Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The world that Isak Dinesen describes through God’s voice in “The Cardinal’s First Tale”—diverse elements uniting into a divine whole—explains both her understanding of identity and her argument for the value of the story itself. The question of identity, which the lady in black poses to the cardinal, rightly begins the story, for it introduces the narrative impulse and establishes the foundation for Dinesen’s defense of her own art form. “Who are you?” is answered with a story of the cardinal’s parents, his own conception, and his childhood. The birth of identity is introduced early on, even prior to the internal story, when the lady in black distinguishes between the cardinal’s having “created” her and his having shown her the self that already existed, the self created by God. This distinction is important because it emphasizes the self as part of divine creation, not as formed by humanity. Here she also describes her self as a uniting of “fragments . . . into a whole.” Her life is not simplified—in fact, she sees it as a furioso—but its elements are “in harmony.”

The lady’s metaphorical reference to music heightens the connection to Benedetta’s “birth” of selfhood at the opera; the princess merges with the music and “triumphantly [becomes] her whole self.” Most important, this birth, “the pangs of which [are] sweet beyond words,” not only “needed” but also “made use of, every...

(The entire section is 576 words.)