After the Fisherman separates himself from his Soul so that he can live with the Mermaid, once a year for three years the Soul returns from traveling the world to try and tempt him to leave his love. The first two times, the Soul does this with very long and highly detailed stories of wisdom and riches, and each time the Fisherman is unmoved and happily returns to the Mermaid. It doesn’t take long, however, for the Fisherman to be tempted by the image of a woman dancing barefoot, and he agrees to travel to see her dancing with the Soul. Following this, the Soul instructs the Fisherman to perform evil acts. Wilde here presents an interesting version of corruption; once the Fisherman has been rejoined with his Soul, his behavior doesn’t improve as one might expect. Rather, the Fisherman commits cruel deeds he would never have considered before. Furthermore, because he has rejoined with his Soul and the Witch’s spell won’t work a second time, he is unable to return to the Mermaid. In this way, his Soul has corrupted the Fisherman’s relationship with the Mermaid, and acts as a barrier between the Fisherman and his heart’s desires. Even once the Fisherman has realized the consequences of his actions, namely that he and the Mermaid can no longer be together, he proves impervious to further temptation. The Soul, now unable to tempt the Fisherman with evil deeds, tries to tempt him with good ones. By not only showing the Soul as a source of corruption but also demonstrating the multitude of forms temptation can take, Wilde presents evil as a pervasive presence in the world. Interestingly, Wilde pushes this suggestion further; not only is evil somewhat inevitable, it also contributes to an overall sense of balance and harmony.
The Soul first attempts to tempt the Fisherman with objectively appealing things: wisdom and wealth. Having first returned to the seashore after a year away, the Soul tells the Fisherman of his journey to the East, to “the city of Illel” where he obtained the Mirror of Wisdom. He tells the Fisherman that “they who possess this mirror know everything” and that he has hidden it in a cave. The Fisherman, however, simply replies “Love is better than Wisdom […] and the little Mermaid loves me.” When the soul returns at the second year, he relays an equally long story regarding his travels to the South to the city of “Ashter” where he obtained the Ring of Riches. Again, he tells the Fisherman that he has hidden it “in a cave that is but a day’s journey from this place,” and that “he who has this Ring is richer than all the kings of the world.” Again, however, the Fisherman simply states, “Love is better than riches.” Wilde seems to be making a comment on the strength of the Fisherman’s love by demonstrating that he’s impervious to temptation. The extreme length and detail of the Soul’s descriptions also underline how difficult it will be to lure the Fisherman away from the Mermaid.
When the Soul returns after the third year is over, however, he describes a girl dancing barefoot, whose feet “moved over the carpet like little white pigeons,” and it doesn’t take long for the Fisherman to be overwhelmed by “a great desire.” Given the extreme nature of the Soul’s previous attempts, it seems implausible that the Fisherman would be so easily tempted by a dancing woman. However, this particular description seems to tempt the Fisherman so effectively because “the little Mermaid had no feet and could not dance.” In this way, Wilde seems to suggest that it is a specifically carnal temptation that has convinced the Fisherman to venture away from the Mermaid. Indeed, of all the temptations the Fisherman is faced with—intellectual, material, and carnal—it seems a temptation of the flesh is the only one to have any effect, echoing the Priest’s earlier statement that “the love of the body is vile,” as it is carnal temptation that he is ultimately vulnerable to.
Having finally successfully tempted the Fisherman to leave the Mermaid, the Soul now sets about corrupting him by instructing him to commit three increasingly evil acts. The Soul first bids the Fisherman to steal a silver cup, then to “smite” a child, and then, finally, to kill a merchant who invites the Fisherman to stay in his home. Each time the Fisherman asks the Soul why he has instructed him to do an evil thing, and eventually the Soul replies, “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.”
In this way, Wilde suggests that as the Soul was corrupted by the world, he has now corrupted the Fisherman. This further implies that evil is not an inherent trait but rather a learned behavior, and that even a symbol of purity such as the human soul can become evil and accustomed to sin. When the Fisherman and his Soul return to the sea shore, it becomes clear that the Soul, in tricking the Fisherman into permanently rejoining with him has succeeded in separating the Fisherman because he cannot now return to the Sea-folk. Again, Wilde seems to present the Soul as a corruptive influence.
Even now, the Soul continues to tempt the Fisherman, reflecting, “I have tempted my master with evil, and his love is stronger than I am. I will tempt him now with good…” Following this, the Soul describes scenes of poverty and suffering that he and the Fisherman might “go forth and mend” together. This inclusion underscores how desperate the Soul is to tempt the Fisherman, and that temptation does not always signify evil behavior.
Interestingly, however, Wilde suggests that the Soul’s corruptive acts ultimately result in a degree of harmony. After the Fisherman and the Mermaid have been apart for some years, the Sea-folk bring the Mermaid’s corpse to the shore and the Fisherman drowns while clutching her corpse. From their unmarked grave there grow white flowers that are used to decorate the altar, and that have a powerful effect on the Priest, who now blesses “All the things in God’s world,” which in turn causes the people to become “filled with joy and wonder.” The concept of a positive outcome stemming from an act of sin pertains to the Latin phrase felix culpa; felix meaning "happy," "lucky," or "blessed," and culpa meaning "fault" or "fall.” In a Catholic context, this phrase refers to the series of unfortunate events that eventually led to the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden—essentially a negative event that had a positive outcome, namely Christian redemption. In this way, Wilde makes a very particular claim regarding the role of temptation and corruption in the story, as while evil acts have been committed a kind of balance has been achieved.
By presenting temptation in various guises and positioning the Soul as the ultimate source of corruption, Wilde seems to suggest evil and temptation are inevitable, if not necessary, as such acts can ultimately result in positive outcomes and contribute to an overall sense of balance and order in the world. The story also demonstrates that corruption can often come from within. Ultimately, although the story doesn’t deliver an explicit moral message, it rejects easy definitions of temptation, corruption, and sin, and presents an expanded, nuanced version of how these things function in the world.
Temptation, Corruption, and Evil ThemeTracker
Temptation, Corruption, and Evil Quotes in The Fisherman and His Soul
Now when the young Fisherman heard the words of his Soul, he remembered that the little Mermaid had no feet and could not dance. And a great desire came over him, and he said to himself, "It is but a day's journey, and I can return to my love," and he laughed, and stood up in the shallow water, and strode towards the shore.