Isak Dinesen World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2164

In 1985, most young Americans had never heard of Dinesen, but then her longest and most famous work, Out of Africa , appeared on the silver screen, with Meryl Streep playing Isak and Robert Redford in the role of Denys Finch Hatton, her friend, lover, and artistic mentor. The screenplay...

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In 1985, most young Americans had never heard of Dinesen, but then her longest and most famous work, Out of Africa, appeared on the silver screen, with Meryl Streep playing Isak and Robert Redford in the role of Denys Finch Hatton, her friend, lover, and artistic mentor. The screenplay is actually an amalgam of various texts about Dinesen’s African experience. Drawing on biographies, letters, and other sources, the screenplay evokes the evolutionary process by which Dinesen became an artist and no longer a coffee plantation manager. In one memorable scene in the film, Isak responds to suggestions by Denys and his friend Berkeley Cole that she tell them a story. They provide the first line, and she invents, as she speaks, a complicated, magical tale.

That scene encapsulates the artistic method of Dinesen, who was a dreamer and inventor of fictions for her entire career. Even her remembrances of Africa are imbued with the sense of wonder and otherworldliness that characterize her fiction. There is an air of fantasy and fairy tale in everything that Dinesen wrote. She composed stories from the deep reservoirs of her imagination and her nightmares; she was never a strict realist or a journalist. Reality, for her, remained an internalized affair; how she remembered was always more important than what she remembered. It was the sense of a thing that counted most with her. In other days she may have been called a teller of tales, a carrier of legends and ancient wisdom. Dinesen called herself a storyteller, not a writer. Her job, she insisted, was “to create another sort of reality.”

Dinesen may be classified as a romantic writer in the sense that she favors powerfully emotional and exotic stories, often filled with inexplicable or irrational events. Her emphasis is always on a few closely analyzed characters, never on society as a whole. Her world is filled with strong, often uncontrollable, forces. Readers who are familiar with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with their moody atmospheres and eccentric characters, will encounter many of the same elements in the fables of Isak Dinesen.

“The Poet,” for example, is the strange tale that concludes Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. There is virtually no plot in the story. An old businessman befriends and encourages a young poet in a remote but beautiful Danish village where they both fall in love with a young widow, who is a former dancer. Although she is in love with the poet, the young woman agrees to marry the old man. In the final scene, the poet, drunk and desperate, shoots the old man. The woman finds the old man and smashes a rock over his head. In the final pages of the story, one of the most beautiful passages ever written by Dinesen, the old man relives all the beautiful moments of his life: poetry, the smell of grass, the beautiful light of the stars. The juxtaposition of unexpected violence and pure beauty makes a powerful and unforgettable impression on the reader. Like all of Dinesen’s best tales, “The Poet” represents a tragic but mystical view of life, in which the terrifying and the edifying tend to happen side by side. There is never any cheap irony or perfunctory reversals in Dinesen’s stories, as one may find in the short stories of O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant. Dinesen presents the reader with a universe that is whole, inscrutable, and thrilling.

Dinesen’s love of magic, mystery, and artistic creation owes much to the milieu of her upbringing. She was a member of the last genteel generation of Europeans whose cultural lives were formed before the outbreak of World War I. Dinesen was first and last an aesthete, a lover of beauty for beauty’s sake. She was well traveled and multilingual. She had also been trained as a painter; indeed, she saw the world in terms of tints and colorations rather than plots and causation. For all its apparent objectivity, Out of Africa is a brilliantly subjective work, communicating her elation and awe at the sight of people, animals, and places. In all her African writings one finds very few objective descriptions of these people and things, but there are many notations of her reactions to them.

A continuous thread runs through Dinesen’s works. Seven Gothic Tales, Out of Africa, and Winter’s Tales all emphasize exotic characters and the themes of art and violence. In Shadows on the Grass Dinesen returns to these themes and, as she did in Out of Africa, becomes a character in her own story about Africa.

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that Dinesen distorted the details of her experiences or that she invented fictional characters not reflective of her feelings. Isak Dinesen lived the life of an authentic artist, a life in which the real and the imagined could coexist. In this she found the substance of her art.

Out of Africa

First published: Den afrikanske Farm, 1937

Type of work: Memoir

A young woman goes to Africa, runs a coffee plantation, falls in love, and collects indelible memories.

Out of Africa partakes of history, autobiography, and pastoral romance. It is a highly personal account of a period in the author’s life (roughly 1913 to 1931). Unlike authors of many memoirs or autobiographies, Dinesen is largely uninterested in facts, figures, dates, historical background, or politics. World War I and the Great Depression occur within the time frame of this book, but there is little direct mention of them although Dinesen occasionally discusses their effect on people’s lives. Although she spent nearly twenty years in Africa and knew hundreds of people, only a dozen or so names emerge in the narrative. The narrative itself tends to be a rather casual affair, for Dinesen tends to tell her story in episodes, rather than in lengthy sequences. Some episodes clearly overlap, like the accidental shooting of an African child, the subsequent trial, and the appearance of Chief Kinanjui, a Kikuyu tribesman, whose death is described in some detail later. The exact sequence and linkage of these events remains unclear, or rather unimportant from Dinesen’s point of view.

What does matter to Dinesen is the large tapestry of events; in fact, she uses the word “tapestry” many times to describe the dappled colors of greenery and sunlight under the canopy of the African forest. In short, she sees this African interlude with the eyes of a painter; characters and events tend to be grouped into episodes or pictorial clusters. The reader goes from one cluster to another, in the manner of a tourist looking at a huge tapestry, inspecting one portion at a time.

One may simplify Out of Africa into three large clusters, the first being the coffee farm, its native inhabitants, and servants. In this cluster belong Farah, Dinesen’s overseer and general manager, the Danish jack-of-all-trades Old Knudsen, and the beautiful blue Ngong Hills that border her property. She omits most of the technical details about growing and harvesting coffee beans.

Another distinct cluster belongs to Lulu, the wild female bushbuck that Dinesen tamed. She devotes many pages to the habits and appearance of this lovely creature. Despite her nearness to two large game reserves, Dinesen does not generally describe other wild creatures, with the exception of giraffes and lions. The lions actually belong to the third cluster, which is presided over by Denys Finch Hatton and his friend Berkeley Cole (who dies shortly before Hatton’s plane crash). In the end, lions come to sleep over Hatton’s grave, providing one of the most moving and poignant passages in the book. This brings closure to this complex and unforgettable story, which, by itself, would have permanently established the reputation of Dinesen for readers worldwide.

Winter’s Tales

First published: Vinter-Eventyr, 1942

Type of work: Short stories

In these beautifully written tales, the reader encounters unpredictable characters.

Romantic in tone and setting, the stories of Winter’s Tales have reminded many readers of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the dark, brooding fables of Joseph Conrad. Each of these eleven tales features domineering characters who take control of their lives and who define themselves by reacting strongly to another character. Most of the tales are set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, in a glittering world of aristocrats, sea captains, officers, lords, and ladies. In “Sorg-Agre” (“Sorrow-Acre”) for example, an eighteenth century Danish nobleman tells a peasant woman that she can save her son from death only by harvesting an acre of rye in the course of one day, from sunup to sundown. The woman succeeds but dies in doing so, leaving the aristocrat—and the reader—to ponder the meaning of her death. The nobleman does not allow the field to be planted again, and erects a statue of the woman on the spot where she died, as if her death were, in fact, a kind of victory over the meanness of everyday living.

In “Heloíse” (“The Heroine”), an aristocratic Frenchwoman saves a group of tourists who are trapped in Germany at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Later, one of the young men who owes his life to her discovers that she has become a dance hall girl, although she remains as proud and heroic as when he first encountered her. The air of mystery and the sense of invisible forces operating on people’s lives play a major part in the overall effect of the tales. In “Fra det gamle Danmark” (“The Fish”) a medieval king eats a fish containing a woman’s ring with a strange blue stone. The ring belongs to the wife of a prominent courtier. In the end, the courtier murders the king who, it turns out, had been secretly wooing the woman. The fish is both a symbol and an instrument of his fate.

Stories that reflect the author’s preoccupation with destiny, especially the destiny of the artist, are “Det drømmende barn” (“The Dreaming Child”) and “Peter og Rosa” (“Peter and Rosa”). These stories contain artist figures as protagonists, and both of the protagonists die early deaths in a world that does not seem to be able to accommodate them. The dreaming child is an orphan who imagines he has aristocratic parents; when he is adopted by such parents, he makes them believe that they do belong to him. His sudden death leaves them utterly perplexed. In like manner, young Peter is so completely enamored of sailing that he convinces Rosa to go onto the ice floes in a recently thawed harbor. They are swept out to sea by an unseen and uncontrollable current.

Shadows on the Grass

First published: Skygger paa Grsset, 1960

Type of work: Memoir

In four short pieces, Dinesen writes the postscript to her earlier masterpiece, Out of Africa.

Shadows on the Grass is the last book Dinesen wrote, and it is the briefest and most factual, filled with dates, names, and references to other books and writers. She was dead within a year of its publication.

Shadows on the Grass serves as a coda or giant footnote to Out of Africa, filling the reader in on what happened to Dinesen’s servants and friends. The primary focus is on Farah, the Somali-born servant who acted as her chief of staff. He is depicted as fiercely arrogant and utterly loyal, and his death is one of the most moving and tragic moments in all of Dinesen’s writing. In fact, the film characterization of Farah depends more on this short text than on the book Out of Africa. Other characters who figure prominently include Kamante, who goes blind, old Juma, who dies, and Abdullahi, Farah’s son, who ultimately prospers. What strikes the informed reader of Dinesen’s work in reading these portraits is how similar they seem to the imaginary ones in Seven Gothic Tales and Winter’s Tales. Clearly, Dinesen idealized all who touched her deeply, transforming them in her imagination into the same kind of romantic, contradictory, and willful types that one encounters in her great tales.

Dinesen is unusually reflective and self-analytical in Shadows on the Grass, freely admitting that the African experiences changed her life and made her writing career possible. She also shows a new consciousness of how the Masai and Kikuyu experienced a painful culture shock after the introduction of Western technology and culture, all of which made them listless and turned their old lives into boredom. Her frustrations with these people, especially when they would not heed her medical advice, and her unconditional affection for them come through on nearly every page. In Shadows on the Grass there is less of an emphasis on the exotic landscape and its aesthetic delights and more of a premium placed on human values and spiritual appreciation. One senses that Dinesen anticipated her own death and that she wanted to acknowledge her huge debt of gratitude to all her deceased friends.

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