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Desire and Its Cost


Can one attain their desires without succumbing to negative emotion?

To begin, what is desire? More than needing to use the bathroom after a long car ride, or wanting a cold drink after working in the hot sun all day, the desire we speak of now is of the deeper sort. A longing for something. For wealth, for power, for fame, for glory, for companionship. And the question is whether or not once one gets that, is it enough? Beyond desire’s definition, what are the consequences of desire once it is fulfilled or unfulfilled, especially to those that surround us? To look at it from a critical perspective, let us examine desire from the perspective of texts from two different cultures: The Bhagavad Gita from India, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales from Germany, specifically the tales The Fisherman and His Wife and Rumpelstiltskin.

The Bhagavad Gita warns that desire is a perilous emotion that will lead to destruction, and urges us to cast desire off. In the Gita Arjuna is warned of the dangers of attachment to senses:

(62) Let a man [but] think of the objects of sense―attachment to them is born: from attachment springs desire, from desire is anger born. (63) From anger comes bewilderment, from bewilderment wandering of the mind from wandering of the mind destruction of the soul: once the soul is lost the man is lost.[1]

This attachment is presented as creating the desires that are so dangerous for us and that ultimately cause us to lose ourselves.

The link of attachment to desire is notable; however, the further connection from desire to anger is far more interesting. This link exists because desire causes stress regardless of whether that desire is fulfilled. A person who has achieved their desire yearns for more, acquiring the sin of greed until they can no longer have what they desire; while a person who has missed their desire devolves into anger at their lack. We can examine whether or not this is true through the lens of two other texts we investigated in class, the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, The Fisherman and His Wife and Rumpelstiltskin.

In The Fisherman and His Wife a poor fisherman and his wife Isabel live in a hovel, where she stays during the day while he goes to catch fish. The fisherman is content with this life, but Isabel is not, and has desires beyond it. Therefore, when the fisherman catches a fish that claims to be an enchanted prince and lets it go free, Isabel has a different reaction and, emboldened by her desire, demands that the fisherman go back and ask the fish-prince to give them a cottage that is nicer than the hut where they live. Her desire has given her motivation and cunning beyond what the fisherman has because her desire enables her to think creatively. In this the brothers are teaching a lesson of how desire can help people achieve their dreams, while contentment stagnates. However, they counterbalance that message by having the wife overreach herself. Isabel grows more and more greedy, becoming first a Queen, then Pope, and finally she wants to control the sun, at which point she is reduced to once more living in a hovel.[2]

The story of the fisherman’s wife indirectly parallels the teachings of the Gita, but diverges from them in ways that point towards a more nuanced understanding of desire. Isabel has forgotten where she started in life due to her greed, as her desire for more power has clouded her judgment. This is in alignment with the Gita; however, Isabel nevertheless does achieve her dreams to a certain extent before she goes to an extreme beyond the realm of possibility. The fisherman, by contrast, is almost entirely free of desire, and of both its constructive and destructive consequences. On the one hand, he is portrayed as being at peace with himself and with the state of his life, exactly as the Gita teaches one will become if one withdraws from desire. On the other hand, he is an almost entirely passive character with no goals or potential for growth. His lack of desire for a changed life would have seen them live in the hovel for their lives, never taking the opportunity of the wish. Additionally, the one desire he does have in the story, to stop his wife from asking the fish-prince for more power[3], he never acts on and so she is never stopped and they return to living in the hovel.

From this we can see that the fault of the return to the hovel cannot be placed solely on the wife. Although she had the initial desire, the action could never have been carried out if the fisherman had acted on his own desire to stop her. Therefore, we can argue that ignoring desire entirely can be just as dangerous as acting on it recklessly.

If the fisherman had acted on that desire to stop her, and helped Isabel to learn to control her own desires, their desires could have counterbalanced one another. So although the Gita claims that all desire leads to anger and eventually loss of self, one can argue that desires do not have to lead to this unfortunate fate as long as they are balanced by a sense of realism and the ability to know when to act on them and when to listen to the advice of others.

The majority of the issue with the fisherman and his wife was the lack of a personal connection between them. Isabel had her attachment to the material that caused her desire, and the fisherman was unable to stop her because they lacked attachment to one another. To argue against the Gita, Isabel and the fisherman’s detachment from each other and lack of active engagement in each other’s and their own lives was what caused their lack of mutual desire and control of desire, and with an attachment, their desires could have led to a more satisfactory outcome.

To examine another work concerning desire, we turn to Rumpelstiltskin. In this tale, Rumpelstiltskin’s interaction with desire, namely his desire for the Queen’s child, parallels what we have observed in the Gita. His desire for the child, and his anger at not receiving the child, led to such anger that he harmed himself.[4] His greed, in assuming that the child would be his, also leads to foolishness, another symptom of the cycle described in the Gita.

The Miller’s daughter/Queen’s interaction with desire tells a different story, however.  In the beginning, it shows selfish desire causing harm to another; her desire to save her own life causes her to sacrifice the potential life of her first born child. However, once the child is born she has a change of heart and her desire to save her child from an unknown fate with Rumpelstiltskin supersedes her past selfish desire. The tale thus shows us how desire can be born out of concern for the well-being of others, not just out of selfishness.

This desire strengthens resolve and provides great motivation when she needs to discover Rumpelstiltskin’s name.[5] The Queen’s desire to keep her child was ultimately what kept her child safe from Rumpelstiltskin, and after he left, she was left in peace, as far as the reader knows.

So while these tales do tell us that just as the Gita warns, no good seems to come from untempered desire and harm is definitely done to those who desire and those who surround those who submit to their desires, there is also a deeper message that desire is a motivator and an inspiration for achieving a higher life status, when approached with a sense of moderation.

This moderation is a key point that the Gita fails to address. The tales, on the other hand, offer a more detailed exploration of what forms of desire are healthy or unhealthy. The Brothers Grimm are not advocating for a total lack of desire, as does the Gita, but for this continued theme of moderation. When the fisherman and his wife first upgrade to a cottage with a large garden, they have the following interaction:

“See!” said the wife, “is this not charming?”

“Yes,” said her husband,” so long as it blooms you will be well content with it.”[6]

These lines caution that as long as we are content with what we have, we will need nothing else. It is a consideration not as strong in the Gita, but still one that overlaps. In the Gita there is a strong focus on the soul and maintaining the connection to oneself, while The Brothers Grimm allow for a focus on the material in a broader sense. The fairy tales caution against desire by showing a loss of the material when desire is allowed in excess, while the Gita appeals to our desire for a complete and peaceful soul. While the Gita teaches us to renounce our desires in order to achieve a complete and peaceful soul, the fairy tales teach us that desire can be integrated into an emotionally fulfilling life, as long as it is not allowed to go out of control.

The Fisherman and His Wife is definitely an example of an unhealthy relationship with desire, while Rumpelstiltskin says beautiful things about the way that desire can be harnessed when born out of love, which is what is lacking in the relationship shown in the first tale. What we can glean from that is that desire is a thing of value, but only when people and their love is the cause.

Written for COML 100A: Introduction to Global Literature, March 31st 2016


Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 2003. “Rumpelstiltskin.” In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Anonymous, 241-243. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 2003. “The Fisherman and His Wife.” In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Anonymous, 105-109. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.

Zaehner, R. C., trans. 1969. The Bhagavad Gita. Glasgow: Oxford University Press.


[1] Zaehner 52

[2] Grimm and Grimm, The Fisherman and His Wife, 106-109

[3] Ibid, 107

[4] Grimm and Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin, 243

[5] Ibid.

[6]Grimm and Grimm, The Fisherman and His Wife, 106

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