Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 May 2011

(Short Story) A Fisher Nest by: Henrik Pontoppidan

(Reaction) Ungodly Fishers of Men by: Antonio Conejos

Pontoppidan's A Fisher Nest begins in a very remote age, far, far back in time. In that era, the inhabitants of the desolate fishing village lived on a fusion of salvage and piracy; the latter enabling the former. As fast as the waves carry them toward the beach, the dead bodies are hauled on land and plundered. Boxes and cases with colored silk goods are broken apart and examined.

This was a highly organized activity participated in by the entire village. Clad in heavy, stiff cloaks, they moved about without speaking, busying themselves with ropes, ladders, and boat-hooks... While this is going on, the women from the fisher-huts bring hot beer in big, wooden pitchers which they circulate among the men. So skilled have they become in their profiteering from disaster that some of the men have developed an uncanny ability to predict when ships will flounder and wreck on their shore, A man crawled up the slope of the down, and holding one hand behind his ear, lay flat on the ground to listen... Then, suddenly, they both rose and, running quickly toward the houses, knocked at a door in one place, at a shutter in another, and everywhere they called out the same word.

Simply put, the villagers waited for passing ships to run afoul of bad weather and when survivors made it ashore, He [a washed up crewman] is saved. But in the same moment he is stabbed with a knife in his side, and falls backward... To make sure that he will not revive, he stabs him again, and leaving him with the deep, oozing wound in his side, he waddles toward the sea. With any survivors summarily dispensed with, the village is free to loot their bodies and any cargo which floats ashore.

Of course the story emphasizes that these acts of savagery were committed long, long ago. The saga of the fisher-hamlet is almost forgotten to-day, up there in the desolate solitude, where year after year sea and sand have effaced and leveled, smoothed and buried everything. We know better now and civilization has made us better people, In time the downs too, have been influenced by civilization... is now a thriving village, with a church and a clergyman, with merchants and an inn. Even the ship trap of night and rocks has been remedied, a high lighthouse proudly rises toward the sky as a last stronghold of the land, warding away ships which may otherwise dash themselves against the shore as in days of old.

The modern village is picturesque and peaceful. Yet beneath the protestations of civic advancement, the greed and violence of yore are still powerful siren's calls, as evidenced by the village's reaction to the stranding of the British cargo ship, The Two Brothers.

The same avarice and greed exhibited by the villagers of ancient times is still demonstrated in the present day. The only difference is that today the profiteering from disaster is given a respectable veneer of legality by the introduction of concepts such as customs inspectors and salvage rights and insurance claims. Yet, just as a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, the exploitation of others' suffering for profit is just as rank now as in the village of old.

When the Two Brothers runs aground, an electric air of excitement and merriment charges the village, just as it was in the olden days when ships were wrecked their by storms. Even old folks and cripples who could scarcely walk hobbled on till they reached the top of the nearest dune, where they revelled in the sight of the big, smoking sea-monster lying out there, groaning and struggling to free itself.

This excited avarice covered by a fake sheen of civilization is especially found in the character of the stranding commissioner. While he may affect an air of disinterest, In reality no one could be more interested in the value of cargo and ship than he, as he had - through his mere presence - a legal claim to one half percent of the salvage sum. The commissioner even feigns sympathy for the stranded captain's plight; but again this is merely for show, 'Well now - he may still succeed,' the commissioner answered with a delusive expression of Christian sympathy. Only in the corners of his mouth the play of muscles betrayed the anxiety of his soul.

Everyone has an interest in hoping that The Two Brothers will be unable to free herself on her own power. The floundering ship is an unimaginable gift, To run ashore in the middle of the day and in this kind of weather. If that is not a present! Eventually there is nothing left to be done and the ship must pay a high price to be on its way again.

The villagers are beside themselves with their windfall. Even before the ship left, the people had already begun to feast on the third part of the salvage-money. Just as in the past, the villagers gain from the misfortune of others.

Moreover, just as in the past, greed not only claims property but lives as well. After the captain's misfortune, Mary knows that he will turn her out at the next port. She has nowhere to go to, but the sea, The sea is deep. The sea is merciful.

A Fisher Nest suggests that it is not the sea which claims victims but the eternal greedy nature of men. We can trick ourselves into thinking that we have evolved beyond our baser natures. But this short story implies that there was no evolution but merely a transmutation of forms, now killing and plunder are known as law and opportunism.


This short story has an interesting theme which is neatly emphasized by the consistently bleak nature of the description of the village. Just in terms of language, I really like the imagery of a high lighthouse proudly rises toward the sky as a last stronghold of the land. Mary though as a plot device doesn't work for me - she sticks out like a sore thumb. While her death is a reminder that modern greed takes property as well as lives, just as ancient greed did, her introduction was, IMHO, handled rather heavy handedly.

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