Masterplots: Revised Category Edition Seven Gothic Tales Analysis
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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Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series Seven Gothic Tales Analysis
The word “gothic” in the title does not refer primarily to the medieval gothic tradition, but to its Romantic revival in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, specifically identified in the imagination of Isak Dinesen with Horace Walpole, the author of the gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, and Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet. Seeing this period as the “last great phase of aristocratic culture,” Dinesen has said that she set her tales in the past because it was a finished world, a world that she could easily recompound in her own imagination and one in which her readers would not be tempted to look for realism. As is typical of the gothic romance form, the characters in these stories are less realistic individuals than they are representatives of basic human desires and fears.
Indeed, it is the romance form of Dinesen’s stories that has always drawn readers to them, not the romance associated with the cheap gothic thriller of the romantic melodrama, but the romance of the nineteenth century decadence of Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Dinesen has often been compared with Scheherazade, the mother of all storytellers in The Arabian Nights, because of her fantastic plots and inset stories; but she has also been compared to Henry James for her psychological insight and her careful use of language.
Isak Dinesen is not a feminist writer in any contemporary sense of the word, for the women in her stories are not individuals coping with isolation and attempting integration into a social world that has excluded...
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Seven Gothic Tales
The elegantly written narratives, each independent of the others, treat stages of 19th century aristocratic life in Europe. Their adventures frequently transcend the ordinary, for theirs is a Gothic world in which the unreal often appears more substantial than reality itself.
“THE DELUGE AT NORDERNEY,” the opening tale, recounts how four people, each one eccentric, spend a night in a flood-surrounded barn and pass the time by revealing their secrets. In “THE OLD CHEVALIER,” an aging baron recalls a youthful and disastrous encounter with a prostitute in Paris. “THE MONKEY” takes up an arranged courtship between an unmatched couple whose meeting brings about a catastrophe.
When a Danish count in “THE ROADS AROUND PISA” sets out to search for an Italian noblewoman’s runaway granddaughter, he meets some peculiar travelers at an inn and becomes involved in a proposed duel. “THE SUPPER AT ELSINORE” tells of a mysterious reunion between a long lost brother and his two spinster sisters.
“THE DREAMERS” is a story about three men passionately in love with elusive women, who turn out to be one woman given to disguises. “THE POET” reveals how a young genius’ rejection of his mentor leads to disaster. The tales employ a narrative style reminiscent of an earlier time, an approach which allows them to be openly instructive while they entertain.
Their Gothic qualities, which embrace darkness and grotesqueness, permit them to strip away the murky side of humankind--its undefined desires, inexplicable passions, love mixed with hate, and sexual repression. Layered with meaning that goes far beyond their outward air of adventure and mystery, the tales try always to unravel the more important mystery of human nature.
They depict, as well, the end of an age. The decadent aristocrats of these tales stand doomed as their world crumbles, feudalism giving way to democracy, aristocracy to equality. Yet the characters...
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