In general, structuralism is the theory that human culture, behavior, beliefs, etc. all operate according to an underlying structure. This structure is maintained by rules, codes, and meanings. There is a structure for how language works. There is a structure for how social classes are formed and sustained. There are rules for how marriage works. There are rules for fashion: tuxedos for weddings, sneakers for tennis, etc.
For example, tuxedos tie into an abstract or underlying chain of meanings. Tuxedos conjure ideas such as weddings, high society, money, proms, sophistication, award shows, elitism, and so on. Tuxedo gets its meaning not from the word "tuxedo" itself, but from its relations to other elements of human culture. This is a fundamental rule of structuralism (linguistic and anthropological): things and words get meanings from their relation to other things and words.
Consider an example. Anne is a lower class citizen, female, single, 50 years old, working in a factory. Based on assumptions derived from social structures, roles, biases, and traditions, we might form a series of assumptions (right or wrong) based upon what we know of her. Just as we traced a chain of signification with tuxedo, we can do the same with a person or a story like "The Blank Page." To go one level deeper, structuralism supposes that people (like Anne, our warehouse worker) are formed by these structural and cultural rules. Anne has free will but her life has been largely dictated by the social and linguistic structures she was born into.
Now for the story. The storyteller says to be faithful to the story. In the gallery, each princess's life is symbolized by a golden-framed piece of "purified" linen. This includes the princess's name, perhaps some zodiac symbols, and/or other symbols . . . "pictures from their own world of ideas: a rose, a heart, a sword—or even a heart pierced through with a sword." Each story is coded with signs and symbols. Each piece of linen symbolizes virginity and purity prior to marriage. Each sign-encoded frame describes the life following marriage. Thus, each item is imbued with religious, cultural, and historical codes and meanings. We can interpret each story based upon these codes and symbols. We use the structure of language and culture to do so (just as we did with tuxedos and Anne).
What makes the blank page/linen so interesting? It has none of these symbols. It transcends language. Maybe it is ineffable (too good for words). Maybe it refers to something so spiritual and divine that it is beyond human understanding. Given that the blank linen represents virginity, it is likely that the lack of symbols (and a name) serves to underscore that purity. No words and no name imply that the page is unmarked, untainted. A virgin is, likewise, unmarked. In addition to notions of purity, think about the idea of being unmarked. There is no signifier, no words. The blank page is pregnant (pun intended) with possibility. Since it is not limited to human linguistic and cultural codes, it is wide open to possibility. Those in the story who stop to ponder it may be in awe with its symbol of purity. But they might also be entranced by its possibilities. Combining the two, the author or storyteller might be suggesting that purity is similar to the notion of being beyond the structures of human understanding.
Background on Structuralism
To understand this story through a structuralist lens, it is important to delve into structuralism as a concept. The roots of this school can be found in the study of language and its unique cultural elements. In this sense, structuralist stories are about more than the characters and literal events that occur in them. Rather, they exist in a larger cultural context and express ideas through language itself. The structuralist point of view is that nearly all human experience is expressed through language, which takes on certain patterns or common underlying elements.
Structuralism in "The Blank Page"
A structuralist point of view is extremely helpful when dissecting the meaning of this rather unconventional story. Unlike most of Dinesen's work, "The Blank Page" lacks a traditional plot. Instead, the author chooses to tell a story that must be read between the lines, inferred in spaces where there are no words. This method of storytelling is highly compatible with a structuralist's point of view, since the story uses language to express complex ideas without addressing them directly.
"The Blank Page" truly begins when a young couple meets an elderly storyteller. This storyteller's craft has been passed down through her family for generations. She weaves an interesting tale about a Portuguese tradition in which the nation's princesses would give their bridal sheets to be displayed as proof of their virginity. A square from the sheet was then cut out and sent to the Sisters of Saint Carmel at the Convento Velho, where it would be framed and decorated for public display.
Structuralism further comes into play with the subtlety of themes and ideas expressed throughout the story. Although it is not directly stated, it is heavily implied that the blood on the squares was used as the proof of the princesses' virginity. There is a single sheet in the gallery that is solid white, and it serves as the unlikely focal point for the story and for the gallery itself. Just as "The Blank Page" communicates its most important themes in the blank space on a page, the gallery's most poignant offering is also a blank sheet. Throughout the story, whoever looks at the framed white sheet is left to draw his or her own spiritual revelations.
Structuralism prioritizes the structure of a story over its function, and this can be seen throughout "The Blank Page." If this story had been told through a traditional structure, the author's message would not have been as powerful. Strangely, it is through abstraction that the story gains its structure and provides an analysis of such issues as historical ideas of purity, morality, and virtue, as well as the restrictions these concepts can impose upon the individual.