Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Karen Blixen had been working on the stories that make up Seven Gothic Tales for ten years before she tried to get them published in English under the masculine name Isak Dinesen. After being turned down by three publishers, she sent the manuscript to American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who liked it so much that she urged a publisher friend of hers to publish it, even though no one really believed that it would make any money. When the book appeared in January of 1933, however, it was not only enthusiastically received by critics but also was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club and eagerly snapped up by readers.

The title of the collection is in some ways a misnomer, for there are many more tales here than seven; Dinesen, like the medieval and romantic storytellers from whom she draws her inspiration, often makes use of the insert tale; thus, her stories contain tales within tales within tales. Dinesen’s plots are often so complex that they are difficult to describe briefly, but since plot is so important in the gothic romance in general and in Dinesen’s stories in particular, a short summary of some of the stories is necessary to give some idea of their thematic implications.

The first story in the American edition of Seven Gothic Tales, “The Deluge at Norderney,” has been called one of Dinesen’s most characteristic tales because it contains so many of her typical themes and motifs. The story takes place in 1835 when a great storm strikes a summer resort on the coast of Denmark. A famous cardinal, Hamilcar von Sehestedt, is trapped in a farmhouse with three others awaiting...

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Seven Gothic Tales Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Isak Dinesen’s impact on women’s literature does not result from the themes or characters of her stories in Seven Gothic Tales, but from her position as a role model for the modern woman who is making it on her own. The image of strong individualism she communicates in Out of Africa (1937), in which she tells her own story of her life on the dark continent running her own coffee plantation and then later returning to Denmark to make an international reputation for herself as an author, has been the source of inspiration for many women.

Isak Dinesen is probably the most influential champion in the twentieth century of the primitive power of story. In one of her tales, a cardinal tells a penitent, “Stories have been told as long as speech has existed, and sans stories the human race would have perished, as it would have perished without water.” Because of the fantastic, romantic nature of her stories and the elegant, aristocratic stature of Dinesen herself, she has become almost an iconic image of the archetypal storyteller—a wise elfin creature, more than a little witchlike, who has the magical ability to create self-sustaining worlds that, even as they strike the reader with their strangeness, evoke some deep sense of recognition of the mysteries that lie at the heart of human existence.

Seven Gothic Tales Bibliography

(Essentials of European Literature)

Green, Howard. “Isak Dinesen.” In Isak Dinesen, Storyteller, edited by Aage Jorgensen. Århus, Denmark: Akademisk Boghandel, 1972. Argues that Dinesen’s stories create a world whose unfamiliar atmosphere appeals to the most primitive human need for story. Beneath the mask of timelessness, however, there is a modern combination of irony and deliberate obscurity.

Hannah, Donald. “Isak Dinesen” and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality. London: Putnam, 1971. Particularly valuable in charting the development of Dinesen’s aesthetic—especially her emphasis on the nature of story and her mask-like impersonality. The second half of the book focuses on the general characteristics of her stories and analyzes several of the most important.

Henriksen, Aage. “The Empty Space Between Art and Church.” In Out of Denmark, edited by Bodil Warmberg. Copenhagen: Danish Cultural Institute, 1985. Henriksen says that the underlying principle of Dinesen’s tales is the transformation of reality into a dream and that all of her stories are based on the complicated nature of human love.

Johannesson, Eric O. The World of Isak Dinesen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. An extended analysis of Dinesen’s art, focusing primarily on the pervasive theme of the art of storytelling. Johannesson...

(The entire section is 489 words.)