The Contrary Wife

folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther types 1365A, 1365B, and 1365C

edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2013

  • Type 1365A: A man's wife falls into a river, and he seeks her upstream, explaining to the incredulous onlookers that she was too contrary to drift with the current.

  • Type 1365B: A man and his wife have an argument about how something has been cut or broken. She maintains that it was done with scissors, but he does not believe her. Their argument intensifies, and he finally pushes her into a pond. The woman, even while drowning, has the last word; she reaches two fingers above the water and makes the sign of a pair of scissors.

  • Type 1365C: A woman calls her husband a lousy rascal, and he responds by pushing her into a pond, but she still gets the last word by extending her arms above the water and pretending to crack a louse between her thumbnails.


  1. Of a Woman Who Persisted in Calling Her Husband Lousy (Italy).

  2. Of One Who Sought His Wife Who Had Drowned in a River (Italy).

  3. Scissors They Were (Italy).

  4. Scissors (Europe).

  5. Of Hym That Sought His Wyfe against the Streme (England).

  6. How Madde Coomes, When His Wife Was Drowned, Sought Her against the Streame (England).

  7. The Woman Who Called Her Husband a Louse-Cracker (Germany).

  8. The Woman Drowned (Jean de La Fontaine).

  9. The Contrary Woman (Norway).

  10. Mary, Mary, So Contrary! [The Pig-Headed Wife] (Finland).

  11. Scissors or Knife? (Russia).

  12. The Contrary Wife (Spain).

  13. The Baneyrwal and His Drowned Wife (Pakistan).

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Of a Woman Who Persisted in Calling Her Husband Lousy


One day we were discussing the stubbornness of women, that sometimes is so great that they would rather let themselves be killed rather than to give in. One of our group told the following story:

A woman from our region constantly contradicted her husband, always disputing everything that he said, and at all times insisting on having the last word.

One day she had a vicious argument with her husband, finally calling him a lousy rascal. Attempting to force her to take back her words he struck her with a stick, his feet, and his fists. But the longer he beat her, the more she called him a lousy rascal.

When he finally grew tired of beating her, in order to break her of her stubbornness, he tied a rope around her and led her to the well, then threatened to drown her if she did not cease insulting him. But the woman continued with her insults, repeating the word lousy, even as the water reached her chin.

With that her husband let her sink entirely underwater so that she could no longer say anything and to see if the threat of death might cure her of her stubbornness.

However, nearly drowned and unable to speak, she expressed herself with her fingers. Lifting her hands above her head she pressed her two thumbnails together, and with this gesture showed her husband's lousiness, for it is with these thumbnails that women normally kill lice.

Of One Who Sought His Wife Who Had Drowned in a River


Another man, whose wife had drowned in a river, sought her corpse against the stream. When someone wondered about this and recommended to him that he search downstream, the man said, "There is no way that she would be found downstream. When she was alive she was so contradictory and self-willed that she was against everything that anyone said or did. In death, as well, she would have only gone against the stream."



Once upon a time, though it was not in my time nor in your time nor in anybody else's time, there lived a cobbler named Tom and his wife named Joan. And they lived fairly happily together, except that whatever Tom did Joan did the opposite, and whatever Joan thought Tom thought quite contrary-wise. When Tom wanted beef for dinner Joan liked pork, and if Joan wanted to have chicken Tom would like to have duck. And so it went on all the time.

Now it happened that one day Joan was cleaning up the kitchen and, turning suddenly, she knocked two or three pots and pans together and broke them all.

So Tom, who was working in the front room, came and asked Joan, "What's all this? What have you been doing?"

Now Joan had got the pair of scissors in her hand, and sooner than tell him what had really happened she said, "I cut these pots and pans into pieces with my scissors."

"What?" said Tom, "Cut pottery with your scissors, you nonsensical woman; you can't do it!"

"I tell you I did with my scissors!"

"You couldn't."

"I did."

"You couldn't."

"I did."







At last Tom got so angry that he seized Joan by the shoulders and shoved her out of the house and said, "If you don't tell me how you broke those pots and pans I'll throw you into the river."

But Joan kept on saying, "It was with the scissors."

And Tom got so enraged that at last he took her to the bank of the river and said, "Now for the last time, will you tell me the truth? How did you break those pots and pans?"

"With the scissors."

And with that he threw her into the river, and she sank once, and she sank twice, and just before she was about to sink for the third time she put her hand up into the air, out of the water, and made a motion with her first and middle finger as if she were moving the scissors. So Tom saw it was no use to try to persuade her to do anything but what she wanted.

So he rushed up the stream and met a neighbor who said, "Tom, Tom, what are you running for?"

"Oh, I want to find Joan; she fell into the river just in front of our house, and I am afraid she is going to be drowned."

"But," said the neighbor, "you're running up stream."

"Well," said Tom, "Joan always went contrary-wise whatever happened."

And so he never found her in time to save her.

Scissors They Were


Once upon a time there was a husband and a wife. The husband was a tailor; so was the wife, and in addition was a good housekeeper. One day the husband found some things in the kitchen broken, -- pots, glasses, plates.

He asked, "How were they broken?"

"How do I know?" answered the wife.

"What do you mean by saying 'How do I know?' Who broke them?"

"Who broke them? I, with the scissors," said the wife, in anger.

"With the scissors?"

"With the scissors!"

"Are you telling the truth? I want to know what you broke them with. If you don't tell me, I will beat you."

"With the scissors!" (for she had the scissors in her hand).

"Scissors, do you say?"

"Scissors they were!"

"Ah! What do you mean? Wait a bit; I will make you see whether it was you with the scissors."

So he tied a rope around her and began to lower her into the well, saying, "Come, how did you break them? You see I am lowering you into the well."

"It was the scissors!"

The husband, seeing her so obstinate, lowered her into the well; and she, for all that, did not hold her tongue.

"How did you break them?" said the husband.

"It was the scissors."

Then her husband lowered her more, until she was half way down.

"What did you do it with?"

"It was the scissors."

Then he lowered her until her feet touched the water. "What did you do it with?"

"It was the scissors!"

Then he let her down into the water to her waist. "What did you do it with?"

"It was the scissors!"

"Take care!" cried her husband, enraged at seeing her so obstinate. "It will take but little to put you under the water. You had better tell what you did it with; it will be better for you. How is it possible to break pots and dishes with the scissors! What has become of the pieces, if they were cut?"

"It was the scissors! The scissors!"

Then he let go the rope. Splash! his wife is all under the water. "Are you satisfied now? Do you say any longer that it was with the scissors?"

The wife could not speak any more, for she was under the water; but what did she do? She stuck her hand up out of the water, and with her fingers began to make signs as if she were cutting with the scissors.

What could the poor husband do? He said, "I am losing my wife, and then I shall have to go after her. I will pull her out now, and she may say that it was the scissors or the shears."

Then he pulled her out, and there was no way of making her tell with what she had broken all those things in the kitchen.

Of Hym That Sought His Wyfe against the Streme


A man the whose wyfe, as she came over a bridg fell in to the ryver and was drowned: wherfore he wente and sought for her upward against the stream, wherat his neighboures, that wente with hym, marvayled, and sayde he dyd nought, he shulde go seke her downewarde with the streame.

"Naye," quod he, I am sure I shall never fynde her that waye: For she was so waywarde and so contrary to every thynge, whyle she lyvedde, that I knowe very well nowe she is deed, she wyll go agaynste the streame."

How Madde Coomes, When His Wife Was Drowned, Sought Her against the Streame


Coomes of Stapforth, hearing that his wife was drowned coming from market, went with certayne of his friends to see if they could find her in the river. He, contrary to all the rest, sought his wife against the streame; which they perceyving, sayd he lookt the wrong way.

And why so? (quoth he).

Because (quoth they) you should looke downe the steame, and not against it.

Nay, zounds (quoth hee), I shall never find her that way; for shee did all things so contrary in her life time, that now she is dead, I am sure she will goe against the streame.

The Woman Who Called Her Husband a Louse-Cracker


There was a man who had an evil wife. When she got angry with him she called him a louse-cracker. This irritated him, especially when she did so in the presence of other people. He forbade her to this, under the threat of severe punishment, but this did not stop her.

One time she called him thus, so he threw her into the pond in his garden. Drowning, and no longer able to speak, she raised both arms above the water and pressed her two thumbnails together, as though she were cracking lice. What she was not able to say with words she said with actions.

The Woman Drowned

Jean de La Fontaine

I'm none of those who coldly say,
"'Tis nothing -- 'tis a woman drowned;"
I say 'tis much, and merits grief profound,
When one of these is lost who make life gay.

Quite a propos is what I've here to tell,
A tale of one who in the river fell,
And made her melancholy exit there.
Her husband for the body looked with care;
He thought a handsome funeral her due.

It chanced, as near the fatal spot he drew,
He met some strollers by the riverside,
Who nothing of the matter knew.

"Have any of ye seen my wife?" he cried.

"No, not a trace of her," said one; "but go,
Run with the current, look for her below."

"Rather run up," another cried, "good man,
As her opposing spirit doubtless ran:
All things float down the current, it is true,
But she'll float up, be sure, to bother you!"

He joked, I think, a little out of season.
This female character of contradiction
Is true perhaps, perhaps is fiction;
I'll not attempt about it here to reason:
But she that got it with her early breath.
Will keep it even when in death;
Her contradiction to the end will go,
Ay, and beyond it too, for all I know.

The Contrary Woman


There was once upon a time a man who had a wife, and she was so contrary and cross-grained that it was not an easy thing at all to get on with her. The husband fared worst of all; whatever he was for, she was always against. So it happened one Sunday in summer that the man and the woman went out to see how the crops looked.

When they came to a corn-?eld on the other side of the river the man said, "It's ready for reaping; tomorrow we must begin."

"Yes, tomorrow we can begin and clip it," said the woman.

"What is it you say? Are we going to clip it? Are we supposed not to reap corn any longer?" said the man.

"No, it must be clipped," said the woman.

"There is nothing so dangerous as a little knowledge," said the man; "one would think you had lost what little sense you had! Have you ever seen anybody clipping corn?" said he.

"Little I know, and less I want to know," said the woman; "but this I do know, that the corn shall be clipped and not reaped."

There was no use talking any more about that; clipped it should be. So they walked on wrangling and quarrelling, till they came to the bridge across the river, close to a deep pool.

"There's an old saying," said the man, "that good tools make good work; I fancy that'll be a queer harvest which is cut with a pair of shears," said he. "Shall we not settle to reap the corn, after all?"

"No, no! It must be clipped, clipped, clipped!" shouted the woman jumping up and clipping her ?ngers under the man's nose.

In her passion she forgot to look where she was going, and all at once she stumbled over one of the beams on the bridge and fell into the river.

"Old habits are hard to change," thought the man, "but it would be a wonder if I, for once, got my way."

He waded out into the pool and got hold of her by the hair, till her head was just out of the water. "Shall we reap the corn then?" he said.

"Clip, clip, clip!" screamed the woman.

"I'll teach you to clip," thought the man, and ducked her under the water. But that wasn't of much use."

They must clip it," she said, as he brought her to the surface again.

"I do believe the woman is crazy," said the man to himself. "Many are mad and don't know it, and many have sense and don't use it; but I must try once more, anyhow," said he.

But no sooner had he ducked her under again than she held her hand above the water and began to clip with her ?ngers, like a pair of shears. Then the man got furious and kept her under so long that her hand all of a sudden fell under water, and the woman became so heavy that he had to let go his hold.

"If you want to drag me down into the pool with you, you may lie there, you wretch!" said the man.

And so the woman was drowned.

But after a while he thought it wasn't right that she should lie there and not be buried in Christian soil, so he went along the river and searched and dragged for her; but for all his searching and all his dragging he could not ?nd her. He took the people on the farm and others in the neighborhood with him, and they began dragging the river all the way down; but for all the searching they could not ?nd the woman.

"Well," said the man, "this is not much use! This woman was a sort by herself; while she was alive she was altogether a contrary one, and it is not likely she'll be different now," he said. "We must search up the river for her, and try above the fall; perhaps she has ?oated upwards."

So they went up the river and searched and dragged for her above the fall, and there, sure enough, she lay. That shows what a contrary woman she was!

Mary, Mary, So Contrary [The Pig-Headed Wife]


There was once a farmer who was married to the most contrary wife in the world. Her name was Maya. If he expected Maya to say, "Yes," she would always say, "No," and if he expected her to say, "No," she would always say, "Yes." If he said the soup was too hot, Maya would instantly insist that it was too cold. She would do nothing that he wanted her to do, and she always insisted on doing everything that he did not want her to do.

Like most contrary people Maya was really very stupid and the farmer after he had been married to her for a few years knew exactly how to manage her.

For instance at Christmas one year he wanted to make a big feast for his friends and neighbors. Did he tell his wife so? Not he! Instead, a few weeks beforehand he remarked casually: "Christmas is coming and I suppose every one will expect us to have fine white bread. But I don't think we ought to. It's too expensive. Black bread is good enough for us."

"Black bread, indeed!" cried Maya. "Not at all! We're going to have white bread and you needn't say any more about it! Black bread at Christmas! To hear you talk people would suppose we are beggars!"

The farmer pretended to be grieved and he said: "Well, my dear, have white bread if your heart is set on it, but I hope you don't expect to make any pies."

"Not make any pies! Just let me tell you I expect to make all the pies I want!"

"Well, now, Maya, if we have pies I don't think we ought to have any wine."

"No wine! I like that! Of course we'll have wine on Christmas!"

The farmer was much pleased but, still pretending to protest, he said: "Well, if we spend money on wine, we better not expect to buy any coffee."

"What! No coffee on Christmas! Who ever heard of such a thing! Of course we'll have coffee!"

"Well, I'm not going to quarrel with you! Get a little coffee if you like, but just enough for you and me for I don't think we ought to have any guests."

"What! No guests on Christmas! Indeed and you're wrong if you think we're not going to have a houseful of guests!"

The farmer was overjoyed but, still pretending to grumble, he said: "If you have the house full of people, you needn't think I'm going to sit at the head of the table, for I'm not!"

"You are, too!" screamed his wife. "That's exactly where you are going to sit!"

"Maya, Maya, don't get so excited! I will sit there if you insist. But if I do you mustn't expect me to pour the wine."

"And why not? It would be a strange thing if you didn't pour the wine at your own table !"

"All right, all right, I'll pour it! But you mustn't expect me to taste it beforehand."

"Of course you're going to taste it beforehand!"

This was exactly what the farmer wanted his wife to say. So you see by pretending to oppose her at every turn he was able to have the big Christmas party that he wanted and he was able to feast to his heart's content with all his friends and relatives and neighbors.

Time went by and Maya grew more and more contrary if such a thing were possible. Summer came and the haymaking season. They were going to a distant meadow to toss hay and had to cross an angry little river on a footbridge made of one slender plank.

The farmer crossed in safety, then he called back to his wife: "Walk very carefully, Maya, for the plank is not strong!"

"I will not walk carefully!" the wife declared.

She flung herself on the plank with all her weight and when she got to the middle of the stream she jumped up and down just to show her husband how contrary she could be. Well, the plank broke with a snap, Maya fell into the water, the current carried her off, and she was drowned!

Her husband, seeing what had happened, ran madly upstream shouting: "Help! Help!"

The haymakers heard him and came running to see what was the matter.

"My wife has fallen into the river!" he cried, "and the current has carried her body away!"

"What ails you?" the haymakers said. "Are you mad? If the current has carried your wife away, she's floating downstream, not upstream!"

"Any other woman would float downstream," the farmer said. "Yes! But you know Maya! She's so contrary she'd float upstream every time!"

"That's true," the haymakers said, "she would!"

So all afternoon the farmer searched upstream for his wife's body but he never found it.

When night came he went home and had a good supper of all the things he liked to eat which Maya would never let him have.

Scissors or Knife?


It is only when the joke hinges upon something which is peculiar to a people that it is likely to be found among that people only. But most of the Russian jests turn upon pivots which are familiar to all the world, and have for their themes such common-place topics as the incorrigible folly of man, the inflexible obstinacy of woman. And in their treatment of these subjects they offer very few novel features.

It is strange how far a story of this kind may travel, and yet how little alteration it may undergo. Take, for instance, the skits against women which are so universally popular. Far away in outlying districts of Russia we find the same time-honored quips which have so long figured in collections of English facetiae.

There is the good old story, for instance, of the dispute between a husband and wife as to whether a certain rope has been cut with a knife or with scissors, resulting in the murder of the scissors-upholding wife, who is pitched into the river by her knife-advocating husband; but not before she has, in her very death agony, testified to her belief in the scissors hypothesis by a movement of her fingers above the surface of the stream.

In a Russian form of the story, told in the government of Astrakhan, the quarrel is about the husband's beard. He says he has shaved it, his wife declares he has only cut it off. He flings her into a deep pool, and calls to her to say "shaved."

Utterance is impossible to her, but "she lifts one hand above the water and by means of two fingers makes signs to show that it was cut."

The story has even settled into a proverb. Of a contradictory woman the Russian peasants affirm that, "If you say 'shaved' she'll say 'cut.'"

In the same way another story shows us in Russian garb our old friend the widower who, when looking for his drowned wife -- a woman of a very antagonistic disposition -- went up the river instead of down, saying to his astonished companions, "She always did everything contrary-wise, so now, no doubt, she's gone against the stream."

The Contrary Wife


A tambourinist had so contrary a wife, he never could get her to do anything he asked.

One day, on their way to a wedding, at which he was to play, she was riding an ass and carrying his tambourine, and he cried out, as they were fording a river, "Woman, don't play the tambourine, for you'll frighten the ass."

No sooner said than she began thrumming. The ass, shying, lost its footing, and threw our dame into the river; while the husband, however much he wished to help her, could do no good.

Seeing she was drowned, he went upstream in search of her body.

"My good fellow," said a looker-on, "what are you seeking?"

"My wife," replied he, "who is drowned."

"And you are looking for her upstream, friend?"

"Oh, yes, sir, she was always contrary."

The Baneyrwal and His Drowned Wife


There was once a sudden flood in the Indus, which washed away numbers of people, and, among others, the wife of a certain Baneyrwal. The distracted husband was wandering along the banks of the river, looking for the dead body, when a countryman accosted him thus, "Oh friend, if, as I am informed, your wife has been carried away in the flood, she must have gone down the stream with the rest of the poor creatures; yet you are going up the stream."

"Ah, sir," answered the wretched Baneyrwal, "you did not know that wife of mine. She always took an opposite course to everyone else. And even now that she is drowned, I know full well that, if other bodies have floated down the river, hers must have floated up."

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Revised September 22, 2013.