Isak Dinesen reacted against the psychological and social realism of contemporary Danish literature and looked back to the Romantic storytellers for inspiration. Like them, she preferred the longer, drawn-out tale to the short story proper, and authorial narration, often with overtly present narrators, is a hallmark of her narratives. Her chosen form therefore often struck her contemporaries as old-fashioned. This was also the case with her thematic concerns, for her stories take place mostly in the century between 1770 and 1870 and express the ethos of a bygone age. She speaks in favor of such aristocratic values as duty, honor, and justice, but she also rejects the Christian dualistic worldview and questions the role of religion and the place of women in contemporary bourgeois society. Above all, however, the role of art in human life constitutes a central theme of her authorship. Through art, a unified vision is possible, and such a monistic perception of reality is, for Dinesen, a primary source of meaning in general and of comfort in difficult times.
“Aben” (“The Monkey”), a long story from Seven Gothic Tales, is a good example of Dinesen’s “gothic” or fantastic narratives that also exhibits many of her thematic concerns. Its setting is a noble milieu in northern Germany in the 1830’s; its theme is the nature of love. Boris, a young lieutenant in the Prussian Royal Guards, has become involved in a homosexual scandal in the capital and is seeking the aid of his maiden aunt, Cathinka, the Prioress of Cloister Seven, a convent for spinsters of noble blood. In order to escape dishonor and almost certain death, Boris has resolved to marry, thus hoping to lay to rest the rumors of his homosexual involvement with other members of his regiment. His aunt, who is well acquainted with the various noble families of the land, is being asked to select a suitable mate for him. The fantastic element of the story is found in the relationship between the Prioress and her little gray monkey, to which she has a mysterious bond and with which she, from time to time and in accordance with traditional Scandinavian folk belief in shape-shifting, exchanges her identity. The monkey is connected with the idea of love through the love goddess of an ancient Baltic people, the Wends. The goddess looks like a beautiful woman from the front and like a monkey from the back. Through this image, Dinesen argues against the Judeo-Christian distinction between the heteroerotic, which is acceptable to society, and the homoerotic, which is not. Speaking in favor of a monistic outlook on human sexuality, Dinesen, through the similarity between the Wendish love-goddess and the Janus face, problematizes the distinction between normal and abnormal sexuality. The text actually foregrounds the question of how it can be determined which side is the front and which is the back of the goddess, and the implied answer is that no such determination can be made on objective grounds.
There is, nevertheless, a recognition on Dinesen’s part that people have to live up to the expectations of their society if they are to get along in life. Boris has certain duties to his family, and, despite his sexual difference from the norm, he is obligated to repress his desires and to force himself to marry. The Prioress, who at this time and in a mysterious way is possessed by aspects of her monkey’s personality, chooses as his bride the only daughter of a neighbor, a tall and strong young woman named Athena, whom Boris has known since childhood. Her father welcomes Boris as a suitor and says that he would delight in seeing the young man’s features in the faces of his grandchildren. Athena rejects him, however, and states unequivocally that she will never marry; she will not, in other words, yield to her duty to her family. There is a strong implication in the text that Athena is as troubled by her gender role as Boris is by his.
Athena’s rejection infuriates the Prioress, who arranges a supper of seduction during which Athena gets drunk. As the girl goes to her room, the Prioress gives Boris an aphrodisiac to help him complete his conquest, and he struggles with Athena, who knocks out two of his teeth. Boris interprets this as a symbolic castration and feels that he has been freed from his obligation to have a normal conjugal relationship with her, should they get married. She has won his battle with traditional sexuality for him, and he therefore triumphantly kisses her with his bloody mouth. The significance of this perverted and ironic image of defloration is not lost on Athena, who, in horror and disgust, loses consciousness. Boris does not touch her further.
The next morning, Athena is told by the Prioress that she is now most likely pregnant and that her only hope of avoiding dishonor is to marry Boris. Together, they then watch as the Prioress, who all along has been in the grip of the personality of the monkey, reasserts her own true self through an intense struggle with the little animal. This astonishing event affects Athena deeply, and she resigns herself to marrying Boris, with the proviso, however, that she is to have dominion in their relationship. Athena’s and Boris’s union is thus marked by the back side of the love goddess in several ways. Erotically, they are misfits in that they both look on heterosexuality with revulsion. Psychologically and emotionally, their union is a result of a power struggle, touched by the fantastic, rather than a consequence of the usual process of falling in love. Morally, their marriage represents a surrender to the expectations of their families, but it is unlikely that they will do their real duty and have children. Socially, their marriage will also be out of the ordinary, because, in opposition to the patriarchal norm of their time and place, the wife will rule the roost with the consent of her husband. Dinesen thus problematizes one of the fundamental oppositions of human life, namely that between male and female, and offers a critique of both sex roles and Christian dualism.
“The Young Man with the Carnation”
While the stories in Seven Gothic Tales touch on the fantastic and frequently present challenges to the readers those of Winter’s Tales are more traditional, and therefore also more accessible, narratives. Written during the German occupation of Denmark, they are tales for difficult times, in which the possibility of reconciliation and restoration is held dear.
“Den unge mand med nelliken” (“The Young Man with the Carnation”), which introduces the English-language edition of the collection, is a powerful expression of Dinesen’s theory of art. Its protagonist, Charlie Despard, is a young English writer who, while born and reared in circumstances of great poverty, has transmuted the pain of his childhood experiences into his first novel, with which he has had tremendous success. Because of his newfound reputation as a writer, he has been able to marry a beautiful young woman from a family of means, and outwardly he has every reason to be happy, which indeed, for a time, he has been. As Dinesen indicates through his name, however, he is now in despair, for he has found that art has failed him. He has nothing more to say as a writer, while at the same time he feels that life holds no joys for him. His is not simply a bad case of writer’s block, though, but a case of someone who, because of his erstwhile happiness, has lost his ability to create. The story tells about how Charlie comes to terms with his situation and regains his creativity.
While traveling on the Continent, Charlie and his wife have been separated for a few days but have planned to meet at a hotel in Amsterdam. Charlie arrives last and goes to his wife’s room, where he finds her asleep with her door unlocked. Shortly after his arrival, someone else tries to open the door, and, when Charlie gets out of bed to investigate, he finds a young man who, wearing a carnation, is obviously on his way to a rendezvous. Charlie’s first reaction is envy, for he believes the young man to have found the happiness which he, himself, is lacking. He then experiences a shock at his wife’s infidelity, feels sorry for himself, writes her a brief note, and leaves in search of that happiness which he sensed in the face of the young man with the carnation.
During the next few hours, his mind is in turmoil, and he walks along the waterfront, contemplating his situation. He is then found by some sailors who believe him to be thinking of suicide and who therefore invite him to come with them to a tavern. The men spend the night telling one another stories, and Charlie’s tales indicate that he now suffers from no loss of creativity; the experience of the night has given him the pain which is needed by the artist. His regained creativity gives him the strength to face his wife, and he returns to the hotel only to find that he, the previous night, had entered the wrong room. Dinesen’s imagery shows that Charlie the fiction writer interprets his experience as a kind of resurrection, which is followed by a dialogue with...
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