Upon falling in love with the Mermaid and learning that he must give up his Soul in order to be with her, the Fisherman visits the Priest to seek his advice. The Priest, however, is completely appalled by his decision and responds aggressively to his suggestion that he give up his soul. Furthermore, he is disgusted by the fact that the Fisherman has fallen in love with the Mermaid because she is an “ungodly” creature. By portraying the Priest as critical not only of the Fisherman’s desire to separate from his soul but also the love he feels for the Mermaid, Wilde introduces notions of Christian values and morality early on in the story. Indeed, the Priest’s admonishing and tempestuous behavior seems to be a comment on the moral standards upheld by the Old Testament, which call for blind loyalty and devotion to God. While not necessarily written to encourage faith or advocate any specific interpretation of Christianity, there are strong biblical undertones to “The Fisherman and His Soul” and an ongoing concern with what constitutes moral behavior.
It is evident from the outset of the story that “The Fisherman and His Soul” is underpinned by Christian concepts. The style of the story itself is highly reminiscent of the Bible; the language is archaic, there is repetition of phrases and events, the events themselves have a mystic quality, and things often occur in threes or over a period of three years. Over the course of the story, moral and immoral behavior are debated in a way similar to how such questions are presented in Christian scripture, namely through prolonged anecdotes or parables.
Nonetheless, Wilde creates a complex portrait of amoral behavior not entirely in keeping with Christian teachings. Most notably, over the course of the story the Soul become increasingly immoral. Indeed, Wilde describes him as transforming into an “evil soul.” The human soul, of course, is one of the core aspects of Christianity; it is the immortal part of a person that goes to heaven after death, to be reunited with God. Wilde’s decision to upturn the conventional understanding of the human soul as an emblem of purity and goodness, instead depicting the Soul as susceptible to corruption and capable of evil acts, is one of the key ways in which he avoids drawing a clear line between moral and immoral behavior. In this way, Wilde demonstrates that immorality can come in unexpected forms, and that even the most traditional understandings of such behavior should be questioned. Wilde didn’t agree with how Christianity treated homosexuals during his lifetime, and this can perhaps be connected to his reluctance to unquestioningly accept the tenets of Christian doctrine. This suggestion is underscored by the tragic deaths of the Fisherman and the Mermaid, which seem linked to the lack of acceptance they have experienced as lovers, and their love being unfairly considered sinful.
Although Wilde is critical of some elements of Christin morality, the story closes with the message that the Christian tenets of forgiveness and mercy are valuable and worthy. The white flowers that grow out of the unmarked grave of the Fisherman and the Mermaid are placed on the local chapel’s altar, suggesting that the Fisherman has been forgiven and embraced by God.
As it’s the Fisherman’s sin and subsequent suffering that ultimately brings him back to God, Wilde seems to be making a comparison between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. It’s generally understood that the Old Testament focuses on the wrath of God against sinners, while the New Testament emphasizes the grace of God toward sinners. For Christians, the New Testament supersedes and fulfills Old Testament, and, given Wilde’s interest in Christian morality, it seems plausible he is arguing for a development from Old Testament values toward New Testament values, as can be seen in the Priest’s speaking the word of wrath to one of love. Following his coming into contact with the flowers, the Priest gives mass and finds he cannot speak to the people of the wrath of God. Rather, he speaks “of the God whose name is love” and moves both himself and the congregation to tears. This suggestion that there has been a shift in the Priest’s moral compass compounded by his decision to bless “All the things in God’s world,” which also seems to be an explicit rejection of a judgmental version of Christianity that excludes “ungodly” creatures. This rejection signals a belief that the New Testament morals of unconditional love and acceptance are more compatible with human relationships and happiness than those of the Old Testament, namely judgement and vengeance. In this way, Wilde closes the story with positive references to the Christian principle of mercy, an aspect especially valued by the New Testament. Ultimately, “The Fisherman and His Soul”, emphasizing the importance the Christian tenets of mercy, forgiveness and acceptance, and asserts moral behavior as rooted in decency and compassion.
Christianity, Morality, and the Soul ThemeTracker
Christianity, Morality, and the Soul Quotes in The Fisherman and His Soul
"Of what use is my soul to me? I cannot see lt. I may not touch it. I do not know it. Surely I will send it away from me, and much gladness shall be mine."
“The love of the body is vile,” cried the Priest […] “and vile and evil are the pagan things God suffers to wander through His world. Accursed be the Fauns of the woodland, and accursed by the singers of the sea! They are lost […] For them there is no heaven or nor hell, and in neither shall they praise God’s name.”
“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.”
And when he had robed himself with his robes, and entered in and bowed himself before the altar, he saw that the altar was covered with strange flowers that never had been seen before […] But the beauty of the white flowers troubled him, and their odour was sweet in his nostrils, and there came another word into his lips, and he spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love. And why he so spake, he knew not […] And in the morning […] he went forth […] and blessed the sea, and all the wild things that are in it […] All the things in God's world he blessed, and the people were filled with joy and wonder.