Isak Dinesen World Literature Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2164 words.)