Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Deluge at Norderney” contains a wide variety of Isak Dinesen’s characteristic themes. Like the other stories in Seven Gothic Tales (1934), this tale deals with characters who create their worlds and their identities through telling stories. In this particular case, Dinesen places her characters in a setting that becomes quite literally a stage, a circle of light in the darkness. She positions the characters carefully and tracks their movements within the confined space as they take turns narrating.

The cardinal, in proposing the tale-telling, furthers the stagecraft by introducing the mask image. In revealing themselves, the characters will “let fall the mask.” As he quickly points out, however, masks may reveal more than they conceal; a clever woman at a masquerade, he says, will choose a mask that reveals some quality that her everyday life conceals. The stage is set for each character to be known by his or her mask.

In telling their stories, the characters show their understanding of the world and their place within it. Maersk shows the wit and nobility in his blood. Miss Malin, in narrating Calypso’s story, proves that she possesses even greater wit and imagination than the young man. The cardinal’s story is a revelation of his true identity and a statement of his understanding of the complexity of his role; he is Barabbas to the cardinal’s Christ.

The presentation of their masks brings the cardinal and Miss Malin to a state of self-realization that prepares them to meet the death that comes with the rising water. The two young people, whose stories show them to be appropriately aware of their identities, sleep peacefully in the loft and will die in innocence. By their masks the characters have come to know one another as the reader has come to know each of them. With this resolution, the story concludes.