Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because “The Deluge at Norderney” unfolds by means of stories told by the characters, each tale must form a building block within the frame of the whole story. Each of the tales within the tale serves as a device, a sort of extended dialogue, which advances the action of the story. The intensity of the tales increases progressively, leading finally to the revelation following the most fantastic tale, “The Wine of the Tetrarch.”

The beginning sentence of each tale follows a pause that heightens anticipation of the action to come. Then, with a flourish, the teller begins his tale with a statement that indicates a new development of the story’s themes. Maersk begins: “If you had happened to live in Copenhagen, . . . you would have heard of me, for there I was, at a time, much talked about.” His is a romantic tale full of barons, ladies, and poets. “Count Seraphina,” Miss Malin begins, “meditated much upon celestial matters.” What follows is a fabulously romantic tale containing a mad poet and a dim castle through which the innocent Calypso wanders. The cardinal’s tale is different in tone but evokes the greatest mystery of all. He begins: “As, then, upon the first Wednesday after Easter . . . the Apostle Simon, called Peter, was walking down the streets of Jerusalem, . . . deeply absorbed in the thought of the resurrection.” In his tale, the cardinal creates a parallel between the stolen and buried wine that Barabbas planned to dig up and drink and the mystical crucifixion and burial of Christ, on whose resurrection Peter meditates.

Each of the tales treats in an increasingly fantastic form the theme of self-knowledge and understanding. As the mysteries deepen, the depth and quality of the tale-teller’s understanding grow as well. Maersk realizes that aristocracy is a state of the spirit; Calypso has seen the relation of the physical and the spiritual in her womanhood; the cardinal has penetrated the mystery of the Holy Spirit, a truly great spirit moving among men in strange ways. Following the cardinal’s revelation, Dinesen takes her developed themes and weaves them together in the tale’s final pages to conclude her story of spiritual unmasking.