When Isak Dinesen’s SEVEN GOTHIC TALES first appeared in 1934, their old-world atmosphere, their romantic style of writing, and their aura of mystery made them highly popular. Particularly in America, these tales of nineteenth century aristocratic life and of the supernatural found a wide audience of people tired of the vast amount of realistic and naturalistic fiction of the age. At that time, few Americans knew Dinesen’s real identity (she is a Danish Baroness, Karen Blixen-Finecke). In fact, Dorothy Canfield, who wrote the introduction to the first American edition of SEVEN GOTHIC TALES, did not know whether the author was a man or a woman and only ventured the guess that the author was a northern European of aristocratic background. These tales, and Dinesen’s subsequent work, have held a loyal audience ever since, although for many readers the enthusiasm that originally greeted the SEVEN GOTHIC TALES has been tempered by an awareness of the overwriting and the tricks frequently used to bring the plots together.
Many of the plots involved in the SEVEN GOTHIC TALES deal with a vanishing aristocracy in Europe in the early or middle years of the nineteenth century. The aristocracy, concerned with passing its blood down from generation to generation, finds the lines of breeding corrupted by illegitimacy. The uncovering of illegitimacy, or sometimes of legitimacy, is one of the major plot devices in Dinesen’s work. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” for example, Jonathan Maersk is trying to escape the knowledge that he is really a baron’s son instead of the son of a simple seaman. The knowledge that he is the baron’s son makes Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag arrange a marriage between him and her godchild while they are all waiting in a hayloft for a rescue boat during a flood. The plot hinges on Jonathan’s disclosure of his origin, no matter how melancholy this revelation makes him, for melancholy is fashionable among the aristocracy of the time. The question of legitimacy also plays a strong part in the working out of several of the other tales.
Most of the stories also contain a strong element of the supernatural. People assume the identities of others, as the servant Kasparson assumes the identity of Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehestedt, after he has killed the cardinal in “The Deluge at Norderney”; or people’s lives strangely follow the pattern of long-dead historical figures as in “The Poet,” in which the situation repeats the pattern of a royal triangle that had led to tragedy in the same town half a century before. It is as if men are not the agents that control their destinies; rather, they are pushed by powers greater than they, powers that are never explained or described in any rationally comprehensible manner. Mysterious transformations also take place in this northern and supernatural world, as the prioress is transformed inexplicably in “The Monkey.” Along this gloomy northern shore, men are haunted by ghosts of history and their own past actions. The supernatural is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes, in Dinesen’s work, used as the symbol for the past of the character influencing his present. Morten De Coninck’s return to the sea, in “The Supper at Elsinore,” is at least as much a reaction against his sisters and his boyhood memories as it is a mysterious...
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