A Giant’s Garden : Special ‘Fairy Tales’ Issue

Spring 2009




‘They whisper into my ears the tale of their perilous joys’:
The powers of the feminine voice in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’

Helen Davies

Leeds Metropolitan University


In the book Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles and Imitations (1996), John Stokes examines the various ‘versions’ of Wilde – myths, imitations, appropriations, spectral reappearances - that have manifested throughout the twentieth century. Stokes uses the phrase ‘the oral Wilde’ to represent a strain of the Wilde myth that focuses on the purported power of Wilde’s voice; both in his prowess as an oral storyteller and in terms of the aural impact that his mellifluous tones had upon his listening audience (Stokes 1996: 23). Wilde’s reputation as a fabulous speaker has produced various interpretations of his work that focus on the significance of orality in his writing, concentrating specifically on the link between verbal virtuosity and Wilde’s Irish heritage. Deirdre Toomey, for example, argues that Wilde privileged orality over textual production and suggests that Ireland: ‘the most oral culture in Western Europe, a culture which retained primary orality as well as oral/writing diaglossia well into the twentieth century’ informs Wilde’s recognition of the ‘hostile symbiosis’ between talking and writing (Toomey 1994: 406-407). Toomey restricts her analysis of the ‘oral’ Wilde to accounts of his spoken word compositions, transcribed over the years in various memoirs and biographies. Jerusha McCormack, however, applies a similar association between Irish culture and orality to her interpretation of Wilde’s literary fairy tales, proposing that the fairy tales represent a ‘hybrid’ form that attempt to bridge the gap between oral and textual/literary cultures:

Wilde was writing at a turning-point for Ireland when, of two divergent cultures – the rural and the oral, the urban and the literate – the balance was beginning to be tipped towards to latter. But insofar as Wilde drew upon a tradition considered primitive and degraded, his tales – as a first major literary venture – are also the means by which he invented himself as an Irish writer for an English audience (McCormack 1997: 103).

McCormack pertinently recognises the development of the folk tale into the fairy story as an important juncture for the conflict between oral and literary culture; oral folk tales have existed for thousands of years, passed between generations as stories preserved by memory and characterised by a certain degree of fluidity depending on the teller of the tale and the tale’s audience. As Jarlath Killeen summarises in his recent monograph on Wilde’s fairy tales:  

Sometime in the medieval period, although where and when exactly this occurred is unknown for certain, the narrative elements which link the oral wonder tale and the folk tale to the literary fairy tale began to appear in Europe and these tales began to be written down, first in Latin and then, gradually, in the vernacular and the form of the fairy tale established certain relatively stable features and conventions (Killeen 2007: 3)  

Several critics have traced Wilde’s interest in the folk/fairy tale as in part due to his father’s influence.[1] In his work as an eye and ear doctor, Sir William Wilde would often accept legends, superstitions, tales and charms in the place of monetary payment for his medical services (Ellmann 1987, 1988: 10). Sir William published a volume during his lifetime, Irish Popular Superstitions (1852), and further two volumes were edited and published by his wife Speranza after his death: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (1888) and Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland (1890).[2] Paul K. Saint-Amour has argued that Wilde was aware from an early age of the uncomfortable relationship between oral and textual cultures, the necessary violence that is done to an oral tale through its transcription:

Transcription and publication not only calcified a plural, mutable narrative into a single telling, they also brought under the rubric of private accumulation (the sole authorship and copyright of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde) material whose value had originally dwelt in its circulation and in its status as the property of a community. Through his parents’ Dublin salon life and their folkloric interests, Oscar Wilde observed not only the wonders of talk circulated and dispersed but also the losses incurred when talk was annexed, set down, owned, and sold. (Saint-Amour 2000: 93)

There is, therefore, a paradoxical tension between the desire to preserve oral folk tales and the potentially reductive practice of transcription; a dichotomy is formed between orality (voice) and literature (text). Though Toomey has suggested that Wilde does attempt to preserve the motif of orality in his literary productions, there still appears to be an intractable barrier to the effective transfer of oral properties into written text; how could the powers of the spoken word ever be satisfactorily textually presented?[3]

This article does not seek to provide a finite answer this (probably insurmountable) quandary, but instead aims to broaden the critical perspective for thinking about the representation of ‘voice’ in Wilde’s work. I argue that the extant dichotomisation of ‘voice’/ ‘text’ in critical analyses of Wilde’s work risks constructing the concept of ‘voice’ as being a monolithic signifier, of eliding the diverse interpretations of who is seeking to produce a ‘voice’ and what should actually be encompassed within the definition of ‘voice’. Firstly, as Cora Kaplan remarks: ‘How we speak, whom we listen to, who listens to us, and how we are spoken to all says a great deal about our place in culture [...] to be socially marginalised is to be linguistically marginalised’ (Kaplan 2001: 63), and it is in this context that the notion of ‘having a voice’ has become one of the more compelling motifs of identity politics. Susan Snaider Lanser meditates upon the scope of this preoccupation with socio-political voice:

Few words are as resonant to contemporary feminists as ‘voice’. The term appears in history and philosophy, in sociology, literature, and psychology, spanning disciplinary and theoretical differences [...] Other silenced communities – peoples of colour, peoples struggling against colonial rule, gay men and lesbians – have also written and spoken about the urgency of ‘coming to voice’ [...] for the collectively and personally silenced the term has become a trope of identity and power. (Lanser 1992: 3)

In other words, access to ‘voice’ in terms of linguistic production, and the impact that this has on the individual’s status within a society,  represents a spectrum of power relationships and struggles that are relevant to factors such as gender, race, and sexuality.

Secondly, as Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones have observed, critical interrogations of the concept of ‘voice’ in literature frequently conflate voice with speech, thus language is privileged as the primary carrier of meaning. Dunn and Jones note that concept of vocality actually encompasses a wide spectrum of vocal sounds – for instance: singing, laughing, crying – that are not necessarily determined by linguistic content but that can still be subjected to interpretation. (Dunn and Jones 1994, 1996: 1).[4]

Taking into consideration the impact that interrogating the trope of ‘voice’ has upon our understanding of vocality in Wilde’s work, therefore, this article will examine the account of feminine vocality, specifically singing, in Wilde’s fairy tales. Focusing on the portrayal of the gendered singing voice in ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’, I intend to explore the meaning of the Mermaid’s song in relation to Wilde’s reference to mythic archetypes of the singing woman, and to demonstrate Wilde’s simultaneous adherence to and challenging of accepted images of feminine vocality.[5]

Charles Segal remarks that to understand the complex mythologizing and mystification that female voice has undergone in Western patriarchal civilisation, we must first return to the foundations of that civilisation; Ancient Greece (Segal 1994, 1996: 17). Numerous critics have identified the mythical figures of the Sirens as signifying Western preoccupations with the power, fascination and danger of feminine song.[6] The Sirens appear in various incarnations, but perhaps most famously in Homer’s Odyssey where they are depicted as a group of bird-women who live by the sea and lure sailors to their doom through the influence of their irresistibly seductive singing voices. Odysseus is only able to survive the Siren’s deadly oral seduction by insisting that his crew block their ears with wax and by having him bound to the mast of his ship (Warner 1998, 2000: 272). The myth of the Sirens tends to be interpreted in  sexualised terms; as Segal notes, the power of this gendered voice is linked with the body on a fundamental level, considering that the Siren’s power is only effective if physically experienced (Segal 1994, 1996: 18). More generally, however, the Siren myth can also be understood as representing and perpetuating a central tenet of patriarchal culture through the association of femininity with the body: 

The anchoring of the female voice in the female body confers upon it all the conventional associations of femininity with bodily fluids (milk, menstrual blood) and the consequent devaluation of feminine utterance as formless and free-flowing babble, a sign of uncontrolled female generativity. Such associations further point to the identification of women’s vocality with her sexuality: like the body from which it emanates, the female voice is constructed as both a signifier of sexual otherness and a source of sexual power, an object at once of desire and fear. (Dunn and Jones 1994, 1996: 3)

Marina Warner comments on the gradual conflation of the Siren myth with that of the mermaid and, again, the mermaid is explicitly linked to the sexualised, seductive powers of the feminine singing voice:

[...] the aural affinity between the elements of water and the flow of song, between the sea and music (sound-waves), determines the character of the Siren in nineteenth and twentieth century fairy tales. The imagination’s response to the coupled figure hair/voice stirs memories of water, and with water, of bliss of erotic engulfment. (Warner 1994, 1995: 307)

Bearing Warner’s synthesis of hair/voice in mind, then, it is worth noting that our introduction to the Mermaid of Wilde’s story focuses upon her hair and body:

Her hair was a wet fleece of gold, and each separate hair as a thread of fine gold in a cup of glass. Her body was as white ivory, and her tail was of silver and pearl. Silver and pearl was her tail, and the green weeds of the sea coiled around it; and like sea-shells were her ears, and her lips were like sea-coral. The cold waves dashed over her cold breasts, and the salt glistened upon her eyelids. (CW: 236)

The description of her physical charms, however, is soon surpassed by the influence of her ‘marvellous song’ upon the Fisherman:

[...] of the Sirens who tell of such wonderful things that the merchants have to stop their ears with wax lest they should hear them, and leap into the water and be drowned [...] of the happy Mermen who play upon their harps and can charm the Kraken to sleep [...] of the Mermaids who lie in the white foam and hold out their arms to the mariners. (CW: 237)

There are two facets of influence apparent in this quotation; the content of the merfolk’s stories and the form (the song) in which the stories are expressed. It is possible to argue that it is the content that initially seems to be more significant, as emphasis is placed upon the compelling narrative of the song as opposed to the power of the singing voice. The reference to the Sirens, however, introduces the theme of seductive aural influence which, as discussed above, has been historically associated with the feminine singing voice. The power of the Mermaid’s singing voice is  explicitly linked with that of the Sirens’, and though there is also reference to the ‘charming’ music produced by the Mermen it is only the feminine music, generated by the female body, that is aimed specifically at men. The Siren reference in this quotation also emphasises the feminine voice as a medium that transcends reason; the merchants behave irrationally when they are under the aural spell of the female’s song.

The Fisherman is evidently similarly captivated by the Mermaid’s singing:

 [...] each day the sound of her voice became sweeter to his ears. So sweet was her voice that he forgot his nets and his cunning, and had no care of his craft [...] His spear lay by his side unused, and his baskets of plaited osier were empty. With lips parted, and eyes dim with wonder, he sat idle in his boat and listened, listening till the sea-mists crept round him, and the wandering moon stained his brown limbs with silver’. (CW: 237)

Her song disrupts the masculine sphere of industry, and the image of the Fisherman’s redundant spear could potentially be interpreted as signifying his ‘unmanning’; he is placed into a traditionally feminised role of passivity under the dominance of the female singing voice and his plea to be united with her: ‘Take me for thy bridegroom for I love thee’ (CW: 237) places the autonomy of decision with the Mermaid.

On learning that he must first discard his soul before joining his beloved, the Fisherman consults the Priest and in the clergyman’s response the boundaries between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ voices become complicated:

The love of the body is vile [...] and vile and evil are the pagan things God suffers to wander through His world. Accursed be the Fauns of the woodland, and accursed be the singers of the sea! I have heard them at night-time, and they have sought to lure me from my beads. They tap at the window and laugh. They whisper into my ears the tale of their perilous joys. They tempt me with temptations, and when I would pray they make mouths at me. They are lost, I tell thee, they are lost. For them there is no heaven for hell, and in neither shall they praise God’s name’. (CW: 238-9)

The influence exercised by the Mermaid’s song is again associated with carnality - ‘the love of the body’ - as opposed to spirituality, and this spirituality is overtly associated with the possession of a soul. It is worth considering the etymological link between the words ‘spirit’ (as in ‘soul’ or ethereal manifestation) and ‘breath’ or ‘breathe’ (Warner 2006: 61). Breathing is obviously an essential part of speech, but the association between ‘soul’ and ‘speech’ has a deeper metaphorical and philosophical connection whereby speech is united with the interiority of an individual’s sense of self. As Jonathan Rée elaborates:

[...] vocality has had to bear some very heavy symbolic freight. The fact that our voice is carried by our breath means that it is easily taken as a kind of messenger despatched from the soul, a metaphorical or even literal exhalation of some original inwardness hidden away in our head or breast [...] The voice is the place where the inward subjectivity of individual spirits intersects with the social and historical reality of human languages. (Rée 1999, 2000: 8)

Contrary to the concept of the ‘voice’ being a simple representation of spoken language, therefore, the Priest’s condemnation of ‘vile’ bodily whisperings of ‘perilous joys’ and ‘temptations’ sets up a hierarchical division between the Divinely-influenced Word of his prayers and the carnal voices of the merfolk, whose very seductiveness reminds us of the previous description of the Mermaid’s charming song. Considering this division of ‘proper’/ ‘improper’ voice further, Sarah Webster Goodwin’s work draws attention to the singing voice’s potential correlation with the realm of pre-linguistic utterance. Goodwin, again noting the cultural association between feminine voice and the body, argues that the feminine singing voice has connotations of the infantile sphere of the pre-articulate, the animalistic, the primitive; voice without clear linguistic meaning is culturally devalued and is constructed as a regression (Goodwin 1994, 1996: 66). The Priest’s reference to the creatures that ‘make mouths’ whilst he attempts to pray implies that this form of vocality is a profane mockery of ‘proper’ language, as they mimic the bodily process of speech without producing divinely-inspired language.

The amalgamation of soul with speech, however, is disrupted by the separation of the Fisherman from his Soul – it transpires that his Soul actually has a voice of its own: ‘its voice was low and flute-like, and its lips hardly moved while it spake’ (CW: 244). The Fisherman and his Soul part company, but once a year the Soul returns to the sea-shore to speak to the Fisherman, and a significant role-reversal occurs: ‘[...] the Soul came down to the shore of the sea and called to the young Fisherman, and he rose out of the deep, and said ‘Why dost thou call me?’ (CW: 244). Though the Fisherman does not exactly welcome the summoning voice of the Soul, it appears that he is compelled to respond to its call. Each time the Soul visits the Fisherman it frames the stories of its experiences ashore in the same terms: ‘Come nearer, that I may speak with thee, for I have seen marvellous things’ (CW: 244), and the purpose of the tales are to persuade the Fisherman to reunite with it: ‘Do but suffer me to enter into thee again [...] Suffer me to enter into thee, and none will be as wise as thou’ (CW: 247). The Soul’s stories, therefore, are for the purposes of seduction or temptation, and it is difficult to disregard the distinctly sexualised tone of the Soul’s repeated plea to be allowed to ‘enter in’ to the Fisherman. Crucially, this oral/aural seduction is not associated with the carnal singing voice of the Mermaid, but the ostensibly superior linguistic utterance of the Soul. In Wilde’s story, therefore, possession of the power of seductive, corrupting voice is not limited to the watery, feminine realm, but transgresses into the traditionally Divine spiritual realm of the Soul. The temptation of the Soul’s words ultimately proves overwhelming for the Fisherman; they reunite and journey on under the Soul’s command. The oral power that the Soul has acquired, however, is explicitly revealed to be evil, though even after the Fisherman vows to return to his Mermaid the Soul’s oral seduction continues: ‘And ever did his Soul tempt him with evil, and whisper of terrible things’ (CW: 256). The use of the word ‘whisper’ evokes the Priest’s description of the ‘perilous joys’ of the merfolk, and yet clearly contradicts the Priest’s previous conceptualisation of the soul/body, sacred/profane vocal dichotomy.

The Mermaid does not respond to the Fisherman’s calls and her Siren song is never revisited, as her body is eventually discovered on the shore. He seizes the corpse, and: ‘[...] to the dead thing he made confession. Into the shell of its ears he poured the harsh wine of his tale. He put the little hands around his neck, and with his fingers he touched the thin reed of the throat’ (CW: 257). This process of oral confession has an overt connection to the concept of the spiritual powers of language to atone and heal, and yet this particular power of the voice is rendered inadequate; he does not possess the seductive magic of the mermaid’s song, and her own voice is silenced. She is finally reduced to a body representing the organ for producing voice (‘the thin reed of the throat’), but nothing more. The story concludes with the Priest reconsidering his condemnation of the merfolk, praying, and returning to bless the sea. We discover, however, that his invocation of the Divine Word is ineffectual; no more flowers will grow on the grave of the Fisherman and the Mermaid, and the merfolk remain silent, never returning again (CW: 259).

Wilde’s tale is ambivalent; the depiction of the Mermaid as Siren-temptress appears to collude with the traditional, misogynistic conflation of feminine song with carnality, danger, transgression, and the female voice is ultimately silenced. The depiction of the seductive power of vocality, however, does not remain shackled to gendered stereotypes. The Soul, the ostensible repository of the patriarchally prescribed divine Word (thus language), is revealed to possess a similar ‘perilous’ persuasive influence as the sacrilegious ‘mouthing’ of the merfolk. Indeed, the seductive power of the Soul’s words exercise a more devastating effect upon the Fisherman than the Mermaid’s beautiful yet socially/culturally devalued singing, as he is sickened by the Soul’s transgressions and ultimately craves to return to the pagan realm of song. The tale’s conclusion renders vocal language ineffective, and resonates with the melancholic loss of the love, forged by the powers of the feminine singing voice, between the Fisherman and the Mermaid. ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ thus represents a compelling thematic meditation on the privileging of certain forms of vocal expression over others, and the losses incurred through refusing to recognise the validity of a spectrum of voices.     


Works cited

 (ed.) Dunn, Leslie C., and Jones, Nancy A., 1994, 1996. Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellmann, Richard, 1987, 1988. Oscar Wilde, London: Penguin.

Goodwin, Sarah Webster, 1994, 1996. ‘Wordsworth and Romantic Voice: The Poet’s Song and the Prostitute’s Cry’ in (ed.) Dunn, Leslie C., and Jones, Nancy A., 1994, 1996. Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 65-79.

Jones, Nancy A., 1994, 1996. ‘Music and the Maternal Voice in Purgatorio XIX’ in (ed.) Dunn, Leslie C., and Jones, Nancy A., 1994, 1996. Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 35-49.

Kaplan, Cora, 2001. ‘Talk to me’: Talk Ethics and Erotics’ in (ed.) S.I. Salamensky, Talk Talk Talk: The Cultural Life of Everyday Conversation, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 63-75

Killeen, Jarlath, 2007. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Lanser, Susan Sniader, 1992. Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Losseff, Nicky, 2004. ‘The Voice, the Breath, and the Soul: Song and Poverty in Thyrza, Mary Barton, Alton Locke and A Child of the Jago’ in (ed.) Sophie Fuller and Nicky Losseff, The Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, pp. 3-25.

McCormack, Jerusha, 1997. ‘Wilde’s Fiction(s)’ in (ed.) Peter Raby, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.96-117.

Rée, Jonathan, 1999, 2000. I See a Voice: A Philosophical History, London: Flamingo

Saint-Amour, Paul K., 2000. ‘Oscar Wilde: Orality, Literary Property, and Crimes of Writing’ in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol.55, No.1, June, pp. 55-91.

Segal, Charles, 1994, 1996. ‘The Gorgon and the Nightingale: The Voice of Female Lament and Pindar’s Twelfth Pythian Ode’ in (ed.) Dunn, Leslie C., and Jones, Nancy A., 1994, 1996. Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-34.

Shillinglaw, Ann, 2003. ‘Fairy Tales and Oscar Wilde’s Public Charms’, in (ed.) Robert A. Keane, Oscar Wilde: The Man, his Writings and his World, New York: AMS Press, pp. 81-91.

Sjogren, Britta, 2006. Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Stokes, John, 1996. Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles and Imitations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Toomey, Deirdre, 1994. ‘The Story-Teller at Fault’ in (ed.) C. George Sandulescu, 1994. Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe Limited, pp. 405-419.

Warner, Marina, 1994, 1995. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, London: Vintage.

Warner, Marina, 1998, 2000. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock, London: Vintage.

Warner, Marina, 2006. Phantasmagoria, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilde, Oscar, 1892, 2003. ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Glasgow: Harper Collins, pp. 236-259.


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[1].  See, for example, Ann Shillingshaw, 2003. ‘Fairy Tales and Oscar Wilde’s Public Charms’ in (ed.) Robert A. Keane, Oscar Wilde: The Man, his Writings and his World, p. 83, and Jerusha McCormack, 1997. ‘Wilde’s Fiction(s)’, in (ed.) Peter Raby, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, p. 102.

[2].  See Jarlath Killeen, 2007. The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, p. 6.

[3].  Deirdre Toomey remarks upon the motif of the ‘magic’ of words in Dorian Gray, arguing that Lord Henry Wotton’s ability to influence Dorian is most significantly manifested in the power that his words have over the younger man (Toomey 1994: 409).

[4].  The critical analysis of literary representations of vocality that are not wholly based in linguistic meaning unfortunately does not undo the dichotomy between voice/text. Interpreting the concept of ‘voice’ in Wilde’s fairy tales still rests on two layers of textual exposition; the textual representation of ‘voice’ in the narrative of the written tale and my own necessarily textual interpretation of the story. I hope to demonstrate, however, the significance of ‘voice’ as a thematic preoccupation in the text.

[5].  I refer to ‘feminine’ as opposed to ‘female’ song to emphasise that the socio-cultural prejudices and stereotypes attached to women’s voices are not actually related to biological differences between the sexes, but in the social/cultural/historical construction of gender roles.

[6].  See, for example, Nicky Lasseff (2004: 5); Nancy A Jones (1994, 1996: 43; Britta Sjogren (2006: 26).