Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Isak Dinesen set her gothic tales in the past because, as she said, “Here, no temptation for me to fall back into realism, nor for my readers to look for it.” She explained that the word “gothic” in the title of the collection in which this tale appears refers to her affinity with the Romantic age of Lord Byron. The erotic heroes and demoniac daredevils of Romantic literature gave Dinesen her earliest notions of emotional freedom, the theme that is embodied in the three main characters.

Morten, although of an aristocratic family and hero to all Elsinore, abandons his fiancé and his place in society for the wandering life of a pirate. When he loses his heart to a ship, the essence of his heart’s desire, he seals his doom by stealing it. In this way, he lives out an unconventional, heroic morality that is based on the freedom to incur risk and take the consequences. The individual is free to fulfill his destiny, to become himself. Although this act eventually leads to his hanging, he has lived his dream. About to be hanged, he is not repentant but wishes only for another moment of life to think of La Belle Eliza.

Eliza has also lived out her Romantic destiny. Although she has remained an “old maid,” her beauty and grace are realized by her namesake, La Belle Eliza. When she thinks about the ship, imagining it with its full white sails billowing, “She looked once more like a girl, and the white streamers of her cap were no longer the finery of an old lady, but the attire of a chaste, flaming bride.”

Although Fanny seems to be the only one unfulfilled at the end of the story, she has nevertheless kept the faith by refusing to tread the path of mediocrity. When Morten must finally return to Hell, she begs him to take her with him. He cannot, but there is a strong suggestion that she will soon join him in the nether world, which is her own Romantic destiny.