Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Isak Dinesen employs the device of the literary frame to craft a story that is about storytelling, even as she includes a physical frame in the story within a story. In the story that the old woman tells, the themes of purity and innocence as contrasted to sexual awakening, and knowledge seem central. In the way that the storyteller sets up her tale, however, she incorporates the idea of craft, thus establishing a parallel between the making of material objects—the sheet—and of intellectual endeavors—the story.

While the young couple listening is interested in the tale she tells, the teller herself is concerned with the quality of her performance both as author and as speaker. She stresses that she is a conveyance of a traditional story which she learned from another storyteller, thus establishing her place in a lineage, apparently a source of pride for her. Even as she downplays her own creativity, however, she toys with her audience, as they have no way to establish the truth of what she says; her goal was to gain their trust.

Both the story she tells and the one in which Dinesen situates it are exercises in ambiguity. The old woman leads the listeners to suspect that her story will be about the young royal couples, apparently offering an analogy to her audience. Instead, she veers away from the people who use the sheets to return to the sheet itself. The pure, unused white sheet is the most fascinating, even revered, object on display. Its most devoted viewer is a nun, ostensibly a woman without sexual experience. Why does the clean white sheet fascinate its viewers? What is its special hold on this nun? The multiple possible answers to this question suggest the equally numerous interpretations of the story. While the blank page is a challenge to the writer, it also offers the greatest opportunity, as it is the place to use the imagination—but always within constraints, like the frame around the sheet. Dinesen and the old storyteller both lob the hard work of imagination back into the audience's court.

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