The Deluge at Norderney

by Isak Dinesen
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

The storyteller, looking back from the twentieth century, sets her tale before the backdrop of Romantically influenced early nineteenth century European culture. Fashionable society, in search of desolate scenery, moved its resorts to such areas as the wild seacoast of what was then a part of Denmark. In late summer of 1835, a terrible storm churned the sea, causing it to rise and break the dikes. Disastrous flooding ensued.

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Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehestedt had been living for the summer in a small cottage near the bath at Norderney; there he was collecting his writings into a book on the Holy Ghost. Of an old and distinguished family, the cardinal was famous throughout Europe for his insight and compassion. He had traveled throughout the world and wielded great influence over all he met; he was credited with the power to work miracles. His only companion in the cottage that summer was Kasparson, his valet or secretary, a former actor who had known various adventures and who spoke several languages and read widely.

During the flood, the cardinal’s cottage was destroyed. Kasparson was killed; the cardinal was wounded and wore a bloody bandage around his head during his rescue work. Despite his wound, the cardinal labored steadily all through the day of the flood to rescue survivors. Late in the day, he traveled to the bath to retrieve a group of visitors for whom there had been no room in the earlier boat. As the party returned with him to safety, they passed a castaway farm family unable to escape the rising water; because the boat would not hold the additional load, the group was forced to decide who would remain behind to wait for a returning rescue barge. The cardinal, affirming his safety in God’s hands, announced that he would stay. Not to be outdone, the eccentric Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag determined to stay also; her companion, Countess Calypso von Platen Hallermund, would not leave without her. Young Jonathan Maersk roused himself to action and agreed to stay with them. The four survivors found refuge in the hayloft of a flooded farmhouse and settled in to wait for rescue or death.

The storyteller has set the stage, and the drama begins. Once closed inside the loft, the four establish the terms of their coexistence. The cardinal asks Miss Malin to act as hostess and treat the loft as her salon. The company dines on bread; the two older people drink from a keg of gin.

At this point, the storyteller offers an account of Miss Malin’s life. She is and has long been a somewhat fanatic virgin. Earlier in life, she selected a prince to marry, but when he died before their wedding, she renounced the idea of marriage. At the age of fifty she came into a large fortune and then passed into a kind of madness, a condition in which she remains.

Following this narrative interlude, the action in the loft resumes as the cardinal proposes that each of those present reveal himself to the company by telling his story. Maersk goes first, calling his tale “The Story of Timon of Assens.” His story concerns his learning that he is the illegitimate son of a nobleman. On learning of his birth, he became, unwittingly, a man of fashion; everything he did became further proof of his noble breeding.

As he concludes his tale, Miss Malin realizes that she must have him as a husband for Calypso. In pursuit of this end, she recounts the girl’s story in a fantastic style more full of glamour and strangeness than Maersk’s tale. Calypso was reared by her misogynistic uncle, the poet Count Seraphina. She decided to unsex herself in order to fit into the count’s environment, but at the moment she prepared to do so, she came to her senses and escaped to the protection of her godmother, Miss Malin.

At the conclusion of her tale, Miss Malin has the cardinal marry Calypso and Maersk with a ritual suited to what will be a purely spiritual union. In their present state in the loft, a state that may end only in death, they have no need of procreation.

Following the ceremony, Miss Malin and the cardinal discuss matters theological and political. Miss Malin asks the cardinal if he believes in the fall of humankind; he answers that he believes instead that humankind serves a fallen divinity. Then, to illustrate that there exists something worse than eternal damnation, he offers to contribute to the evening’s entertainment by telling a story that he calls “The Wine of the Tetrarch.” The story recounts an encounter between the apostle Peter and a troubled stranger on the first Wednesday after Easter. The stranger, after identifying Peter as one of Jesus’s disciples, tells the apostle a curious story of his recent participation in the theft of some valuable wine. Caught in the course of his crime, he was arrested, but now he is free. All wine now tastes bitter to him. He reveals himself to be Barabbas and claims that his name will be remembered.

After concluding his tale in the early hours before dawn, the cardinal reveals himself to be Kasparson; he struck and killed the cardinal early the previous morning. His revelation seems to negate the value of all he has said before, but Kasparson reestablishes himself as a figure of dignity, a creator of a great role; he has become the cardinal and appropriated a part of his spirit. Miss Malin sees in him a kindred soul and enters into a sort of “marriage” with him. She offers her lips to him; he kisses her. She lifts the hem of her dress and finds that the water has risen in the loft. They will not be rescued.

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