Love drives the titular protagonist’s actions throughout Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul,” the story of a young Fisherman who falls in love with a Mermaid. Upon asking her to marry him, the Mermaid replies that if the Fisherman is to live with her in the sea he must first rid himself of his Soul, as the Sea-folk are themselves soulless. Notably, then, romantic love is immediately depicted as something that requires immense sacrifice. This ambivalence regarding romantic love continues to develop as the story unfolds; though the Fisherman rejects wisdom and riches in favor of being with the Mermaid, he also is so consumed by his love for her that he rejects opportunities to help the needy or even let his own Soul back into his heart. Interwoven with repeated claims regarding love’s strength are also suggestions that love does not always result in positive outcomes, and can indeed have disastrous, tragic consequences. At the same time, however, love is shown to be a transformative force with the potential to engender acceptance and destroy judgmental cruelty. Wilde’s story thus ultimately presents love as a powerful, all-consuming force—for better and for worse.
The first hint of some uncertainty around the trustworthiness of romantic love comes early in the story, when, after the Fisherman professes his feelings to the Mermaid, she tells him, “If only thou wouldst send away thy human soul, then I could love thee.” Immediately, it seems the Mermaid’s love is not unconditional; instead, it requires a disproportionate sacrifice on the Fisherman’s part. Notably, this is an inversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” the famous fairytale that inspired Wilde’s story, in which a young female mermaid is forced to give up her voice for the love of a human man. In either case, intense love results in a distinct loss of self.
Of course, this also results in a loss of selfishness—or at least, a loss of desire for anything apart from that love. On the one hand, this can be positive. For instance, the Fisherman repeatedly rejects offers of wealth and power in the name of love. Having sought out the Witch, she makes clear that she can give him anything he might desire, offering him an abundance of fish and treasure, the attention of the Queen, and the ability to conquer his enemies. The Fisherman, however, is entirely consumed with love for the Mermaid and finds no allure in these artificial temptations. This resilience to temptation is repeatedly accentuated when, after he has separated from his Soul and united with the Mermaid, his Soul visits him and relays lengthy, sumptuous descriptions of the treasures he could possess if only he were willing to leave his love behind. The sensuous quality of the language the Soul employs in relaying the Mirror of Wisdom and the Ring of Riches implicitly suggests opulence and plentitude, and makes love seem all the more powerful as the Fisherman is completely unmoved. He remains certain that his love for the Mermaid trumps anything the Soul has to offer. This series of refusals emphasizes love’s ability to overwhelm other desires and temptations, with the Fisherman dedicating himself entirely to pursuing this one goal.
The Fisherman’s intense love, however, borders on blinding obsession. When the Soul, upon being separated from the Fisherman, begs to be given a heart, the Fisherman replies, “With what should I love my love if I gave thee my heart?” So consumed is the Fisherman by his focused, romantic love that he cannot spare any of his heart for his own Soul. As a direct result, the Soul becomes evil, explaining that because he has been out in the world without a heart, he has “learned to do all these things and love them.” Later, after having been rejoined with the Fisherman, the Soul asks to be let into his master’s heart; the Fisherman agrees, yet his heart remains so full of love for the Mermaid that here is no space for the Soul—and without a heart, the Soul cannot be redeemed. It is only at the end of the story, after the Mermaid dies and the Fisherman’s heart subsequently breaks, that the Soul can re-enter the heart and “be one with him as before.”
This suggest the danger inherent to love, while also—somewhat paradoxically—underscoring that it is needed for basic acts of decency and kindness. Wilde seems to suggest that the Fisherman’s decision to prioritize his narrow, romantic love for the Mermaid has resulted in evil and cruel acts and even death, and so—while the importance of romantic love is ultimately upheld—the story questions the extent to which it should be prioritized.
At the end of the story, however, it is clear that love—specifically the romantic love between the Fisherman and the Mermaid—can indeed wield a positive power. After the Fisherman the Mermaid have both died, the white flowers that have grown out of their unmarked graves have a spiritually transformative effect on the Priest; he no longer wishes to speak “of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love.” Wilde seems to suggest that the romantic love between the Fisherman and the Mermaid has had a powerful impact on the Priest, whose change of heart causes him to embrace not only humans but all of God’s creatures. Wilde seems here to be making a comment that the notion of God as depicted in the Old Testament—a vengeful god who expects unfaltering love and loyalty—should perhaps be reconsidered in favor of God as he is represented in the New Testament—that is, as immensely loving and benevolent.
In this way, love is depicted in various guises, and as having both negative and positive outcomes. While Wilde’s treatment of romantic love remains ambivalent throughout, ultimately love endures and is celebrated beyond all else. By using the format of the fairytale, Wilde presents a partly celebratory and partly cautionary story; the Fisherman is with the Mermaid and love has won the day, but not in the way the Fisherman intended. While he hoped he and the Mermaid would be together, their lasting unison has proven possible only in death. Love has indeed conquered all, but not with tragedy.
The Power of Love ThemeTracker
The Power of Love 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.”
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.