Analysis of Isak Dinesen’s Stories

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (born 17 April 1885 – 7 September 1962) reacted against the psychological and social realism of contemporary Danish literature and looked back to the Romantic storytellers for inspiration. Like them, she preferred the longer, drawn-out tale to the short story proper, and authorial narration, often with overtly present narrators, is a hallmark of her narratives. Her chosen form therefore often struck her contemporaries as old-fashioned. This was also the case with her thematic concerns, for her stories take place mostly in the century between 1770 and 1870 and express the ethos of a bygone age. She speaks in favor of such aristocratic values as duty, honor, and justice, but she also rejects the Christian dualistic worldview and questions the role of religion and the place of women in contemporary bourgeois society. Above all, however, the role of art in human life constitutes a central theme of her authorship. Through art, a unified vision is possible, and such a monistic perception of reality is, for Dinesen, a primary source of meaning in general and of comfort in difficult times.

The Monkey

“Aben” (“The Monkey”), a long story from Seven Gothic Tales, is a good example of Dinesen’s “gothic” or fantastic narratives that also exhibits many of her thematic concerns. Its setting is a noble milieu in northern Germany in the 1830’s; its theme is the nature of love. Boris, a young lieutenant in the Prussian Royal Guards, has become involved in a homosexual scandal in the capital and is seeking the aid of his maiden aunt, Cathinka, the Prioress of Cloister Seven, a convent for spinsters of noble blood. In order to escape dishonor and almost certain death, Boris has resolved to marry, thus hoping to lay to rest the rumors of his homosexual involvement with other members of his regiment. His aunt, who is well acquainted with the various noble families of the land, is being asked to select a suitable mate for him. The fantastic element of the story is found in the relationship between the Prioress and her little gray monkey, to which she has a mysterious bond and with which she, from time to time and in accordance with traditional Scandinavian folk belief in shape-shifting, exchanges her identity. The monkey is connected with the idea of love through the love goddess of an ancient Baltic people, the Wends. The goddess looks like a beautiful woman from the front and like a monkey from the back. Through this image, Dinesen argues against the Judeo-Christian distinction between the heteroerotic, which is acceptable to society, and the homoerotic, which is not. Speaking in favor of a monistic outlook on human sexuality, Dinesen, through the similarity between theWendish love-goddess and the Janus face, problematizes the distinction between normal and abnormal sexuality. The text actually foregrounds the question of how it can be determined which side is the front and which is the back of the goddess, and the implied answer is that no such determination can be made on objective grounds.

There is, nevertheless, a recognition on Dinesen’s part that people have to live up to the expectations of their society if they are to get along in life. Boris has certain duties to his family, and, despite his sexual difference from the norm, he is obligated to repress his desires and to force himself to marry. The Prioress, who at this time and in a mysterious way is possessed by aspects of her monkey’s personality, chooses as his bride the only daughter of a neighbor, a tall and strong young woman named Athena, whom Boris has known since childhood. Her father welcomes Boris as a suitor and says that he would delight in seeing the young man’s features in the faces of his grandchildren. Athena rejects him, however, and states unequivocally that she will never marry; she will not, in other words, yield to her duty to her family. There is a strong implication in the text that Athena is as troubled by her gender role as Boris is by his.

Athena’s rejection infuriates the Prioress, who arranges a supper of seduction during which Athena gets drunk. As the girl goes to her room, the Prioress gives Boris an aphrodisiac to help him complete his conquest, and he struggles with Athena, who knocks out two of his teeth. Boris interprets this as a symbolic castration and feels that he has been freed from his obligation to have a normal conjugal relationship with her, should they get married. She has won his battle with traditional sexuality for him, and he therefore triumphantly kisses her with his bloody mouth. The significance of this perverted and ironic image of defloration is not lost on Athena, who, in horror and disgust, loses consciousness. Boris does not touch her further.

The next morning, Athena is told by the Prioress that she is now most likely pregnant and that her only hope of avoiding dishonor is to marry Boris. Together, they then watch as the Prioress, who all along has been in the grip of the personality of the monkey, reasserts her own true self through an intense struggle with the little animal. This astonishing event affects Athena deeply, and she resigns herself to marrying Boris, with the proviso, however, that she is to have dominion in their relationship. Athena’s and Boris’s union is thus marked by the backside of the love goddess in several ways. Erotically, they are misfits in that they both look on heterosexuality with revulsion. Psychologically and emotionally, their union is a result of a power struggle, touched by the fantastic, rather than a consequence of the usual process of falling in love. Morally, their marriage represents a surrender to the expectations of their families, but it is unlikely that they will do their real duty and have children. Socially, their marriage will also be out of the ordinary, because, in opposition to the patriarchal normof their time and place, the wife will rule the roost with the consent of her husband. Dinesen thus problematizes one of the fundamental oppositions of human life, namely that between male and female, and offers a critique of both sex roles and Christian dualism.

The Young Man with the Carnation

Although the stories in Seven Gothic Tales touch on the fantastic and frequently present challenges to the readers those of Winter’s Tales are more traditional, and therefore also more accessible, narratives. Written during the German occupation of Denmark, they are tales for difficult times, in which the possibility of reconciliation and restoration is held dear.

“Den unge mand med nelliken” (“The Young Man with the Carnation”), which introduces the English-language edition of the collection, is a powerful expression of Dinesen’s theory of art. Its protagonist, Charlie Despard, is a young English writer who, while born and reared in circumstances of great poverty, has transmuted the pain of his childhood experiences into his first novel, with which he has had tremendous success. Because of his newfound reputation as a writer, he has been able to marry a beautiful young woman from a family of means, and outwardly he has every reason to be happy, which indeed, for a time, he has been. As Dinesen indicates through his name, however, he is now in despair, for he has found that art has failed him. He has nothing more to say as a writer, while at the same time he feels that life holds no joys for him. His is not simply a bad case of writer’s block, though, but a case of someone who, because of his erstwhile happiness, has lost his ability to create. The story tells about how Charlie comes to terms with his situation and regains his creativity.

While traveling on the Continent, Charlie and his wife have been separated for a few days but have planned to meet at a hotel in Amsterdam. Charlie arrives last and goes to his wife’s room, where he finds her asleep with her door unlocked. Shortly after his arrival, someone else tries to open the door, and, when Charlie gets out of bed to investigate, he finds a young man who, wearing a carnation, is obviously on his way to a rendezvous. Charlie’s first reaction is envy, for he believes the young man to have found the happiness which he, himself, is lacking. He then experiences a shock at his wife’s infidelity, feels sorry for himself, writes her a brief note, and leaves in search of that happiness which he sensed in the face of the young man with the carnation.

During the next few hours, his mind is in turmoil, and he walks along the waterfront, contemplating his situation. He is then found by some sailors who believe him to be thinking of suicide and who therefore invite him to come with them to a tavern. The men spend the night telling one another stories, and Charlie’s tales indicate that he now suffers from no loss of creativity; the experience of the night has given him the pain which is needed by the artist. His regained creativity gives him the strength to face his wife, and he returns to the hotel only to find that he, the previous night, had entered the wrong room. Dinesen’s imagery shows that Charlie the fiction writer interprets his experience as a kind of resurrection, which is followed by a dialogue with God. Charlie is told by God that he had been created in order to write and that it is God who wants him to tell his stories and who therefore gave him the pain of the previous evening. He is promised, however, that God will not measure out any more distress to him than what is needed for his art. Charlie accepts the idea that pain is a necessary condition of creativity and realizes that it is the young man with the carnation who is to be pitied, rather than himself.

Dinesen’s theory of art is thus basically a romantic one, in which the joys of life are viewed as inferior to art and therefore fundamentally incompatible with creative endeavor. The artist is required to sacrifice normal human happiness for the privilege of being able to commune with the divine, which is the essence of artistic creation.


Another significant aspect of “The Young Man with the Carnation” is the concept of duty, which manifests itself as Charlie’s obligation to God to be a writer of stories. In “Sorg-agre” (“Sorrow-Acre”), the next story in Winter’s Tales, duty is a central motif that contributes much to the story’s theme. “Sorrow-Acre” tells about a young Dane named Adam who has spent several years in England, but who, at the beginning of the story, has just returned home to his ancestral estate only to find himself in conflict with his uncle, the ruler of the manor. Adam represents the beginnings of a new social order and serves as the embodiment of the ideas of the French Revolution (1789), while his uncle advocates a traditional, aristocratic view of life. The three intertwined plots of the story are played out against the backdrop of life on this semifeudal Danish country estate in the late eighteenth century.

The first plot concerns the uncle’s dealings with Anne-Marie, the mother of a young man who has been accused of a crime. There is little proof in the case, and the uncle admits that he has no basis for making a judgment about the man’s guilt or innocence. When Anne-Marie begs for the freedom of her son, however, he offers her a bargain: If she can cut a certain rye field in the course of one day, her son will receive his freedom. The outward drama of the story concerns Anne-Marie’s superhuman attempt at harvesting the field, which is normally three days’ work for a man. She succeeds but at the end dies from exhaustion.

The second plot line concerns the relationship between Adam and his uncle. Adam finds his uncle’s action barbarous and threatens to leave because of his sense of outrage. The uncle defends himself by referring to the divine principle of arbitrary power, saying that because he is essentially like a god in his relationship to his serflike farm workers, his actions should not be questioned. Although the drama in the rye field may seem like a tragedy to most mortals, the unresolved question of the young man’s innocence or guilt adds a divinely comic flavor to Anne-Marie’s attempt to buy his freedom. A nobleman may approach the divine by accepting and appreciating the comic aspects of human life. The uncle would himself, he says, like nothing better than to be in a position where he might be able to buy himself a son at the cost of his own life, thus ensuring the succession of the family line. He has lost his only son and has recently, in his rather advanced age, married the young lady who was intended to be his son’s bride.

The third strand of the plot involves the relationship between Adam and his uncle’s young wife. It is very much against Adam’s interests that his uncle should receive an heir, for if the uncle were to die childless, Adam would inherit the estate. It has been prophesied by a gypsy, however, that Adam’s posterity is to possess the estate, and it is becoming clear to Adam that he has a duty to the family to give his uncle a legal heir. The young wife’s attitude toward Adam would clearly facilitate such an unspoken arrangement.

All the main characters in this tale thus exemplify the principle of duty, particularly as it concerns the continuation of a family line. Adam recognizes that he has been brought back to Denmark by fate and that he must play his part in the drama of his family. He is reconciled to his uncle, who begs him to stay; the uncle surely knows that Adam is essential to the success of his project. The uncle’s young wife knows that she has been brought into the family expressly for the purpose of providing an heir. Anne-Marie, whose death is a powerful reminder of a person’s duty to his or her descendants, sets a powerful example of commitment to one’s family.

The Sailor-Boy’s Tale

Dinesen sees a connection between duty and the concept of justice, for it is a paramount duty of human beings to strive to be just. Her idea of justice is clearly expressed in “Skibsdrængens fortælling” (“The Sailor-Boy’s Tale”), a rather simple story that is also found in Winter’s Tales. Like “The Monkey,” “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale” presupposes that the reader is familiar with folk beliefs related to shape-shifting, the idea that a human being may temporarily take on the form of an animal. The story tells about a young sailor boy named Simon, who, during a storm in the Mediterranean, climbs the mainmast of his ship to free a peregrine falcon that has become caught in the rigging. Before Simon sets it free, the falcon pecks his thumb sufficiently hard to draw blood, and Simon retaliates by hitting it on the head. This incident proves to be significant to Dinesen’s portrait of justice and its operation.

Two years later, Simon’s ship has come to the herring markets in the town of Bodø in northern Norway, where Simon meets and falls in love with a young girl named Nora. One evening, when he is on his way to a meeting with the girl, he runs into an overly friendly Russian sailor, whose behavior has homosexual overtones. Simon, who does not want to be late for his meeting with the girl, stabs and kills the Russian, after which he is pursued by the dead man’s shipmates. While he is hiding in the crowd at a dance, an old pagan Lapp woman named Sunniva shows up, says that Simon is her son, and tells him to come home with her.

Sunniva wipes off his bloody knife on her skirt and, while hiding Simon when the Russian sailors come looking for him, cuts her thumb to explain the presence of blood. She then arranges for safe passage for him back to his ship, at which point she reveals that she is the falcon that Simon released during the storm in the Mediterranean. She has rescued him both because she likes him and because of her sense of justice, for he deserves to be paid back for helping her. To completely settle her accounts with him, she then boxes his ear in return for his blow to her head while she was in the shape of the falcon. Sunniva also explains to Simon that she admires his devotion to the girl Nora and that the female residents of the earth hold together. Referring to men as their sons, she indicates that the world is really run by women, who are bound together with a matriarchal compact. Sunniva’s pagan matriarchy gestures at Dinesen’s questioning of both traditional sex roles and the Christian religion.

The Heroine

Dinesen’s rather gentle critique of Christianity in “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale” becomes relentlessly satirical in “Heloise” (“The Heroine”), in which she casts a woman stripper in the role of the Christian savior. A young Englishman named Frederick Lamond, together with a company of French travelers, is caught in a German border town at the time of the Franco-Prussian war. A student of religious philosophy, Frederick is at the time writing a treatise on the doctrine of the Atonement. When the German army marches into town, he and the other stranded travelers are accused of espionage. A famous messianic prophecy from the Book of Isaiah, which is quoted in Frederick’s manuscript, is read as a code by the Germans and forms the main proof of their accusation.

One of the travelers is a woman named Heloise, whose rare beauty greatly impresses one of the German officers. Realizing that the accusation of espionage may not have much merit, he offers the travelers a bargain: If Heloise will appear before him in the nude, they will be permitted to continue to France; otherwise, they will be shot. Heloise turns to the company and leaves the decision in their hands, and they all vote to refuse the German’s demand. The officer, who respects the courage of both Heloise and her companions, then decides to let them go after all, and he apologizes to Heloise, whom he terms a heroine, by sending her a big bouquet of roses.

Six years later, Frederick is in Paris to attend some lectures in his field. Entertained by a friend, he is taken to a music hall, where the most beautiful woman in Paris is appearing nude in a show. It turns out that the woman is Heloise, whom Frederick still remembers well. They meet and reminisce after the show, and Heloise explains what in her opinion was at stake in the dramatic incident six years earlier. It was not only the lives of the travelers, she says, which hung in the balance but also their ability to live with their consciences. It would have cost her very little to comply with the German’s demand; for her, it would have been a professional matter, not one of conscience. The other travelers, however, would have never gotten over it if Heloise were to have bought their freedom at the cost of exposing her body. Frederick now understands that her heroism did not consist in standing up to the German officer’s demands but in looking after the welfare of her companions’ souls. Heloise, who through the imagery in the story has been carefully presented as a kind of Christ-figure, now appears, to both Frederick and the reader, as a full-blown savior.

Portraying a stripper as someone who saves people from guilt constitutes a truly ironic comment on traditional Christian religion. Casting a woman in such a position undercuts the traditional conception of women’s roles as well. “The Heroine,” through its overt questioning of central religious and social norms, therefore becomes one of Dinesen’s most radical stories.

Babette’s Feast

Heloise’s parting comment to Frederick is that she wishes that he might have seen her perform six years earlier, when her beauty was at its fullest. Heloise has the temperament of an artist in that art, in her case the beauty of her body, gives meaning to her life. A similar commitment is held by the title character in “Babettes gæstebud” (“Babette’s Feast”) from Anecdotes of Destiny, who, like Heloise, is French. Babette is a famous Parisian chef who had to flee her country at the time of the Paris Commune. She finds her way to a small Norwegian fishing village, where she, for the next fourteen years, lives as a maid in the home of two spinsters. These two sisters are the daughters of a minister who founded a pietistic religious society and who, because of his asceticism, rejected his daughters’ suitors. Years after his death, his daughters live solely for their father’s memory and religious ideals.

Babette regularly plays the French lottery and chances to win ten thousand francs, which she wishes to spend on a French dinner at the centenary of the minister’s birth. The various foreign dishes are disconcerting to the guests, who are all members of the minister’s sect; only one of them, the former suitor of one of the daughters, is able to appreciate Babette’s culinary artistry. When, at the end of the dinner, the two sisters learn that the utterly exhausted Babette has spent all her money on the project, they cannot understand her motivation, but Babette states that she has done it for her own sake: She is an artist who craves excellence in her field of endeavor.

Like Babette, Dinesen placed high demands on herself. She felt a strong sense of duty and loyalty to the artist within her, thus her tales are exquisitely crafted but not numerous. She relentlessly pursued her unitary vision, subtly criticizing those aspects of life that went against the grain of her thought, such as the dualism of received religion and traditional sex roles. Through her authorship she prepared a literary feast that continues to be enjoyed by numerous readers.

Major works
Novels: Gengoeldelsens Veje, 1944 (as Pierre Andrézel; The Angelic Avengers, 1946).
Nonfiction: Den afrikanske Farm, 1937 (Out of Africa, 1937); Skygger paa Groesset, 1960 (Shadows on the Grass, 1960); Essays, 1965; Breve fra Afrika, 1914-1931, 1978 (Letters from Africa, 1914-1931, 1981); Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays, 1979; Samlede Essays, 1985.
Short fiction: Seven Gothic Tales, 1934; Vinter-Eventyr, 1942 (Winter’s Tales, 1942); Sidste Fortoellinger, 1957 (Last Tales, 1957); Skoebne-Anekdoter, 1958 (Anecdotes of Destiny, 1958); Ehrengard, 1963; Efterladte Fortoellinger, 1975 (Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales, 1977).

Aiken, Susan Hardy. Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Bassoff, Bruce. “Babette Can Cook: Life and Art in Three Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Summer, 1990): 385-389.
Bjørnvig, Thorkild. The Pact: My Friendship with Isak Dinesen. Translated by Ingvar Schousboe and William Jay Smith. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Donelson, Linda. Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: The Untold Story. Iowa City, Iowa: Coulsong List, 1995.
Henriksen, Aage. “The Empty Space Between Art and Church.” In Out of Denmark, edited by BodilWarmberg. Copenhagen: Danish Cultural Institute, 1985.
Juhl, Marianne, and Bo Hakon Jørgensen. Diana’s Revenge: Two Lines in Isak Dinesen’s Authorship. Translated from the Danish by Anne Born. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1985.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Mullins, Maire. “Home, Community, and the Gift That Gives in Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Women’s Studies 23 (1994): 217-228.
Rashkin, Esther. “A Recipe for Mourning: Isak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast.’” Style 29 (Fall, 1995): 356-374.
Stambaugh, Sara. TheWitch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988.

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