does manage to send away his soul, there will be drastic consequences.
The Fisherman now makes his way toward the shore while his Soul calls out to him. At first the Soul begs the Fisherman not to send him away, and then asks that if he is indeed to be sent away, he not be sent away without a heart. The Fisherman denies each of his requests; the Soul tells the Fisherman they must meet again, and that he will come back to the same place every year.
The Soul now becomes a character in his own right, and begins to develop his own agency and desires, which are increasingly in conflict with those of the Fisherman. The Fisherman is unmoved by his Soul’s alarm at being sent away, especially without a heart. This underscores how consumed he is with love for the Mermaid, and how she has become his sole priority.
The Soul returns a year later and calls the Fisherman to the shore. The Soul recounts his travels to the East where he obtained the Mirror of Wisdom. He then explains that he has hidden the mirror in a valley, and says, “Do but suffer me to enter into thee again […] and thou shalt be wiser than all the wise men.” The Fisherman promptly replies that “Love is better than Wisdom” before plunging back into the sea. The following year, the Soul returns and again recounts his travels to the South where he found the Ring of Riches, which he has also hidden in the valley. Again, he tells the Fisherman “Come…and take it, and the world’s riches shall be thine.” In response, the Fisherman says, “Love is better than riches.”
This section marks the beginning of the Soul’s drawn-out attempts to tempt the Fisherman into leaving the Mermaid. Wilde’s decision to dedicate so much of the story to the Soul’s recounting of his travels indicates both how desperate the Soul is to be reunited with the Fisherman but also how impervious the Fisherman is to temptation. This is emphasized by the level of detail and the lavish language the Soul employs; the Soul is determined to tempt the Fisherman, but he seems entirely immune to worldly and material temptation. Even after these prolonged descriptions, the Fisherman instantly replies that his love for the Mermaid is superior than anything the Soul might have to offer.
At the end of the third year, the Soul returns and describes an inn where a girl dances in her bare feet, telling the Fisherman that “the city in which she dances is but a day’s journey.” The Fisherman remembers that the Mermaid has no feet and cannot dance, and feels a great desire come over him. He reasons that “It is but a day’s journey, and I can return to my love,” before emerging from the water and reuniting with his Soul.
Given the detailed and sensual quality of the Soul’s previous descriptions, it’s surprising that the Fisherman is so quickly tempted by the image of a girl dancing in her bare feet. Indeed, it seems what truly tempts the Fisherman is the simple fact that this girl has feet and can dance, while the Mermaid has no feet and cannot. In this way, it is a superficial and carnal image that tempts the Fisherman, and Wilde seems to suggest that temptations of this nature are the most corrupt and alluring.
The Fisherman and his Soul set out together and two days later come to a city. Although it’s not the city the Soul has described, they enter it, and shortly thereafter the Soul instructs the Fisherman to take and hide a silver cup. After they leave the city, the Fisherman asks why the Soul told him to do “an evil thing,” and his Soul tells him “be at peace.” They come to another city where the Soul tells the Fisherman to beat a child; again, the Fisherman complies and is told to “be at peace.” Next, they come to a third city where a merchant offers the Fisherman his guest-chamber to sleep in. Three hours before dawn, the Soul tells the Fisherman to “slay him, and take from him his gold.” Once the Fisherman has killed the merchant, he and the Soul flee through a garden of pomegranates.
It quickly becomes evident that the Soul has not been entirely truthful with the Fisherman. In fact, the Soul has no qualms about leading his master astray and instructs him to commit three increasingly cruel and evil acts that ultimately culminate in murder. By showing the Soul’s repeated instructions and the Fisherman’s continuing compliance and confusion, Wilde makes clear that the Soul has become a corruptive force. In fact, the Soul is now so corrupt that he functions as a dark mirror image of the Fisherman, and might be interpreted as a kind of doppelganger. Given the story’s focus on the concept of the human soul, it seems the inclusion of pomegranates might be an allusion to immortality, as the fruit is generally understood to be a symbol of life and rebirth on account of its abundance of seeds. In addition, many biblical scholars believe that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve eat in the Garden of Eden is not an apple but a pomegranate, thus infusing this passage with biblical undertones.
The Fisherman asks the Soul why he told him to murder the merchant, saying “Surely thou art evil.” Again the Soul tells the Fisherman to “be at peace,” but this time the Fisherman replies, “all that thou hast made me to do I hate.” The Soul answers, “When thou didst send me forth into the world thou gavest me no heart, so I learned to do all these things and love them.” The Soul then tries to lure the Fisherman to another city, and the Fisherman tries once more to separate himself from his soul before learning that the spell the Witch gave him no longer works.
The Fisherman is now forced to reckon with his previous decision to send his Soul out into the world without a heart. As the Soul specifically states it is the absence of a heart that caused him to become evil, Wilde seems to be making a comment that the heart should not be reserved for romantic love alone. Rather, the heart should be thought of in terms of compassion for fellow humans, and so is important for all relationships. The Fisherman’s following realization that he cannot send his Soul away for a second time heightens the dramatic tension of this scene, as it becomes clear that the Fisherman is now irrevocably reunited with his Soul and so separated from his love.
The following morning, the Fisherman states that he will bind his hands and close his lips so that he cannot do the Soul’s bidding or speak his words. He also expresses his desperate desire to be reunited with the Mermaid. The Soul attempts to distract him with descriptions of other fairer women, but the Fisherman says he will not “do any of the wickedness that it sought to make him do.” The Fisherman makes his way back to the shore and calls for the Mermaid, while the Soul tries to tempt with the “Valley of Pleasure.” Realizing that the Mermaid is not answering his call, the Fisherman builds himself “a house of wattles” and spends a year calling for the Mermaid while the Soul continues to tempt him.
The Fisherman is unable to accept the repercussions of his decisions and is determined to reunite with the Mermaid. His Soul’s continued attempts to tempt the Fisherman once more prove futile. It seems the Fisherman has learned his lesson, because he is no longer tempted by more carnal pleasures as suggested by the “Valley of Pleasure,” and the Soul cannot cease trying to tempt him away from the Mermaid. A kind of stalemate forms as both the Fisherman and his Soul are dedicated to their separate and conflicting tasks.
Eventually, realizing that the Fisherman’s love for the Mermaid is stronger than evil, the Soul decides “I will tempt him now with good, and it may be that he will come with me.” Following this, the Soul describes scenes of suffering such as Famine and the Plague to the Fisherman, but these also fail to tempt him away from the shore. When the second year is over, the Soul says, “I will tempt thee no longer, but I pray thee to suffer me to enter thy heart.” The Fisherman agrees, but his heart is so “compassed about with love” that the Soul cannot find a way inside.
The Soul is so desperate to find some way to draw the Fisherman away from the shore that he attempts to tempt him with good deeds instead of evil ones. In this way, Wilde makes clear that it’s not the nature of the individual temptations, but the Soul’s unyielding desire to tempt the Fisherman away from the Mermaid that is important. After two years, it transpires that the Fisherman cannot even grant the Soul access to his heart. It is now entirely clear that his love for the Mermaid has caused him the Fisherman to lose control at a very fundamental level.
As the Fisherman and the Soul realize the Soul cannot gain entry into the Fisherman’s heart, the Sea-folk bring the dead body of the Mermaid up into the surf. The Fisherman flings himself down upon her corpse, becoming increasingly distressed and professing his love to the Mermaid. The Soul begs the Fisherman to leave the surf but he refuses, and at the moment his heart breaks, the Soul finds a way inside. The Fisherman is covered by the waves and drowns while clutching the Mermaid’s corpse.
Wilde again treats the concept of heartbreak quite literally; once the Fisherman’s heart is broken, the Soul can gain physical entry and they are reunited. The fact that the Fisherman and his Soul are reunited only moments before the Fisherman drowns, and that the Fisherman and the Mermaid are reunited only in death, creates an effective tone of tragedy: the individual characters have attained their desires, but at a terrible price. The Fisherman has been reunited with the Mermaid and the Soul has been reunited with the Fisherman, but only in death. This scene also brings several of the story’s themes to a close, as the effects of Fisherman’s banishing his Soul, and the Soul’s resulting temptation of the Fisherman have come to a dramatic climax.
The next morning, the Priest comes down to bless the sea, but seeing the drowned Fisherman clutching the body of the little Mermaid, refuses to do so. He then tells the people to bury them in an unmarked corner of the Field of the Fullers. Three years later, on a holy day, the Priest enters the chapel and sees that it was covered with strange white flowers that he has never seen before, “and their odour was sweet in his nostrils, and he felt glad, and understood not why he was glad.”
Even the death of the Fisherman and the Mermaid fails to move the Priest, who is still driven by judgmental ideals and refuses to acknowledge the love between them. As the color white is generally understood to represent purity, the white flowers suggest some sort of cleansing process has begun to take hold. This is compounded by the almost magical effect the flowers have on the Priest, as he is overcome with a positivity that he doesn’t know the source of.
When the people come to the chapel, the Priest finds he cannot speak “of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love.” Afterwards, he asks where the strange flowers have come from, and is told they “come from the corner of Fullers’ Field.” The Priest trembles and goes back to his house to pray; the next morning, he goes to the shore to bless the sea and “All the things in God’s world.”
While the Priest has yet to grasp his own change in temperament, the reader understands that the flowers catalyzed this shift from “wrath” to “love.” When it transpires that the flowers have grown from the Fisherman and the Mermaid’s unmarked grave, the Priest realizes he has been affected by the love of which he was previously so judgmental. Seeing as he decides to bless “All the things in God’s world,” it seems he now accepts love in all the forms it may take, and so the story ends with a powerful statement regarding the enduring power of love.