Isak Dinesen Essay - Dinesen, Isak

Dinesen, Isak


Isak Dinesen 1885-1962

(Pseudonym of Baroness Karen Christentze von Blixen-Finecke; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Adrézel) Danish short-story writer, novelist, essayist, memoirist, poet, dramatist, and translator.

The following entry provides criticism on Dinesen's short fiction from 1987 through 2003. For criticism on Dinesen's short fiction published prior to 1987, see SSC, Volume 7.

Considered among the most accomplished Danish authors of the twentieth-century, Dinesen drew upon Gothic, Decadent, and Romantic literary conventions for her atmospheric short stories. To augment her often fantastic plots, Dinesen frequently distanced her tales temporally and geographically, using eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, China, and Persia as settings. Her characters are similarly exotic, often appearing as grotesque yet heroic figures, defined by an aristocratic moral code. Caught up in events beyond their immediate understanding, these men and women ultimately perceive themselves as participants in a tragicomedy authored by God.

Biographical Information

Born to wealthy parents in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was ten years old when her father committed suicide. Tutored at home by a series of governesses, she demonstrated an early aptitude for languages, drama, and art. In 1903 she entered the Royal Academie of Fine Arts in Copenhagen to study painting, a pursuit that influenced the intricate descriptive style of her fiction. Dinesen left the Academie a few years later and began writing. In 1907 she published her first tales in the Danish periodical Tilskueron under the pseudonym Osceola, the name of her father's beloved German shepherd dog. After a stay in France and later Italy, Dinesen returned to Denmark and unexpectedly announced her engagement to her second cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. In 1913, with advice and capital provided by Dinesen's family, Blixen journeyed to British East Africa and purchased a six-thousand-acre coffee farm outside Nairobi, Kenya. After her marriage in 1914, Dinesen adjusted well to life in Africa, often going on safari with her husband and socializing with British aristocrats, who later inspired many of her fictional characters. In Africa, Dinesen's farm suffered numerous financial setbacks, and her family dismissed Blixen-Finecke and appointed Dinesen as the sole manager of what became known as the Karen Coffee Company. Eventually the couple divorced. In 1918 Dinesen met Denys Finch Hatton, a free-spirited British pilot and hunter who became her lover and the primary audience for her tales. In 1931, after further financial problems, Dinesen auctioned the farm and, later that year, learned that Finch Hatton had been killed when his plane crashed in Tanganyika. She returned to Denmark and began to write under the pseudonym “Isak Dinesen,” which was a combination of her maiden name and the Hebrew word Isak, meaning “one who laughs.” In her later years, she became an icon of Danish literature, accepting younger authors into her home in Rungsted, Denmark, and giving public lectures despite her fragile health. She died in 1962 from complications from syphilis, which she contracted from her husband early in their marriage.

Major Works of Short Fiction

As with later volumes, Dinesen composed the stories of her first collection, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), in English, then translated them into Danish. Many critics compare Seven Gothic Tales to the Arabian Nights and the Decamaron. Like these and other works based in an oral tradition, Seven Gothic Tales emphasizes action and description rather than overt intellectual analysis. In “The Roads Round Pisa,” for example, Dinesen intertwines tales of religious fanaticism, romantic intrigue, and murder as she chronicles the adventures of a duke in early nineteenth-century Italy. Critics also discern the influence of the oral tradition in Dinesen's assertion that only through storytelling can humanity emulate divinity. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” a cardinal directs his aristocratic companions to give up their places on a boat to peasants during a flood. Stranded in a hayloft as a result, the cardinal suggests that they pass the time by telling their life stories. After each character divulges their innermost secrets, the cardinal reveals that he is in fact a murderous imposter. He then compares himself to Jesus Christ, another man whose elaborately designed ruse—according to the masquerading cardinal—saved the lives of others. While Seven Gothic Tales garnered considerable critical accolades in the United States and Great Britain, Danish reviewers dismissed the collection, citing its lack of social and psychological realism then favored by most Danish writers. In the decades following its publication, however, commentators from Dinesen's homeland have increasingly regarded the volume as among the most original and important contributions to their contemporary literature.

Along with her memoir Out of Africa (1937), Dinesen's next collection of short stories, Winter's Tales (1942), solidified her standing in the Danish literary community. While greatly similar to Seven Gothic Tales, this collection features a simpler narrative style and more easily recognizable settings as evidenced in such stories as “The Young Man with the Carnation” and “The Invincible Slave-Owners.” Perhaps the best-known short story from Winter's Tales is “Sorrow-Acre,” which is based upon a medieval folktale and set in eighteenth-century Denmark. In this story, a lord promises to spare the life of a serf convicted of stealing if the prisoner's mother mows an acre of grain in one day, a task normally performed by three men. Although the lord's enlightened nephew protests, the mother accepts and clears the acre by sunset only to die as she completes the task. Following Winter's Tales, Dinesen composed two more collections of short stories, Last Tales (1957) and Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). Although both collections elicited critical praise, most commentators agree that Seven Gothic Tales and Winter's Tales constitute Dinesen's most significant contributions to the short story genre.

Critical Reception

Evaluations of Dinesen's work have often centered upon her memoirs of Africa, yet most critics assert that her short-story collections will remain her most respected literary achievements. While occasionally impugning the elitist tenor of her stories, commentators laud her artistry, imagination, and wit as enduring aspects of her fiction. They examine her place in Scandinavian literature and outline the various influences on her work. Feminist readings of her short fiction often focus on her biting depictions of misogyny and the oppressive impact of patriarchal culture on women; in fact, commentary on feminist aspects of Dinesen's work reveals a broader debate on the nature of Dinesen's feminism. Exile, cultural displacement, and storytelling are identified as major thematic concerns in her fiction and nonfiction. A few commentators have applied psychoanalytic theory to individual stories, and others have noted her affinity for reinterpreting stories from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Recent critical analyses have focused on the relationship between her fiction and the events of her adventurous life, In fact, Dinesen's life and work has proved to be popular subject for critical study, with more than four hundred scholarly biographical and critical works published about her. She has remained an important figure in Danish literature and her short stories are regarded as a valuable contribution to world literature.

Principal Works

Seven Gothic Tales [Syv Fantastiske Fortaellinger] 1934

Winter's Tales [Vinter Eventyr] 1942

Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] 1957

Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] 1958

Osceola (short stories and poetry) 1962

Sandhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (drama) 1936

Out of Africa [Den Afrikanske Farm] (memoir) 1937

Gengaeldelsens Veje [The Angelic Avengers] (novel) 1944

Farah (novel) 1950

En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953

Skygger paa Graesset [Shadows on the Grass] (memoir) 1960

Ehrengard (novel) 1963

Essays (essays) 1965; also published as Mit livs mottoer og andre essays [enlarged edition], 1978

Breve fra Afrika 1914-31. 2 vols. [Letter from Africa 1914-31] (letters) 1978

Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (nonfiction) 1979

Samlede (essays) 1985


Ida H. Washington (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Washington, Ida H. “Isak Dinesen and Dorothy Canfield: the Importance of a Helping Hand.” In Continental, Latin-American and Francophone Women Writers: Selected Papers from the Wichita State University Conference on Foreign Literature, 1984-1985, edited by Eunice Myers and Ginette Adamson, pp. 87-96. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

[In the following essay, Washington chronicles the influence of Dorothy Canfield on Dinesen's literary career, particularly her assistance in getting Dinesen's collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales, published.]

A little known chapter in the life of the Danish author Karen (or Tania) Blixen, who...

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Ruth Knafo-Setton (essay date spring 1988)

SOURCE: Knafo-Setton, Ruth. “The Dream World of Isak Dinesen.” Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 10 (spring 1988): 83-91.

[In the following essay, Knafo-Setton discusses the imaginative stories collected in Seven Gothic Tales, asserting that the volume contains “all her major themes and strengths without heavily indulging in her weaknesses which become more apparent in the later tales.”]

Shrouded in mystery, Isak Dinesen entered the literary world which she then confounded as the timeless seer of an age of transition. Paradox is her very nature. She wrote two kinds of books: detached, gentle and unique reminiscences of her life as a...

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Sara Stambaugh (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Stambaugh, Sara. “Misogyny.” In The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen: A Feminist Reading, pp. 83-107. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Stambaugh examines Dinesen's portrayals of the effects of patriarchal Christianity on men and women in her short fiction.]

Dinesen's opposition to Christianity appears not only in the stories I have discussed but is also reflected elsewhere, in “The Caryatids,” for example, in the story of the priest, Father Bernhard, who opposes the gypsies but ultimately capitulates to them. Her general attitude is expressed by Boris of “The Monkey” as he avoids Pastor Rosenquist:...

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Susan Hardy Aiken (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Aiken, Susan Hardy. “Writing (in) Exile: Isak Dinesen and the Poetics of Displacement.” In Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, pp. 113-31. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Aiken underscores the “conflation of exile, sexual difference, voice, and writing” in Dinesen's “The Dreamers.”]

People who dream … know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom … the freedom of the artist.

—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa



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Bruce Bassoff (essay date summer 1990)

SOURCE: Bassoff, Bruce. “Babette Can Cook: Life and Art in Three Stories by Isak Dinesen.” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 3 (summer 1990): 385-89.

[In the following essay, Bassoff finds thematic connections between three Dinesen stories: “The Diver,” “Babette's Feast,” and “The Ring.”]

In “The Diver,” the first story in Isak Dinesen's Anecdotes of Destiny, a young Softa (student) of the Koran decides to imitate the angels by imitating the creatures most like them: the birds. By learning to fly with homemade wings, he can learn, like the angels, to see the universe from above. Those in power, worried by the “new and revolutionary things”...

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Ted Billy (essay date August 1990)

SOURCE: Billy, Ted. “Dinesen's ‘Ring’: Matrimonial Götterdämmerung.Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 11, nos. 3-4 (August 1990): 324-31.

[In the following essay, Billy analyzes Dinesen's allusions to Norse and Teutonic mythology and Richard Wagner's The Ring cycle in order to provide insight into the feminist themes of “The Ring.”]

Strangely enough, feminist critics have not actively promoted the literary reputation of Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Karen Blixen), perhaps because Dinesen eschews ideology in her fiction, restricting her creativity solely to her artistic objectives. Viewing existence as a seriocomic puppet show ruled by...

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Morten Kyndrup (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Kyndrup, Morten. “The Vertigo of Staging: Authority and Narration in Isak Dinesen's ‘The Roads Round Pisa’.” In Isak Dinesen: Critical Views, edited by Olga Anastasia Pelensky, pp. 333-45. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1992, Kyndrup provides a stylistic analysis of “The Roads Round Pisa.”]


Isak Dinesen's writings constitute a very special world of their own within twentieth-century fiction. And it is far from coincidental that to readers as well as to critics they appear as an illuminated island. One reason of course is the indisputable mastery of...

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Marianne Stecher-Hansen (essay date September 1994)

SOURCE: Stecher-Hansen, Marianne. “Both Sacred and Secretly Gay: Isak Dinesen's ‘The Blank Page’.” Pacific Coast Philology 29, no. 1 (September 1994): 3-13.

[In the following essay, Stecher-Hansen sheds light on Dinesen's feminist views through an analysis of her essay “Oration at a Bonfire” and her story “The Blank Page.”]

In her “Oration at a Bonfire” of 1953, Karen Blixen categorically proclaimed, “I am not a Feminist.”1 The speech had been delayed for fourteen years: the original invitation to speak had been issued in connection with a large international women's congress to be held in Copenhagen in the summer of 1939. In her...

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Lynn R. Wilkinson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Wilkinson, Lynn R. “Isak Dinesen's ‘Sorrow-Acre’ and the Ethics of Storytelling.” Edda 1 (1996): 33-44.

[In the following essay, Wilkinson views “Sorrow-Acre” as a rewriting of Paul la Cour's “Sorg-Agre” and elucidates Dinesen's authorial intent with the story.]

Isak Dinesen's remarks to Robert Langbaum have served as a touchstone for almost all later interpretations of “Sorrow-Acre” or “Sorg-Agre”. Langbaum, who notes that his conversations with the Danish writer and storyteller took place in 1959 and 1961, reports:

Isak Dinesen told me that she read while in Africa a modern rendition of this tale by...

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Ros Ballaster (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Ballaster, Ros. “Wild Nights and Buried Letters: The Gothic ‘Unconscious’ of Feminist Criticism.” In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 58-70. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ballaster discusses “The Monkey” as a work of female Gothic literature.]

“As dream or nightmare, or both at once, [sexuality] reigns in our lives as an anarchic force, refusing to be chastened and tamed by sense or conscience to a sentence in a revolutionary manifesto.”1 Cora Kaplan here announces the “agenda” of feminism in its “second-wave” from 1970 onwards, the attempt to...

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Helen Stoddart (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Stoddart, Helen. “Isak Dinesen and the Fiction of Gothic Gravity.” In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 81-8. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Stoddart underscores the importance of storytelling and elucidates the theme of gravity in the stories of Seven Gothic Tales.]

There is really no getting away from the business of story-telling in Seven Gothic Tales.1 The emphasis on the importance of the telling of tales is precisely and continuously foregrounded and this is the first aspect of the text I'd like to look at in this essay. It is frequently the subject for...

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Mark Mussari (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Mussari, Mark. “L'Heure bleue: Isak Dinesen and the Ascendant Imagination.” Scandinavian Studies 73, no. 1 (spring 2001): 43-62.

[In the following essay, Mussari considers Dinesen's use of the color blue in the imagery of the stories comprising Winter's Tales.]

Ein blauer Augenblick ist nur mehr Seele. [A blue moment is purely and simply soul]

—“Sebastian im Traum: Kindheit” Georg Trakl

In several of the stories in Winter's Tales, Isak Dinesen makes painterly use of the imaginative breadth of blue.1 The color functions on two levels: a number of her characters...

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Lynda Sexson (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Sexson, Lynda. “Bride's Blood and God's Laugh: Reading the Evidence of Desire on ‘The Blank Page’ of the Torah.” Religion and Literature 33, no. 2 (summer 2001): 37-57.

[In the following essay, Sexson utilizes Hebraic law to interpret Dinesen's “The Blank Page.”]

Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.

—Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Suppose, deuteronomic law speculates, a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her. And suppose the man lies, I married the woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her...

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Rachel Trousdale (essay date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Trousdale, Rachel. “Self-Invention in Isak Dinesen's ‘The Deluge at Norderney’.” Scandinavian Studies 74, no. 2 (summer 2002): 205-22.

[In the following essay, Trousdale argues that the embedded stories within “The Deluge at Norderney” are not only tales of self-invention, but also of re-creation.]

Isak Dinesen's “The Deluge at Norderney” (1934) is a tale about self-invention and its role in resisting the impositions of others.1 Characters who invent themselves based upon artistic models find that the results of their inventions can far exceed their models; in a startling move away from the usual sequence of events, the most...

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Frantz Leander Hansen (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Hansen, Frantz Leander. “Karen Blixen's Works.” In The Aristocratic Universe of Karen Blixen: Destiny and the Denial of Fate, translated by Gaye Kynoch, pp. 20-38. Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Hansen provides a thematic and stylistic overview of several of Dinesen's stories.]



Shortly after finishing Out of Africa, Karen Blixen began writing Winter's Tales, which was published in 1942. The title is taken from Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale (1611), but undoubtedly also...

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Further Reading


Gillen, Francis X. “Isak Dinesen with a Contemporary Social Conscience: Harold Pinter's Film Adaptation of ‘The Dreaming Child’.” In The Films of Harold Pinter, edited by Steven H. Gale, pp. 147-58. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Discusses Harold Pinter's film adaptation of Dinesen's “The Dreaming Child.”

Mucci, Clara. “The Blank Page as a Lacanian ‘Object a’: Silence, Women's Words, Desire and Interpretation between Literature and Psychology.” Literature and Psychology 38, no. 4 (1992): 23-35.

Utilizes the metaphor of the blank and applies an unconventional...

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