The Fisherman and His Soul


Oscar Wilde

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Themes and Colors
The Power of Love Theme Icon
Temptation, Corruption, and Evil Theme Icon
Transformation and the Doppelganger Theme Icon
Christianity, Morality, and the Soul Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Fisherman and His Soul, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Transformation and the Doppelganger Theme Icon

Once the Fisherman has fallen in love with the Mermaid and has agreed to do away with his Soul in order to be with her, supernatural and spiritual changes take place within multiple characters. Following the Fisherman’s separation from his Soul, he can now live in the sea with the Sea-folk, and the Soul himself becomes a separate entity independent of his master, eventually taking on the role of a doppelganger; he is a mirror image of the Fisherman and pursues a different set of desires. On a subtler level, a spiritual transformation takes place within the Priest at the end of the story, as he seems to accept and even celebrate the love between the Fisherman and the Mermaid. In this way, instances of literal, metaphorical, and spiritual transformation abound over the course of the fairy tale. These changes demonstrate the complexity of the human condition, as various characters in the story prove capable of both good and evil, cruelty and kindness. Through these stark transformations, Wilde ultimately suggests that all human beings are susceptible to radical, unpredictable transformation, whether it happens gradually or all at once.

At first, it seems the most startling transformation to take place within the story will be the Fisherman’s decision to separate himself from his soul and live with the Sea-folk in the ocean. This physical, bodily change isn’t described in any literal way, but once the Fisherman has cut away his Soul, the Sea-folk come to the seashore to greet him, and the Fisherman sinks “into the depths of the sea.” As such, it is clear that the Fisherman has undergone some kind of change so that he can live underwater. The Fisherman, however, does not demonstrate any other notable changes; he remains loyal to the Mermaid and entirely fixated on his love for her.

Indeed, far more dramatic and startling is Wilde’s treatment of the Soul’s slow transformation into an evil, corrupt soul. By the end of the story, the Soul has come to represent malicious intent so fully that he functions as a kind of doppelganger. This transformation proves especially powerful as it subverts the traditional notion of the human soul as a symbol of purity and kindness. Importantly, this metamorphosis does not take place immediately. Once separated from the Fisherman, the Soul becomes an entirely separate character within the story who can travel around the world, harboring desires and intentions that are completely at odds with those of the Fisherman. It is only after three years spent out in the world without a heart that the Soul becomes an “evil soul,” an alteration that becomes evident when he instructs the Fisherman to commit three cruel acts. In this way, the Soul becomes a doppelganger, a figure traditionally understood as a malicious “double” who signals bad luck. The Soul now represents not only the Fisherman’s shadow self but the darker side of human nature. Wilde thus makes a powerful suggestion that even the human soul is susceptible to negative transformation, underscoring no matter how fully a character seems to embody one set of values, they can often, given the right conditions, come to represent their exact opposite. (The doppelganger theme is also a key element of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Importantly, however, in this novel it is Dorian Gray’s actions that corrupt his soul, whereas in “The Fisherman and His Soul,” it is the Soul who manages to corrupt the Fisherman.) In this way, Wilde seems to suggest not only that these characters hold the potential to be both good and evil, but that extreme and irrevocable change can occur in slow and unspectacular ways.

As the story comes to a close, the spiritual transformation experienced by the Priest is in some ways both the most powerful and also the subtlest, affirming both the potential for extreme transformation and exploring the ways in which it takes hold. At the beginning of the story, the Priest is disgusted by the Fisherman’s love for the Mermaid: he tells the Fisherman that the love of the body is vile, and that supernatural creatures such as the Sea-folk are “accursed.” So heated is his disdain for the love between the Fisherman and the Mermaid, that when the Priest sees them both lying dead in the surf, he refuses to “bless the sea nor anything that is in it,” and gives instructions that they be buried in the corner of a field with “no mark above them.” Three years later, however, he enters the chapel and find strange flowers covering the altar. These flowers have such an effect on him that “he spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love,” before learning that the flowers have grown out of the Fisherman and Mermaid’s unmarked grave. The following morning, he “blessed the sea, and all the wild things that are in it.”

Wilde thus depicts a positive, transformative effect on the Priest, who now worships “the God whose name is love” and has come to extol the virtues he scorned at the beginning of the story, namely an unconditional love for all creatures. Given Wilde’s interest in Christian morality, it seems plausible that the Priest’s transformative change of heart is a metaphor for a change from the Old to New Testament, as Christians believe the New Testament supersedes and fulfills Old Testament. Specifically, the transformation from the Old to New Testament is the change from a God of wrath to a God of mercy. The image of the flowers that grow up out of the unmarked grave could also be interpreted as a direct metaphor for transformation, as the bodies of the Fisherman and the Mermaid seem to have literally seeded these white flowers.

Over the course of the story, transformation occurs at various times and on different levels. The development of the Soul into a separate character and then into a kind of doppelganger emphasizes that transformation can occur in detrimental and potentially harmful ways. Ultimately, Wilde makes clear that no character is insusceptible to change, and indeed can undergo a kind of metamorphosis that changes their relationship with the world. Regardless of whether these transformations are positive or negative, they result in lasting, uncontrollable, and unforeseen repercussions.

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Transformation and the Doppelganger Quotes in The Fisherman and His Soul

Below you will find the important quotes in The Fisherman and His Soul related to the theme of Transformation and the Doppelganger.
The Fisherman and His Soul Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Fisherman (speaker), The Soul, The Mermaid
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

“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.”

Related Characters: The Soul (speaker), The Fisherman
Related Symbols: The Heart
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: The Fisherman, The Mermaid, The Priest
Related Symbols: The Flowers
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis: