Introduction

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117

Isak Dinesen (1885 - 1962)

(Born Karen Christentze Dinesen; also known by her married name Karen Blixen; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel) Danish short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, playwright, and translator.

Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel ...

(The entire section contains 17087 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Isak Dinesen study guide. You'll get access to all of the Isak Dinesen content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Isak Dinesen (1885 - 1962)

(Born Karen Christentze Dinesen; also known by her married name Karen Blixen; also wrote under the pseudonyms Tania Blixen, Osceola, and Pierre Andrézel) Danish short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, playwright, and translator.

Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Out of Africa (1937; Den afrikanske farm). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen explored such themes as the lives and values of aristocrats, the nature of fate and destiny, God and the supernatural, the artist, and the place of women in society. Her works defy easy categorization, though she incorporated elements of Gothic and horror as well as humor in her stories. Hailed as a proto-feminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterful storyteller. Ernest Hemingway remarked that the Nobel Prize for Literature he received in 1954 should have been awarded to her.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Born in Rungsted, Denmark, Dinesen was the daughter of an army officer who was a friend of Hans Christian Andersen and who wrote a book about his experiences as a fur trapper among the Indians of the northern United States. Dinesen studied English at Oxford University and painting at the Royal Academies in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. Following her marriage to her cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke in 1914, Dinesen moved to East Africa as the owner and manager of a coffee plantation near present-day Nairobi, Kenya. Following the death of her lover Denys Finch-Hatton and the eventual sale of her farm in 1931—events that are dramatized in Out of Africa—Dinesen returned to Denmark, where she completed her first book, Seven Gothic Tales. Subsequent works included several more short story collections and numerous essays and novels in both Danish and English. Although she suffered from chronic spinal syphilis, emaciation, and the physical frailty attendant to these conditions, Dinesen continued to lecture and give interviews in her final years. She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960 and died in Rungsted in 1962.

MAJOR WORKS

Seven Gothic Tales is a collection of short stories written in a romantic style, employing fantasy to explore aristocratic sensibilities and values. In "The Deluge at Norderney," a Cardinal directs his high-born companions to give up their places on a boat to save peasants during a flood. "The Dreamers," one of Dinesen's most traditionally Gothic stories, tells of a mysterious, beautiful singer who lost her voice due to an accident. Devastated by her loss, she travels through Europe, constantly changing her identity and taking on a series of lovers. Out of Africa presents Dinesen's experiences as a British coffee plantation owner in East Africa, documenting her relationship with the Africans who lived and worked on and around her plantation, her divorce from Baron Blixen, her affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, and the failure of her coffee enterprise. The short stories in Winter's Tales (1942), with their simpler narrative style and attention to landscape, history, and life of Denmark, solidified Dinesen's standing in the Danish literary community. "Sorrow-Acre" is based on a medieval Danish folktale and is set in eighteenth-century Denmark. The story examines the inevitable social consequences of the master-servant relationship: how aristocratic values and traditions govern the attitudes and actions of a landlord toward a thieving serf and his mother. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Dinesen wrote The Angelic Avengers (1946), a mystery-thriller about two orphaned girls. The manuscript was smuggled out of Denmark and published under the pseudonym Pierre Andrézel. Dinesen continually denied authorship of the book, however, because she was unsatisfied with its literary quality. Last Tales (1957) is a collection of short stories divided into three sections—New Gothic Tales, New Winter's Tales, and Tales from Albondocani. These works represent a return to her earlier literary style, themes, and characters. In "Echoes," for instance, Pellegrina Leoni, who first appears in Seven Gothic Tales, is an ex-opera star, devastated by the loss of her voice. Consequently, a disgruntled Pellegrina uses elaborate disguises to ensure her anonymity. She remarks that when it comes to fate and life, God can be both a charlatan and "jokester" with his human creations. Skygger paa Græsset (1960; Shadows on the Grass) recalls Dinesen's African experiences. In this nonfiction work she focuses on the lives of several of the African servants and friends about whom she first wrote in Out of Africa. The novel Ehrengard (1963) was published posthumously and was Dinesen's last work. Its themes include the notion of the artist as creator and interpreter of life. The story follows the artist Cazotte's lust for Ehrengard, while she sits for a portrait. Cazotte's objective is to humiliate her and in the process diabolically usurp God's role as the defining artist of creation and master of life. Among Dinesen's other posthumously published works are Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (1977); Breve fra Afrika 1914–31 (1978; Letters from Africa: 1914–1931), which contains her correspondence with family and friends during her years in Africa; and Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (1979), containing the well-known "Bonfire Speech," which presents her thoughts on many feminist issues.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Dinesen's writings have been widely praised and enthusiastically received. Seven Gothic Tales, her first collection, was released in the United States during the Great Depression, and audiences gravitated to Dinesen's mysterious, exotic, fantastical stories as a pleasurable escape from the dreariness of everyday life. In addition to noting her vivid imagination, critics have applauded her prose style, her facility with complicated plots and characters, and her natural gift for storytelling. While many scholars have claimed that her picture of Africa in Out of Africa is romanticized, they note that the story is engaging, well-structured, and presents a detailed picture of life among British expatriates in Africa. Several commentators have noted similarities between Dinesen's views on identity, spirituality, and meaning and those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; others have detected the influence of Aldous Huxley and Sigmund Freud on the development of Dinesen's themes and characters, particularly in such works as "Carnival."

Critics have noted that a number of Dinesen's stories reflect her admiration of the Gothic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dinesen borrowed several elements of the Gothic tradition, writing fanciful tales of mysterious, suspenseful, supernatural happenings. Writing a century after the height of Gothic literature's popularity, she also modified Gothic conventions, informing her stories with a more liberal moral code than the earlier works. Critics have also noted a feminist sensibility in Dinesen's tales that was not evident in Gothic works of preceding centuries. Another difference between traditional Gothic literature and the works of Dinesen is the earlier authors' intent to frighten readers; Susan C. Brantly pointed out that "the supernatural for Dinesen simply represents freedom of the imagination."

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 97

Seven Gothic Tales (short stories) 1934
Sanhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (play) 1936
Out of Africa [Den afrikanske farm] (autobiography) 1937
Winter's Tales (short stories) 1942
Farah (novel) 1950
En Baaltale med 14 Aars Forsinkelse [Bonfire Speech Fourteen Years Delayed] (essay) 1953
Last Tales [Sidste Fortaellinger] (short stories) 1957
Anecdotes of Destiny [Skaebne-Anekdoter] (short stories) 1958
Skygger paa Græsset [Shadows on the Grass] (autobiography) 1960
Osceola (short stories and poetry) 1962
Ehrengard (novel) 1963
Essays (essays) 1965; enlarged edition published as Mit livs mottoer og andre essays, 1978
Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales (short stories) 1977
Breve fra Afrika 1914–31 [Letters from Africa: 1914–1931] (letters) 1978
Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (essays) 1979
Samlede (essays) 1985

Primary Sources

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

SOURCE: Dinesen, Isak. “The Monkey.” In Seven Gothic Tales, pp. 109-63. New York: Modern Library, 1934.

The following excerpt comprises the first section of one of the most popular of Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales.

I

In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature. They are retreats for unmarried ladies and widows of noble birth who here pass the autumn and winter days of their lives in a dignified and comfortable routine, according to the traditions of the houses. Many of these institutions are extremely wealthy, own great stretches of land, and have had, during the centuries, inheritances and legacies bequested to them. A proud and kindly spirit of past feudal times seems to dwell in the stately buildings and to guide the existence of the communities.

The Virgin Prioress of Closter Seven, under whose hands the convent prospered from the year 1818 to that of 1845, had a little gray monkey which had been given her by her cousin, Admiral von Schreckenstein, on his return from Zanzibar, and of which she was very fond. When she was at her card table, a place where she spent some of her happiest hours, the monkey was wont to sit on the back of her chair, and to follow with its glittering eyes the course of the cards as they were dealt out and taken in. At other times it would be found, in the early mornings, on top of the step-ladder in the library, pulling out brittle folios a hundred years old, and scattering over the black-and-white marble floor browned leaves dealing with strategy, princely marriage contracts, and witches’ trials.

In a different society the monkey might not have been popular. But the convent of Closter Seven held, coördinately with its estimable female population, a whole world of pets of all sorts, and was well aware of the order of precedence therein. There were here parrots and cockatoos, small dogs, graceful cats from all parts of the world, a white Angora goat, like that of Esmeralda, and a purple-eyed young fallow deer. There was even a tortoise which was supposed to be more than a hundred years old. The old ladies therefore showed a forbearance with the whims of the Prioress’s favorite, much like that which courtiers of a petticoat-governed court of the old days, conscious of their own frailty, might have shown toward the caprices of a royal maîtresse-en-titre.

From time to time, particularly in the autumn, when nuts were ripening in the hedges along the roads and in the large forests that surrounded the convent, it happened that the Prioress’s monkey would feel the call of a freer life and would disappear for a few weeks or a month, to come back of its own accord when the night frosts set in. The children of the villages belonging to Closter Seven would then come upon it running across the road or sitting in a tree, from where it watched them attentively. But when they gathered around it and started to bombard it with chestnuts from their pockets, it would roll its eyes and grind its teeth at them, and finish by swiftly mounting the branches to disappear in the crowns of the forest.

It was the general opinion, or a standing joke amongst the ladies of the convent, that the Prior-ess, during these periods, would become silent and the victim of a particular restlessness, and would seem loth to act in the affairs of the house, in which at ordinary times she showed great vigor. Amongst themselves they called the monkey her Geheimrat, and they rejoiced when it was to be seen again in her drawing-room, a little chilled after its stay in the woods.

Upon a fine October day, when the monkey had in this way been missing for some weeks, the Prioress’s young nephew and godson, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Guards, arrived unexpectedly at the convent.

The Prioress was held in high respect by all her relations, and had in her time presented at the font many babies of her own noble blood, but this young man was her favorite amongst them. He was a graceful boy of twenty-two, with dark hair and blue eyes. Although he was a younger son, he was fortunately situated in life. He was the preferred child of his mother, who had come from Russia and had been an heiress; he had made a fine career. He had friends, not everywhere in the world, but everywhere in that world, that is of any significance.

On his arrival at the convent he did not, however, look like a young man under a lucky star. He came, as already said, in headlong hurry and unannounced, and the ladies with whom he exchanged a few words while waiting for admission to his aunt, and who were all fond of him, noticed that he was pale and looked deadly tired, as if under some great agitation of mind.

They were not unaware, either, that he might have reason to be so. Although Closter Seven was a small world of its own, and moved in a particular atmosphere of peace and immutability, news of the greater world outside reached it with surprising quickness, for each of the ladies had her own watchful and zealous correspondents there. Thus these cloistered women knew, just as well as the people in the center of things, that during the last month clouds of strange and sinister nature had been gathering over the heads of that very regiment and circle of friends to which the boy belonged. A sanctimonious clique of the capital, led by the Court-Chaplain, of all people, who had the ear of high personages, had, under pretense of moral indignation, lifted their voices against these young flowers of the land, and nobody knew for certain, or could even imagine, what might come out of that.

The ladies had not discussed these happenings much amongst themselves, but the librarian of the convent, who was a theologian and a scholar, had been dragged away into more than one tête-à-tête, and encouraged to give his opinion on the problem. From him they had learnt to connect it somehow with those romantic and sacred shores of ancient Greece which they had till now held in high esteem. Remembering their young days, when everything Greek had been le dernier cri, and frocks and coiffures had been named à la grecque, they wondered—Could the expression be used also to designate anything so little related to their young ladies’ dreams of refinement? They had loved those frocks, they had waltzed with princes in them; now they thought of them with uneasiness.

Few things could have stirred their natures more deeply. It was not only the impudence of the heroes of the pulpit and the quill attacking warriors which revolted the old daughters of a fighting race, or the presentiment of trouble and much woe that worried them, but something in the matter which went deeper than that. To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman’s loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good. To hear it disputed now meant to them what it would mean to a miser to be told that gold no longer had absolute value, or to a mystic to have it asserted that the Lord was not present in the Eucharist. Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different. To a few proud old maids, who had the strategic instincts of their breed developed to the full, these new conceptions came very hard. So might have come, to a gallant and faithful old general who through a long campaign, in loyalty to higher orders, had stood strictly upon the defensive, the information that an offensive would have been the right, and approved, move.

Still in the midst of their inquietude every one of the old women would have liked to have heard more of this strange heresy, as if, after all, the tender and dangerous emotions of the human heart were, even within their own safe reclusion, by right their domain. It was as if the tall bouquets of dried flowers in front of the convents’ pier glasses had stirred and claimed authority when a question of floriculture was being raised.

They gave the pale boy an unsure welcome, as if he might have been either one of Herod’s child martyrs, or a young priest of black magic, still within hope of conversion, and when he walked up the broad stair which led to the Prioress’s rooms, they evaded one another’s eyes.

The Prioress received her nephew within her lofty parlor. Its three tall windows looked out, between heavy curtains which had on them borders of flower garlands done in cross-stitch, over the lawns and avenues of the autumnal garden. From the damask-clad walls her long-departed father and mother gazed down, out of broad gilt frames, with military gravity and youthful grace, powdered and laced for some great court occasion. Those two had been the young man’s friends since he was a baby, yet today he was struck and surprised by a puzzled, even a worried, look upon their faces. It seemed to him also, for a moment, that there was a certain strange and disquieting smell in the room, mixed with that of the incense sticks, which were being burned more amply than usual. Was this, he thought, a new aspect of the catastrophal tendencies of his existence?

The boy, while taking in the whole well-known and harmonious atmosphere, did not want or dare to waste time. After he had kissed his aunt’s hand, inquired after her health and the monkey and given her the news of his own people in town, he came straight to the matter which had brought him to Closter Seven.

“Aunt Cathinka,” he said, “I have come to you because you have always been so good to me. I should like”—here he swallowed to keep his rebellious heart in place, knowing how little indeed it would like it—“to marry, and I hope that you will give me your advice and help.”

Title Commentary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13760

SIBYL JAMES (ESSAY DATE 1983)

SOURCE: James, Sibyl. "Gothic Transformations: Isak Dinesen and the Gothic." In The Female Gothic, edited by Julian E. Fleenor, pp. 138-52. Montreal, Quebec: Eden Press, 1983.

In the following essay, James studies Dinesen's unique approach to writing in the Gothic tradition.

In Women Artists, Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson suggest that in their struggle to work as artists women have sometimes adopted an off-the-mainstream style which keeps them out of competition with the men in their field. Petersen and Wilson point to Marie Laurencin's choice of painting style as an example of this tactic, and note the reaction to women artists who opt for such a solution:

One wonders if she would have painted in a quite so determinedly pastel and "feminine" style if she had not felt pushed into it by the need to differentiate herself from such strong influences as Pablo Picasso and Braque. She made a place for herself by her very separateness and received that approval that seems to come to those women who do not try to compete with male artists on their own ground.1

Isak Dinesen, entering the literary scene with a book called Seven Gothic Tales, may at first glance appear to have opted for a minor and even out-moded genre by choosing, in the midst of the twentieth century, to write tales that draw on the Gothic tradition. Indeed, Dinesen did not believe in competition between women and men, feeling that the sexes should be equal but different. However, there was no element of evasion in her decision to work in a minor fictional form. There was nothing humble or self-effacing about either her choice or her handling of this genre; there was, in fact, as Howard Green notes, a quality of arrogant confidence:

Now to take such a musty and flyblown genre, to transform it into an elegant embodiment of her own philosophical convictions, and to make of it a popular success as well as a succès d'estime—that was literary daring of a high order. And there was arrogance to match it both in the substance of those convictions, so antagonistic to our own, and in the way she inveigled us into swallowing them under the guise of innocent entertainment.2

Dinesen's treatment of the Gothic is, like her treatment of everything in her tales, particularly Dinesenian, treading a twisty line, reaching back to transform certain aspects of the past that she considers valuable into modes operable in the present. Among those philosophic convictions of which Green speaks is a particular insistence on an aristocratic, artistic, and most importantly, imaginative understanding of one's self and the world. The Gothic provided her with a useful tool in the illustration of this belief:

"When I used the word 'Gothic,'" she told The Atlantic Monthly editor Curtis Cate, "I didn't mean the real Gothic, but the imitation of the Gothic, the Romantic age of Byron, the age of that man—what was his name?—who built Strawberry Hill, the age of the Gothic revival."3

That imitation, of course, is what we generally think of as the Gothic. It was particularly suited to Dinesen's purposes since part of the original impetus behind the earlier Gothic revival was the need for an outlet for the imagination in an age of reason, and an allied interest in the oriental tale and stories of imaginary voyages, to which the popularity of the Arabian Nights, first translated into English in the early eighteenth century, testified.4 For Dinesen the imagination is all important, not just as an aesthetic dictum, but as a philosophical tenet and psychological necessity—indeed, as a moral/spiritual guide. She was seen as, and saw herself as, a modern Scheherezade; like Scheherezade, the magic of her tales deters the listeners from action until they have understood, through the tales, the larger pattern of the universe and can act within it wisely. Dinesen described herself thus:

I belong to an ancient, idle, wild and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and parts of the world, has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hard-working honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which in some way or another, has satisfied them. I am a storyteller.5

In part, her work was directed at satisfying the need for magic which she felt "the little man, the simple man" [sic] experienced in the same way as the natives on her African farm "who could never get enough of her telling of fanciful tales."6 Ultimately, it was the world's need for magic which she addressed. Her tales were meant not only to fulfill a yen for the fantastical, but to affect the reader's understanding of reality itself.

Dinesen had turned to writing to put her own life in perspective, to explain her personal tragedies to herself.7 What that writing most often dealt with was the understanding of life by means of the imagination. As Robert Langbaum puts it:

The point is that you don't get at the truth about the world or yourself by going straight to it. You get at it by seeming to move away to an esthetic distance. You get at it through artifice and tradition—by assimilating your particular event to a recurring pattern, your particular self to an archetype.

                                   (p. 20)

Dinesen advocated imaginative truth over the sort of plain truth that, as one of her characters says, tailors and shoemakers need. This was not meant as an escape from reality, but as something to be kept in a proper relation with reality. That is, we are not to get lost in dreams, not to live only in the imaginative world or try to play the artist in life with too heavy a hand (in which case, because our imaginations are not great enough, things will always get out of control). Instead, the imagination serves as a way into the reality of things, a reality we can grasp only through an imaginative apprehension. At its extreme, says Donald Hannah, the imagination functions in Dinesen's work as a kind of aesthetic equivalent for an abandoned Christian tradition. Dinesen, he maintains, believes that Job's questioning of God's purpose stems from a failure of imagination. The kind of answer Job gets from God demands an imaginative response, and it is only by this that we can "comprehend the design, understand the purpose of our existence—and be reconciled to our lot."8

Given Dinesen's attitude toward the imagination, it is not surprising to find that she replaces the Gothic emphasis on moral sentiment—that which enables us to "distinguish right from wrong" and propels us "toward a realization of the good, the beautiful, and the true"9—with an emphasis on the imagination which works for her as a kind of moral sentiment. She also replaces the direct authorial Gothic preachiness, the selfimportant solemnity that we find, for example, in Radcliffe's passages on St. Aubert's efforts to train Emily in the proper brand and degree of sensibility. Instead, Dinesen makes a more indirect presentation of her message through in-set tales; through a more symbolic use of events; and, in most typically Dinesenian fashion, through witty conversation. This last method relates to her speaking of the Gothic she drew on as imitation or artificial Gothic. The very modernness of her treatment lies to a great extent in just this awareness of the artificiality of the Gothic trappings, in a self-consciousness that is part of the wit yet does not mock or parody the Gothic. Within, Dinesen often "creates an intensity … sets the story in the atmosphere of the imagination where life can be explored in depth."10 Her use of wit operates like her use of the fantastic tale, the Arabian Nights, a form which Glenway Wescott refers to as "so primitive a type of fiction—intended to amuse, to amaze, and to allure the imagination"—much like the Gothic itself. He suggests she found support for her approach in certain tenets of the ancients: "Aristotle said: 'Impossibilities are justified if they serve the purpose of the poetry.' Longinus said: 'The effect of genius is not to persuade or to convince but rather to transport the audience out of its usual frame of mind.'"11 Dinesen translates Longinus' concept of the sublime into the powers of wit, the fantastic and the imaginative that take us out of more ordinary states of mind.

These same considerations extend to her treatment of the supernatural—the scare element of the Gothic: "In Gothic writings fantasy predominates over reality, the strange over the commonplace, and the supernatural over the natural, with one definite auctorial intent: to scare."12 This intent certainly was and is a primary factor in the general appeal of the Gothic. However, the thrill of being frightened is not enough to account for our constant interest in this genre. Gothic writers also had serious purposes, as Ellen Moers points out in her discussion of female Gothic writers, indicating the relevance of their work to so much of women's situation.13 Rather than scariness itself, it is the satisfaction of the need for imagination and the component of psychological reality (on which the best of the Gothic writers such as Radcliffe based their scariness) which accounts for the continuing power and popularity of the form. Lionel Stevenson describes the process:

In departing from realism Mrs. Radcliffe stumbled upon the whole realm of the unconscious. The standard situations in her stories are those which recur in everyone's nightmares…. [S]he had the knack of stimulating the reader's own dreammaking function, which then took over and supplied the private horrors of each individual imagination.14

Radcliffe, says Andrew Wright, supplied us with a means by which every one of her mysteries was "ultimately explicable as natural rather than supernatural phenomena"15 and gave us, if not an explanation, at least a basis in psychological reality.

Dinesen's tales are fantastical, but never scary. She had a poor opinion of Poe's tales: "'He scares you but that's all.'"16 Like Radcliffe, the supernaturalism in her tales is grounded in psychological reality; but unlike Radcliffe, she is not concerned with providing rational explanations in natural terms. The supernatural elements are viewed almost matter-of-factly, with a willing suspension of belief or with that extraordinary state of mind which the imaginative tale creates for us. Robert Langbaum notes that in some of her tales:

… the supernatural situation is so embedded in a symbolic framework as to leave little of the unrationalized aura that gives the effect of weirdness…. Her stories are fantastic in the way wit is—in the jubilant freedom with which possibilities are stretched and ideas combined.

                                   (p. 89)

Dinesen moves beyond the psychological into explanations founded on symbolic and mythic reality. Her tales teach us wisdom through an imaginative apprehension. The Gothic supplies the imaginative landscape, atmosphere, and episodes. The form also gives her the necessary distance to lead us into a state of mind in which we can make that imaginative realization. Her use of the Gothic is like her use of so many other older values and myth systems, bringing out what is important in them while transforming them into a mode workable in the twentieth century. She does not suggest, says Langbaum, that we return to these old values, but that we find modern equivalents for them. We can do this as she does, by creating new values and myths, by returning to an even earlier time in which they were manifest in a better spirit, or by translating them, arriving at "traditional values only through the most strikingly modern transvaluations."17

Dinesen's most traditionally Gothic story in terms of its characterizations and psychological atmosphere is The Angelic Avengers. However, this novel is not typical, either of her work or of her general handling of the Gothic, and must be regarded as she herself categorized it, an illegitimate child, published under another pseudonym. More typical of her work and, in that category, the most Gothic of her tales, is "The Monkey" which appeared in her first volume, Seven Gothic Tales. "The Monkey" is filled with Gothic elements: a convent, a ruined castle, an interminable lawsuit, a magic potion, strange forebodings, the good and tyrannical parents, seduction threats, monsters, and of course, heroines and villains. But most of these acquire special twists. The convent is a secular retreat "for unmarried ladies and widows of noble birth who here pass the autumn and winter days of their lives in a dignified and comfortable routine…."18 Although it is secluded from the world, the place is far from otherworldly; the women may be out of the game, but they are extremely interested in its goings on. The lawsuit has a happy outcome, but this plays no real part in the events of the plot and functions primarily in a psychological sense, illustrating in the Count's manner of accepting his good fortune one aspect of behaving in a properly aristocratic spirit.

The ruined castle is not frightening in a properly Gothic sense; it is a place of love, spiritual aristocracy, and a certain freedom. Langbaum places it in the realm of the pastoral: "… [it] is removed from time, and thus contrasts with that other retreat, Cloister Seven, which by its very pretension to be a convent, shows its worldliness and involvement in time."19 Its chaos contrasts with the convent's routine and duty. Unlike the closeness to nature and animals that life at the castle represents, at the convent even the animals are domesticated—all except the Prioress' monkey, which plays a major role in the story's resolution.

The tale has a marriage plot at its heart, but it is one that arises from rather unique motives. Boris, about whom some scandal has arisen concerning alleged homosexual activities, decides to marry in order to squelch the rumors. He journeys to the convent to ask his aunt, the Prioress, to name a suitable bride. She chooses Athena Hopballehus, Boris' childhood friend, who lives in the neighboring ruined castle. Athena will be the pawn in this game of convention and duty; she will clear his honor.

Athena leads us into Dinesen's transformation of a truly major Gothic element—the heroine. Radcliffe, says Moers, "… firmly set the Gothic in one of the ways it would go ever after: a novel in which the central figure is a young woman who is simultaneously persecuted victim and courageous heroine."20 Now this is certainly true of Athena, but in Dinesen's presentation we see how far the type has advanced beyond Radcliffe's Emily. Athena is one of a long line of women characters in Dinesen whom we might call the militant innocent or young warrior woman. A more mundane or less insightful writer than Dinesen might have referred to her as a "tomboy," and she follows that stereotype in much of her behavior, fierceness and independence. She may even harbor a wish to be a boy, since she can see that the things she values in life seem to be reserved for the male roles. But, and here is where Dinesen really departs from the conventional stereotype, she does not really wish to be a boy; she desires to be a girl and still retain her freedom of action. As "tomboy" she relates to that tradition of tomboys in women's literature which Moers attributes to the prohibitions on outdoor activities for females: "For in every age, whatever the social rules, there has always been one time of a woman's life, the years before puberty, when walking, running, climbing, battling, and tumbling are as normal female as they are male activities."21 As a tomboy who wants to retain her powers and freedom, while still being female, she connects with the tradition of Gothic heroines who "in the power of villains … are forced to do what they could never do alone, whatever their ambitions: scurry up the top of pasteboard Alps, spy out exotic vistas, penetrate bandit-infested forests."22 While remaining extremely "feminine" and within the "proprieties," says Moers, they prove themselves through courage and self-control in the face of physical danger.

All that taken into consideration, a simple descriptive comparison of Emily with Athena shows immediately how far Dinesen has extended the definition of Gothic heroine:

In person, Emily resembled her mother; having the same elegant symmetry of form, the same delicacy of features, and the same blue eyes, full of tender sweetness. But, lovely as was her person, it was the varied expression of her countenance, as conversation awakened the nicer emotions of her mind, that threw such a captivating grace around her.23

Emily, says Andrew Wright, is a "credible heroine of sensibility" and a Gothic heroine par excellence who has education in the sciences and "elegant literature," who plays the flute and writes poetry, and who is an only child with an undying affection for her father.24

Athena is also an innocent and a motherless only child who prefers to remain with her father. There the similarities end. Athena is a strong young woman, "six feet high and broad in proportion," whose beauty has nothing to do with delicacy or elegant symmetry: "Beneath her flaming hair her noble forehead was white as milk; lower down her face was, like her broad wrists, covered with freckles. Still she was so fair and clear of skin that she seemed to lighten up the hall on entering it…." Like most of Dinesen's women, she is surrounded by bird imagery; she is also symbolically linked to a great she-bear who killed five men and she embodies both the peaceful and the dangerous aspects of wild animals. She may not be so well-read as Emily, at least not in the same subjects, but she has read much about the French revolution; she is a revolutionary who wishes she had met Danton and who would like to see where the guillotine stood and wear the Phrygian bonnet.

Athena is in some ways close to Catherine of Wuthering Heights who represents clearly the young woman's desire to retain her freedom, a desire Moers notes in Catherine's delirious outcry against her adult state as Mrs. Linton: "'I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free….'" Dinesen's young warrior women harbor the not particularly unrealistic belief that in losing their innocence and becoming adult women, especially wives and mothers, they will lose their freedom; consequently they fight against entering the experience. Childerique in "The Caryatids" typifies this female warrior innocent:

She had no desire to be desired, and her woman's kingdom of longing, rapture and jealousy seemed to her all too vast; she did not want to take up the scepter at all. Like a young stork which considers that it runs very well, and does not care to fly, she had to be lured into her element.25

Luring such a young woman into "her element" can be an arduous struggle and at times the forces trying to make her enter experience find themselves curiously defeated in the very attainment of their goal. The Gothic heroines created by female writers have often put up just such resistance with just these results; in Dinesen the process becomes even more graphic.

The Prioress does not doubt that Athena will accept Boris' proposal, for she has lived an isolated life with her father in his castle, has heard the women of the convent speak of other brilliant marriages in society, and has never before had a proposal of marriage. She is the supreme innocent whom Boris doubts has ever heard of love or even looked at herself in the mirror. During a conversation at the castle, Athena, according to Langbaum:

… demonstrates her innocence by the question she asks regarding the old Wendish idol of the goddess of love, which "had the face and façade of a beautiful woman" but "presented at the back the image of a monkey." How did they know, she asks, "which was the front and which the back?"

                                             (p. 83)

The Prioress considers her easy prey; Boris sets off for her castle.

Athena's father is delighted with the proposed marriage and prospects look good for a conventional "happy ending." But no one has realized that Athena is as fiercely independent and virginal as her name, that she loves her solitude and has chosen to spend her life unmarried, caring for her aging father, and that she is prepared to fight for this choice. The Prioress will not be so easily denied and thus invites Athena to a seduction supper at the convent. During this scene the whys of Athena's refusal become clearer and we see how Dinesen has also transformed the idea of Gothic villainry. Here the threat lies not in forced marriage to the wrong man or even, at this point, in seduction, but in conventional marriage itself. During the supper, Boris, who likes to cast himself as an actor upon the stage of life, begins to understand Athena, now seeing the two of them as participants in a drama. He realizes that she is probably afraid for the first time in her life:

"Of what is she afraid?" he thought. "Of being made happy by my aunt and me? This is this tragic maiden's prayer: From being a success at court, a happy, congratulated bride, a mother of a promising family, good Lord, deliver me." As a tragic actor of a high standard himself, he applauded her.

                                             (p. 142)

Boris sympathizes with Athena, for he, too, Langbaum suggests, is something of an innocent despite his surface worldliness and would like to hang onto that innocence he equates with freedom. Still, he has more to gain from this marriage and agrees, however reluctantly, with the Prioress' plans. Even though Dinesen validates the necessity of experience, she is opposed to the effects of conventional marriage upon both sexes. Gothic villainry here becomes not so much the province of males as the province of the conventionally minded. However, the consequences are much worse for women, and there is the implication that Dinesen's women, especially her young warrior girls, are aware of this.

Athena holds up well during the supper until the Prioress tells a story about a wild elephant that was caged. The symbolism is clear to Athena: she will be caged in marriage to Boris. She rather abruptly excuses herself from the scene and goes to bed. As a final resort the Prioress gives Boris an aphrodisiac and sends him off to Athena's chamber to seduce—or rather—rape her. The ensuing scene, when compared with Count Morano's sudden appearance in Emily's chamber, shows just how much Dinesen has tampered with the Gothic. In doing so she has added a marvelous element of humor. Whereas Emily's bedroom is enveloped in thick gloomy shadows, Athena's assigned chamber is a tour de force of eroticism with only the barest hint of Gothic terrors:

The whole room was hung with rose silks, and in the depths of it the crimson draperies of the four-poster bed glowed in the shade. There were two pink-globed lamps, solicitously lighted by the Prioress's maid. The floor had a wine-colored carpet with roses in it, which, near the lamps, seemed to be drinking in the light, and farther from them looked like pools of dark crimson into which one would not like to walk. The room was filled with the scent of incense and flowers.

                                             (p. 151)

Just as this rose and crimson chamber is a world away from that of Radcliffe's Emily, so is Athena's response to the would-be seducer. Instead of battling the villain with strength of character and virtuous argument, teetering all the while on the edge of a terrified faint, Athena strikes Boris, knocking out two of his teeth. They engage in a physical battle with erotic overtones, rather like those Moers suggests in the nursery battles be-tween brother and sister. Indeed, there has been an earlier hint of incest, though it appears that Boris and Athena are not physically brother and sister. Instead they share something of that relation in a spiritual sense—one fairly typical in Dinesen and which seems to appeal to her on the grounds of her belief in the different but equal status of women and men, a concept underlying the comradely nature of the brother/sister relation. Athena holds her own against Boris until he manages to force a kiss upon her. This is simply too much for her to take. "She, surely, had never been kissed in her life, she had not even heard or read of a kiss. The force used against her made her whole being rise in mortal disgust." Athena collapses as if she were dead. This is hardly the kiss that awakens the innocent sleeping beauty, and Athena's collapse is no weak-kneed faint. Her response comments both humorously and effectively on the more traditional outcomes of such female-male encounters. Boris, all interest in and capacity for seduction gone, lifts her on the bed and leaves her unconscious and untouched.

Dinesen's changes in the heroines, in the nature of the villain, and in what the heroines fear point up an important difference from the early Female Gothic. In Dinesen it is obvious that the fear is not related to the supernatural or even to a loss of virginity, itself not always particularly important to Dinesen's women. In clearing away the ostensible fears made so much of in early Gothic—the fear for the loss of one's physical virginity and, by extension, one's honor—Dinesen's presentation reveals a much more serious underlying meaning, the knowledge that this loss can bring a far greater one, and an enslavement. The heroine battles against this loss; if she, like Emily and Athena in their different ways, can retain her self-possession, in both senses of the term, then she defeats the villains.

"[Emily] opposed his turbulence and indignation," writes Mrs. Radcliffe in a sentence that is my choice for Emily's epitaph, "only by the mild dignity of a superior mind, but the gentle firmness of her conduct served to exasperate still more his resentment, since it compelled him to feel his own inferiority."

                                             (p. 210)

Athena also withstands the villains by her supreme innocence. Boris felt she was like the old martyrs who drew everything, even their tortures, into themselves in a harmonious beauty but left the torturer outside: "No matter what efforts he made to possess them, they stood in no relation to him, and in fact deprived him of existence." The Prioress endeavors to convince Athena that she has indeed been seduced, counting on trapping the young woman with the ignorance of her innocence and a feeling of guilt and concern for the supposedly lost honor of herself and her family. In so doing the Prioress plays on some of those very real fears and "grim realities" that Moers notes in women writers generally: "… the terrible need always to appear, as well as always to be, virtuous; and, over all, the terrible danger of slippage from the respectable to the unrespectable class of womanhood."26 Athena does not seem to care what the world or the Prioress think of her, so the Prioress plays her last card, suggesting that Athena might be pregnant. Although Athena finds this hard to believe, she rises to the occasion in her own unque way: "'If I have a child,' said Athena, from her quaking earth thrusting at the heavens, 'my father will teach him astronomy.'"

The conflict seems never to be satisfactorily resolved for either side until the Prioress' pet monkey bursts suddenly into the room and in the ensuing scramble what we thought was the Prioress turns into the monkey and the invading monkey materializes as the true Prioress. Early in the tale we had been told of the Prioress' close relation to her monkey and her restlessness whenever it disappeared on extended sojourns into the woods. Later, clues had been dropped about certain of the Prioress' behaviors linking her with the monkey. All of this seemed explicable in the rational psychological terms of Radcliffe. But now we must understand the incident in purely symbolic terms and through these make an imaginative grasp of the wisdom of experience that Athena, Boris, and we ourselves are set to learn in the tale's end. Here is the answe to that question about the old Wendish idol of love—properly understood it is not a question of front and back, but of duality. Love and life contain dual forces, the civilized and the animal, the Apolonian, says Langbaum, of young virgins and the Dionysian of the monkey: "Isak Dinesen said in regard to this story: 'When men by way of their conventions have got themselves into difficulties, then let the monkey in, he will find the unattainable solution.'"27 Dinesen's statement associates the monkey with that imaginative response which jars us out of our limited perspective and lets us see the intersection of life's dualities.

Neither the young warrior woman nor the young man must be forced into a sham experience by the iron hand of convention. Instead, they must enter it through an understanding of the complex nature of existence which takes them out of their innocent egoism into an awareness of their relation to others and to the world with all its dualities. Athena gives Boris a look with which she recognizes both him as a being outside herself and the bond that ties them together against the rest of the world. Whether or not they will actually marry becomes irrelevant. They move into experience linked by a spiritual understanding because of what they have witnessed together. The young warrior woman can be won over by nothing less than the imagination and powers of life itself.

The monkey and the monkey-as-Prioress (or Prioress-as-monkey) relate to the use of monsters in Gothic fiction: "creatures who scare because they look different, wrong, non-human." Moers notes that Gothic monsters were originally created through some distortion of scale, particularly gigantism, and later by a crossing of species resulting in animaloid people like the goblins in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market. Women writers in the twentieth century make monsters that are "not so often giants or animaloid humans as aberrant creatures with hideous deformities or double sex: hermaphrodites."28 In the modern usage the physical aspect of the monster is often translated into characters who are in some way psychological or sociological misfits and outcasts. These are the sort of characters we find in Carson McCullers' "haunting monsters of ambivalence" or in Djuna Barnes with her cast of "lesbians, lunatics, Jews, spoiled priests, artists, nobleman, transvestites, and other masqueraders"—many of whom also appear in Dinesen's work. In "The Monkey" the monstrosity lies not in the animaloid human per se but in qualities carried to the extreme, in this case an Apollonian attention to duty that is too strict and conventional versus an overly chaotic and animalistic Dionysian mode.

These extremes, both of which are out of control throughout most of the tale, create the negative "monster" aspect as opposed to the positive balance of such dualities already achieved by the true Prioress. Most specifically, that old monster—the conventionally proper—is outwitted by the imaginative response. The physical Gothic monster is here transformed into psychological and sociological terms and the wild animal which we might ordinarily have seen as a probable monster figure, and which is certainly scary to the "domestic animal" (the conventionally minded), becomes the very opposite of monster. It becomes the means by which we can break convention's limits and find the "unattainable solution."

Dinesen expressed her position in a slightly less symbolic fashion in her series of memoirs called Shadows on the Grass. She and her friend Berkeley Cole made a distinction between "respectability" and "decency" and divided human and animal acquaintances according to this doctrine:

We put down domestic animals as respectable and wild animals as decent, and held that, while the existence and prestige of the first were decided by their relation to the community, the others stood in direct contact with God.29

Dinesen aligned herself with the wild animals.

Moers sees the monster phenomenon as taking on a special significance in women's hands and connects it with themes of self-hatred, self-disgust and the impetus to self-destruction. She notes that these are increasingly prominent themes in twentieth-century women writers and suggests that they partially account for the persistence of the Gothic mode:

Despair is hardly the exclusive province of any one sex or class in our age, but to give visual form to the fear of self, to hold anxiety up to the Gothic mirror of the imagination, may well be more common in the writings of women than of men. While I cannot prove this statistically, I can offer a reason: that nothing separates female experience from male experience more sharply, and more early in life, than the compulsion to visualize the self.

                                             (p. 163)

The horrors in the visualization are created by the gaps (real or imagined) between the self a woman finds and the self she is told woman is supposed to be. In Dinesen's tales such self-loathing and the consequent tendency to view oneself in the character of a monster can sometimes result from the imposition of conventional attitudes; often it appears to be a male-imposed syndrome. In its gentler manifestations, it occurs because of some failure of appreciation or understanding by men. In the most direct and devastating examples—Calypso in "The Deluge at Norderney" and Lady Flora in "The Cardinal's Third Tale"—it results from a perversely egoistic and self-serving desire by some men to see all or certain women in degrading light and to persuade the women to see themselves accordingly. The women view their bodies, and by extension, their selves, negatively until they learn to see themselves and the world by other standards.

Calypso had begun to accept the assessment of her worth made by her uncle (who is a bad kind of homosexual in Dinesen's terms because he refuses even to acknowledge the existence of women and has foisted such devaluation and self-loathing on his niece). Calypso is about to cut off her long hair and her breasts in an effort to look masculine and achieve some right to existence. Then she notices in the mirror not only her reflection, but also that of an old picture depicting satyrs adoring the charms of nymphs who look, of course, as purely female as she. Once she discovers this and a wardrobe full of her greatgrandmother's old clothes, she changes her plans as well as her evaluation of herself and her uncle. She spends the night trying on her greatgrandmother's finery, turning back and forth between the approval of the mirror and that of her newly discovered "friends" in the old painting. Calypso decides to leave the castle but takes one last look at her sleeping uncle: "'Had she been afraid of this creature—she, who was the sister of the nymphs and had centaurs for playmates? She was a hundred times as strong as he.'"30

The Gothic writer's use of gigantism as equivalent to monstrosity is seen in Lady Flora who is, like her mother, something of a giant of a woman. The two of them are subject to all manner of insulting variations by the father/husband on the subject of Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians. Lady Flora learns to loathe the very mention of flesh or sexuality but by the tale's end she, too, achieves a new self-evaluation (although her path is a great deal longer and more circuitous than Calypso's). In Athena and her equally large Dinesenian counterpart, Ehrengard—in the tale of the same name—there is just the hint of this gigantic woman/monster possibility, but neither suffers from any kind of self-loathing, and their giantism is played upon more in terms of its implications of power than in terms of monstrousness.

In "The Monkey," Dinesen's dislike of forced obedience to one's conventional duty is also embodied in her variation upon the Gothic elements of the good and the tyrannical parent. In Udolpho, Moers notes that these roles are played primarily by Emily's father and her uncle Montoni. Athena's father is the good parent; the Prioress, at least in the character she plays through most of the tale, functions as tyrant. The tale posits a need for an imaginative resolution of these dualities. Athena's resistance links Dinesen's stance with that of the last lines of Jane Austen's Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey: "'I leave it to be settled … by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.'"31

The emphasis at the end of "The Monkey" falls not on marriage but on the mutual understanding gained by Athena and Boris, on their "spiritual" marriage. In terms of plot at least, this marks another of Dinesen's shifts in the use of the Gothic, since no marriage actually takes place. However, Moers show us that, despite the actuality of the marriage, even in Radcliffe's Udolpho, the main concern is really an overwhelming interest in property, which is all bound up, of course, with a woman's independence.

Dinesen, however, is rarely interested in such practicalities and never interested in respectability. She is passionately interested in freedom. For her, freedom comes not through such tangible means as property, but through the kind of understanding gained at the end of "The Monkey," an understanding available to both sexes.

Dinesen is not alone in her reliance upon the imagination, especially with regard to her women characters, to achieve freedom from restrictions. She is, however, unique in her insistence upon it, and in the extremes to which she employs this "solution" in her tales. Her women characters rarely rebel directly. They employ an imaginative response in order, as her character Matteo remarks about women's dancing, to move "'with such perfect freedom in such severely regulated figures.'"32

Notes

1. Karen Petersen and J.J. Wilson, Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper Colophon—Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 106-07.

2. Howard Green, "Isak Dinesen," The Hudson Review, 17 (1964–65), 526-27.

3. Robert Langbaum, Isak Dinesen's Art: The Gayety of Vision, Phoenix Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 74.

4. Andrew Wright, Introd., The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole; The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Anne Radcliffe; Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1963), pp. viii-ix.

5. Karen Blixen fortoeller … (Louisiana Grammofonplader) as quoted in Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: The Mask and the Reality (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 60.

6. Parmenia Migel, Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 11.

7. Dinesen's personal tragedies included her father's suicide; the death of her close friend, Denys FinchHatton; her short, unhappy marriage; and the syphilis, contracted from her husband, which was never fully cured and which occasioned much of the illness she experienced in later years. In particular, she also turned to writing in order to help herself deal with the troubles on her farm—drought and an invasion of grasshoppers—that eventually led to the loss of her beloved African coffee plantation.

8. Hannah, p. 102.

9. Wright, p. ix.

10. Langbaum, p. 89.

11. Glenway Wescott, "Isak Dinesen, The Storyteller," in Images of Truth (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 156.

12. Ellen Moers, Literary Women, Anchor Books Edition (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press-Doubleday, 1977), p. 138.

13. See Moers' discussion in Literary Women: "Female Gothic" and "Traveling Heroinism: Gothic for Heroines."

14. Lionel Stevenson, English Novel: A Panorama, as quoted in Wright, p. xiv.

15. Wright, p. xvi.

16. Langbaum, p. 89.

17. Ibid., p. 31.

18. Isak Dinesen, "The Monkey," in Seven Gothic Tales, Vintage Books Edition (1934; rpt. of 1939 ed., New York: Random House, 1972), p. 109. All further references to this work appear in the text.

19. Langbaum, p. 83.

20. Moers, p. 139.

21. Ibid., p. 198.

22. Ibid., p. 191.

23. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (Great Britain: Billing & Sons, Ltd., n.d.), p. 7.

24. Wright, p. xv.

25. Isak Dinesen, "The Caryatids, an Unfinished Tale," in Last Tales, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 122.

26. Moers, pp. 206-07.

27. Langbaum, p. 88.

28. Moers, pp. 155, 164.

29. Isak Dinesen, Shadows on the Grass, First Vintage Books Edition (1961; rpt., New York: Random House, 1974), p. 17.

30. Isak Dinesen, "The Deluge at Norderney" in Seven Gothic Tales, Vintage Books Edition (1934; rpt. of 1939 ed., New York: Random House, 1972), p. 49.

31. Wright, p. xxi.

32. Isak Dinesen, "Tales of Two Old Gentlemen," in Last Tales, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 66.

SUSAN C. BRANTLY (ESSAY DATE 2002)

SOURCE: Brantly, Susan C. "Seven Gothic Tales." In Understanding Isak Dinesen, pp. 12-71. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

In the following excerpt, Brantly surveys the themes in and critical response to Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales.

Isak Dinesen was forty-nine when Seven Gothic Tales appeared in 1934. She had a wealth of life experience behind her, and the sophistication and maturity of her English-language debut is striking. Dinesen often said that if she had not lost the farm in Africa, she would never have become a writer. She had published a few tales in Danish journals under the name Osceola, but for many, Seven Gothic Tales represents the beginning of Isak Dinesen's literary career. When Isak Dinesen left Africa in 1931, she had already completed "The Roads Round Pisa" and "The Monkey." The other five tales were finished in Denmark. Originally, Dinesen intended to publish nine tales under the title Tales of Nozdref's Cook. Nozdref's Cook is a character out of Gogol's Dead Souls (1842). In the Danish edition of Seven Gothic Tales, Baron von Brackel notes that the modern world appears to be created the way "Nozdref's Cook made soup—a little pepper, salt, and herbs, whatever was around—and 'some flavor or another will come out of it'" (MU, 1:99). Evidently, Dinesen decided against comparing her collection to a culinary hodgepodge. The original nine tales would have included "The Caryatids, an Unfinished Tale," and "Carnival," but Dinesen felt that the contemporary references in "Carnival" would disturb the tone of the volume. "The Caryatids" was saved for later publication….

In part, Dinesen wrote Seven Gothic Tales in English for economic reasons, since the English-language book market is much larger than the Danish. Dinesen also said she chose to write in English because she felt comfortable expressing herself in that language after seventeen years in Kenya. In addition, Dinesen felt that the English public would be more sympathetic to her tales, since, in her view, the English-speaking countries possessed a stronger tradition of fantastic literature than Denmark. In 1923, Dinesen wrote to her mother about the American writer James Branch Cabell and his novels Jurgen (1919) and The Cream of the Jest (1917) which she characterized as "full of fantasy, and all this has made me wonder whether a new direction in literature is about to develop, making use of fantasy" (LA, 164). In England, she pointed to Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and David Garnett's Lady into Fox (1923) as examples of fantastic literature.1 As far as her Danish audience was concerned, Dinesen felt, "We have few or no fantastic books here at home. We have Ingemann's The Sphinx and Heiberg's Christmas Jests and New Year's Fun, but who remembers them? I was afraid that people, after reading my book, would ask: 'What is the meaning of what you write?' There is no meaning, and there should not be a meaning. It is dream. Fantasy!"2

Dinesen's reception in the United States was enthusiastic beyond all expectation. The United States was in the grip of the Great Depression, and one American reviewer began by quoting Dinesen's "The Poet": "When one is tied down heavily enough to an existence of care, it becomes pleasant to think of careless times and people" (SGT, 359).3 The American reviewers embraced the imaginative qualities of the book: "Seven Gothic Tales has burst upon us from a gray literary sky."4 It may be worthy of note that 1934 was also the year King Kong was released in theaters. Other films released in the 1930s include Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Lost Horizons (1937). Exotic locations and strange happenings were welcome because they could remove the reader from the harsh realities of the everyday. British reviews were also warm, "This belongs to the company of the world's great books."5 Even so, one English reviewer found the style "pompous."6

Dinesen's misgivings about how the Danish audience would receive her book proved to be well founded. The predominant literary mode in Denmark was social realism. The public debate of contemporary social issues had not raged as strongly since the days when Georg Brandes called the Modern Breakthrough into being in the 1870's. Dinesen's imaginative tales set in the previous century were quite different from what most Danes were reading. Svend Borberg described Dinesen as a flamingo-red orchid in a cabbage patch, and Swedish reviewer Mario Grut compared her to "a crane in a dance with sparrows."7 The most notorious of the Danish reviews accused Dinesen of "snobbism, the fantastic, and perversity."8 The negative Danish reviews upset Dinesen. Svend Borberg, with a good dose of irony, suggested one reason for Dinesen's being subjected to such a beating by the Danish critics: "It was naturally very cheeky, not to say brash, of Isak Dinesen—alias Baroness Karen Blixen—to conquer the world first with her book Seven Gothic Tales and then come to Denmark with it. As a Danish author she should have felt obligated to ask her at home first if she was worth anything."9 This was simply the beginning of an uneasy relationship between Dinesen and her Danish public that would last throughout her career. Even so, in 1999, the readers of the large Danish daily newspaper Politiken voted Seven Gothic Tales to be the third most important Danish work of the twentieth century.

The choice of Seven Gothic Tales as the title for the English work and Syv fantastiske Fortællinger (Seven fantastic tales) as that of the Danish is the result of a canny assessment of her potential audiences and the literary traditions with which they might be familiar. "Gothic" appeals, of course, to the English Gothic and "fantastic" is a word that draws one's thoughts towards the German romantic, as in Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier (1814–15, Fantasy pieces in the manner of Callot) by E. T. A. Hoffmann. In a Danish interview, Dinesen called Seven Gothic Tales a nonsense book: "I don't know another word for books in which all sorts of fantastic things happen. You probably know Hoffmann's Tales? It is something of the same sort, but not really the same."10 With some reason, Dinesen felt her Danish interviewer would be more familiar with a reference to German romanticism, rather than the English Gothic. When asked why she chose the phrase "Gothic Tales," Dinesen answered, "Because in England it places the stories in time and implies something that both has an elevated tone and can erupt into jests and mockery, into devilry and mystery."11 Both English and German traditions left their mark on Dinesen's writing, as she explained to her friend Bent Mohn: "I know more about the English 'Gothic' than German romanticism, but there are also works in that [tradition] which have meant a lot to me" (KBD, 1:500).

In English, the term "Gothic" has several associations, and Dinesen's critics have found a use for a number of them from time to time. The Goths were Germanic barbarians who attacked the Roman Empire. With reference to the sometimes subversive qualities of Dinesen's texts, Susan Hardy Aiken playfully suggests that Dinesen might be considered "a 'barbarous' marginal force that continually imperils the [traditional] center."12 The Gothic also refers to an elaborate type of medieval architecture, and some critics have found similarities between the architecture of a Gothic cathedral and the complex construction of Dinesen's narratives: "The architecture of the … stories permitted the author to stop, at any moment, and add on a flying buttress or a whole new wing."13 Dinesen herself specified, however: "I didn't mean the real Gothic, but the imitation of the Gothic, the Romantic age of Byron, the age of that man—what was his name?—who built Strawberry Hill, the age of the Gothic revival."14

The period of the English Gothic, roughly located between 1790 and 1830, came close on the heels of the Age of Reason. Many of the notable contributors to the Gothic were women: Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and the Brontë sisters. Dangerous and irrational forces seem to be at large in the Gothic, no doubt as a protest against the rationality of the era that preceded it. The Gothic is characterized by an interest in the past and exotic locations. Eric Johannesson has speculated, along with others, that the motive behind such a change in scene is to "liberate the imagination from the fetters which too familiar an environment imposes upon it."15 The typical Gothic hero is a man with a secret past who rejects the moral claims of society—a Byronic rebel. All of these features are familiar elements in Dinesen's writing.

Sibyl James has written an important essay on Dinesen's relationship to the Gothic, in which she notes some significant points upon which Dinesen differs from the traditional English Gothic.16 Gothic narrators often resort to preachiness. Evil villains assault the innocent heroine's virtue, but society's conventional morality is ultimately affirmed. Dinesen, on the contrary, is anything but preachy, and her villains are likely to be the conventionally minded. The Gothic usually resolves the supernatural into the natural: there is not a ghost, but a madwoman in Rochester's attic; Frankenstein animates his monster with galvanic energy, a scientifically acceptable principle at the time. Dinesen does not worry about confining herself to the plausible: prioresses turn into monkeys and vice versa. Dinesen does not use her supernatural effects to scare her readers, which was one of the main projects of the Gothic. The supernatural for Dinesen simply represents freedom of the imagination.

The styles of the English Gothic and German romanticism overlap a great deal. Both relish the fantastic. The Gothic ruin that engages the spectator's imagination finds its counterpart in the romantic textual fragment. The English Gothic and German romanticism share a common source of inspiration in The Arabian Nights and Boccaccio's Decameron (1353). German romantic authors spent a good deal of time theorizing about a shortstory art form they called the Novelle (novella), developed on the model of Boccaccio's tales. According to Goethe, the novella should describe an extraordinary event, and August Schlegel thought the story should contain a distinct turning point. In general, plot in the novella is more important than character. E. T. A. Hoffmann and Adelbert von Chamisso, two writers deeply admired by Dinesen, are among the foremost creators of German novellas. Dinesen has learned a few tricks from her favorites.

Peter Schlehmihl, a character from a famous tale by Chamisso, makes a brief appearance in Hoffmann's "A New Year's Eve Adventure." In much the same way, the fictional Augustus von Schimmelman would surface in Dinesen's Out of Africa, or Henrik Ibsen would make a cameo appearance in "The Pearls." "Real" and "imaginary" worlds become linked, and the dividing line is blurred.

German romantic writers were also fond of irony and literary masks. Hoffmann's "Don Juan" is allegedly written by a traveling music enthusiast. Adopting a literary mask enables the author to relinquish narrative authority and forces the reader to assess the bias of the narrative. The narrative says one thing but may imply another, and the reader must be attentive to catch the nuances. This effect, which engages the participation of the reader in deciphering the text, is known as romantic irony.

Few authors do romantic irony better than Dinesen's countryman, Søren Kierkegaard. In Either/Or (1843), Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym of Victor Eremita, claims to have found two manuscripts in a desk, and he deduces they are written by two different people, whom he calls "A" and "B." Among "A's" papers there is another text called "The Diary of a Seducer;" which may or may not be written by "A" under the name Johannes. Similarly, Karen Blixen, writing under her pseudonym Isak Dinesen, nestles tales within tales within tales. The reader is consistently thwarted in her or his attempt to locate an ultimate voice of authority. Dinesen took such great pains to distance herself from the events in her tales that she was annoyed by the prospect of readers asking, "Did you really mean it?… Have you experienced this yourself?"17 These narrative connections between Kierkegaard and Dinesen have been examined at length in an essay by Eric Johannesson.18

..…

"The Monkey"

In the case of "The Monkey," some of the most ingenious readings of the text have been performed by scholars publishing in academic journals or other venues not easily accessible to the general public. Annelies van Hees and William Mishler have exposed a number of the tale's secrets, inspired by the analytical tools of psycho-analysis, and Dag Heede has thrown fresh light on some of the troubling gender issues the story evokes. The following treatment of the tale draws on the work of all three of these scholars as well as others, but is especially indebted to Annelies van Hees's sensitive literary detective work.

The ending of "The Monkey" contains a startling revelation. The Virgin Prioress, whom we think we have known throughout the tale, turns out to have a double nature. She is able to exchange shapes with her monkey. The majority of Dinesen's tales, although they suggest fantastic possibilities, remain within the realm of the plausible and do not resort to such overtly supernatural devices. The scene is shocking, and we are forced to reevaluate everything we thought we knew about the events preceding the metamorphosis. This narrative twist is similar to, though even more spectacular than, the Cardinal revealing himself to be Kasparson at the end of "The Deluge at Norderney."

Eric Johannesson has pointed out that the theme of doubles is common to Gothic literature, listing the examples of "Menardus in Die Elixire des Teufels, or Ambrosio in Lewis's The Monk, or Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or the jeweler in Hoffmann's Mademoiselle de Scudery."19 In each of these stories, the person with a double nature is male, and one side is most certainly bad, while the other is good. Conventional morality prevails when the evil side of the character is destroyed. In David Garnett's "Lady into Fox" (1922), a story Dinesen once mentioned in an interview as a good example of the fantastic, a Victorian woman is inexplicably transformed into a vixen.20 Her husband tries to adjust but grows increasingly distressed as more and more of her animal nature takes over, and the ex-Victorian angel goes so far as to run away, mate, and have a litter. The transgressions of the wife are ultimately punished when she is torn apart by hounds. In typical fashion, Dinesen has reinscribed the traditions of the Gothic. The Prioress and her monkey are not destroyed at the end of tale; conventional morality has not been confirmed, and it is not at all certain that one side is better than the other.

The emblem of this doubleness is the Wendish idol described by the Count, "the goddess of love had the face and facade of a beautiful woman, while, if you turned her around, she presented at the back the image of a monkey" (SGT, 130-31). Athena raises the question, "But how … did they know, in the case of that goddess of love, which was the front and which was the back?" (SGT, 131). Athena's remark, which questions the hierarchy of such dualisms, is much in keeping with the theme of the harmony of contrasts so prevalent in Dinesen's tales in general.

As Hans Brix pointed out, Dinesen could have learned about this Wendish idol, called "Sieba" or "Siwa," from Bernhard Severin Ingemann's Grundtræk til en Nord-Slavisk og Vendisk Gudelære (1824, Fundamentals of a North-Slavic and Wendish mythology).21 Ingemann was one of Dinesen's favorite authors, and the double aspect of "Siwa" is described in a footnote to his Valdemar den Store og hans Mænd (1824, Waldemar the great and his men), a copy of which, much used, is in Dines-en's library at Rungstedlund.22 According to Ingemann, all Wendish gods possessed a double nature, one dark and one light. Siwa was traditionally depicted as a woman with long hair holding an apple in one hand and grapes in the other. (Note that the Prioress serves Boris pears and grapes when he first arrives at the convent.) The other side of the idol depicts "a brash triumphant monkey."23 Whereas Ingemann sees the woman as a representative of innocence, he says of the monkey, "Just as the monkey on the whole is mankind's most disgusting distortion, so it is especially, as is known, the natural image of lust and unchaste indecency."24 Like his other romantic/Gothic compatriots, Ingemann is certain that one side is good and one side is bad. Dinesen takes a different view. To Robert Langbaum, Dinesen said, "When men by way of their conventions have got themselves into difficulties, then let the monkey in, he will find the unattainable solution."25

Looking back over the tale, it is difficult to tell at any given time with whom one has been dealing. When Boris first arrives, it is stated that the monkey had been missing for a few weeks, usually a sign that the Prioress has transformed herself and left the convent in charge of her monkey familiar while she enjoys a freer life. The same Prioress who greets Boris with the pears and grapes of the "front" of the idol, speaks with passionate feeling of forests and trees. Athena has seen the monkey in the place where Cupid stood just a few days earlier, and the monkey crosses Boris's path on the way back from his proposal visit. Is this the "real" Prioress, or not? The Prioress's private dining room has "just lately" been redecorated in a style that would appeal to a creature from Zanzibar. A heavy incense is being burned, perhaps to mask the scent of the monkey. When Boris is refused by Athena, the Prioress goes "up to the window, as if she meant to throw herself out" (SGT, 138). When the Prioress turns around again, "She was all changed" (SGT, 138). Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jørgensen construe this transformation as the moment when the monkey takes over, but this "change" is nothing like the metamorphosis that occurs in the final scene of the story.26 The monkey certainly seems to have the upper hand during the seduction supper, as body language would indicate: "From time to time she made use of a little gesture peculiar to her, of daintily scratching herself here and there with her delicately pointed little finger" (SGT, 144). The Prioress also savors the cloves from Zanzibar, which is another hint at who is in control. In the final scene, after the metamorphosis, we are presented with "the true Prioress of Closter Seven" (SGT, 162). William Mishler has noted that when assessing an appropriate translation of this phrase into Danish, Dinesen rejected Valdemar Rørdam's suggestion "den rigtige" (the correct, rightful) and chose instead "den virkelige" (the real, true).27 Rørdam's term would have implied a hierarchy, a moral judgment on which side of the Prioress was the right side. Even if presented with the "true" Prioress, some readers may still be in doubt as to what that means.

Dag Heede has made the amusing suggestion that in the light of the Prioress's metamorphosis, if we consider "the cornucopia of pets present in the enclosed building, the uncanny suspicion arises that perhaps all the women from time to time change into their pets and vice versa."28 The menagerie includes parrots, cockatoos, dogs, cats, a deer, and "a white Angora goat, like that of Esmeralda" (SGT, 109). The reference is to Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), in which Esmeralda is suspected of being a witch and her goat, an animal familiar. The hint does point to strange powers that may dwell in these "superfluous" women who have been set aside in a cloister. Closter Seven is more coven than convent.

The event that instigates the intrigue of the tale is Boris von Schreckenstein's need to escape a scandal. Although not stated explicitly, it is clear that Boris has been accused of homosexuality and needs to get married in order to repair his social reputation. In this society such matters are not discussed unless in euphemisms. The old librarian, when pressed as to the nature of the scandal, begins to talk about Greece. The connection lies in such texts as Plato's Symposium, in which love between men is treated as natural and positive. The cloistered women, however, associate Greece with coiffures and fashions from their youth, creating some delightfully comic confusion. The point of the scandal does seem to sink in eventually and disrupts the entire worldview of the women of the convent. They have been raised to consider women objects of desire to all men, and their entire social existence has been based upon it. Dinesen includes the almost wistful line: "Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different" (SGT, 112).

Dag Heede has suggested that Dinesen uses Boris's homosexuality as "a way of representing the normal, not as natural, but as a construction, one single, possible version of reality among a multitude of others…. Boris is not only the most 'normal' person in the text, but as the focus of the story, the person whose thoughts and views … the reader follows, and who is the most obvious person for the reader to identify with."29 The very existence of the idea of homosexuality creates a disruption in the minds of the convent women, which could also be described as the realization that what they had taken for normal and natural may instead be a mere social construction. This realization opens up limitless possibilities for living. The text of "The Monkey" does not express much sympathy with Boris's accusers, described as being "sanctimonious" and acting "under the pretense of moral indignation" (SGT, 111). Heede goes so far as to state: "Homosexuality is used here more than anything else as a positive anti-bourgeois metaphor, a way of rejecting the dull, settled life of 'supporters, fathers-in-law, authorities on food and morals.'"30

The Prioress decides on a match between Boris and Athena upon the receipt of a mysterious letter. The message no doubt contains the news that the Count has won his lawsuit, making Athena a particularly wealthy young heiress. Moreover, the Count's lawyer also has a monkey from Zanzibar, so perhaps the jungle telegraph has been at work. The choice of Athena surprises Boris since from his childhood both his mother and his aunt "had been joining forces to keep him and Athena apart" (SGT, 118). Why? Mishler argues convincingly that the possibility exists that Athena and Boris are brother and sister. The Count was a special admirer of Boris's mother in days gone by. When he greets Boris it is with the words: "Boris, my child …" (SGT, 124). Dinesen specifically rejected Rørdam's translation of "Boris, min Dreng …" (Boris, my boy) in lieu of "Boris, mit Barn!" (Boris, my child), perhaps in order to underline the suggestion that the Count might be Boris's father.31 When the Count writes that he had hoped to see Boris's features in the unborn generations to follow, the Count might at the same time be seeing his own genotype through Boris as well as Athena. Incest, along with homosexuality, is yet another socially disruptive force brought into play in this tale. No wonder Pastor Rosenquist, the spokesperson for conventional morality, seems completely at a loss.

According to van Hees's analysis, Boris's homosexuality is the result of his Oedipus complex.32 He has become so bonded to his mother that sexual relations with another woman would constitute a betrayal. Boris has just come from his mother and "a row of wild scenes which his mother's love and jealousy had caused" (SGT, 114). The Count comes to represent the father in this Oedipal triangle. Upon first sight of the Count, Boris thinks, "This old man knows all, and is going to kill me" (SGT, 124). After proposing, Boris feels like Don Giovanni waiting for the Commendatore. Don Giovanni is the notorious seducer of Mozart's opera, who is punished at the end by the stone replica of one of his victims' fathers. This, then, is another image of paternal retribution. Boris is repeatedly afflicted with the sense that something is wrong. He prefers to think of Athena as a skeleton, a desexualized being, and not a threat to his relationship to his mother. On his way to seduce Athena, Boris recalls some lines from Aeschylus's Eumenides in which Orestes asks for Athena's help as he is being brought to trial for the murder of his mother. He is thus expressing his fear of what this encounter will mean for him. Sex with another woman is tantamount to the murder of his mother and betrayal. After the botched seduction, Boris again invokes lines from Aeschylus, which are erroneously attributed to Euripides in the English text, but correctly identified in the Danish. This time, Boris quotes Orestes' words thanking Athena for helping him be acquitted of the crime of matricide. Boris no longer needs to feel guilt about becoming involved with another woman.

If Boris is unnaturally bound to his mother, more than one interpreter has felt that Athena is unnaturally bound to her father.33 This may be what the Prioress implies with her scandalous anecdote about the Holy Family visiting Paris. The Duchess of Berri is rumored to be pregnant by her father, and even though she expostulates to the Virgin, "You would never have done it," in some sense the Virgin has been impregnated by her Father in heaven (SGT, 144).

Athena takes her name from the virgin goddess of wisdom, but she is more specifically a Diana, and as the Prioress tells us, Boris would make a fine Actaeon. According to the legend, Diana had Actaeon torn apart by his own hounds for daring to spy upon her taking a bath. Athena is six feet tall, able to do a chin-up on a hunting horn—lifting both herself and her horse off the ground—and defiantly virginal. She is compared to carnivora: a lioness and an eagle. When she stands on one leg like a stork, she is emulating the Masai warriors Dinesen knew in Africa. Athena is the typical adolescent heroine identified by Robin Lyndenberg, one who perceives marriage and maturity as equivalent to a loss of freedom.34 "From being a success at court, a happy, congratu-lated bride, a mother of a promising family, good Lord, deliver me" (SGT, 142). She is perfectly happy with her tomboy existence and does not want anyone to take it from her.

During the first chat Athena has with Boris, they look up and see the constellation of the Great Bear. The story of the Great Bear can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Callisto, a nymph in Artemis's (Diana's) hunting party, is loved by Zeus, and so the jealous Hera transforms her into a bear. When Callisto's son, Arcas, is about to kill her, Zeus turns them into constellations. Being transformed into a constellation is a common means of escaping physical jeopardy in Greek mythology. The very name of Closter Seven, which alludes to the constellation of the Pleiades, invokes another such tale. Zeus turns the seven daughters of Atlas into the Pleiades in order to save them from the amorous pursuit of Orion. Sexual attention is another form of physical jeopardy, and the image is a suitable one for a cloister. Later, when Athena is told she will have a child, she stubbornly announces, "My father will teach him astronomy" (SGT, 158). For both Athena and Agnese in the "Roads Round Pisa," the study of the stars takes them away from earthly cares and becomes a metaphor for escaping amorous attention.

Athena is a partisan of the French Revolution and she recites for Boris some lines from a French song by Auguste Barbier. The text describes a horse that eludes its masters, originally a metaphor for the French Revolution. Annelies van Hees notes that Athena no doubt sees herself as the mare, "which no hand has touched and no one has managed to saddle."35 She no doubt also identifies with the bear who kills five men before she is taken. Athena identifies with wild, powerful animals and is distressed to hear the story of the African elephant that dies in a cage. She is afraid, with reason, that the Prioress wants to subdue her and put her into a cage, which is why the tale is the main faux pas of the evening. Long before Boris appears on her doorstep Athena has made it abundantly clear she will not relinquish her virginity without a fight.

The scene in which Boris and Athena engage in combat is riddled with symbolic import. Boris approaches through a hall with a black and white tiled floor, and he emerges into a pink and crimson bower: "Of all the memories which afterward Boris carried with him from this night, the memory of the transition from the coloring and light of the corridor to that of the room was the longest lasting" (SGT, 151). This event will signal a transformation for Boris, a type of rebirth. He moves from a space where black is black and white is white to a very feminine space where such clear distinctions are absent. Dag Heede reads this space as a womb:

The whole room was hung with rose silks, and in the depths of it the crimson draperies of the four-poster bed glowed in the shade. There were two pink-globed lamps, solicitously lighted by the Prioress' maid. The floor had a wine-colored carpet with roses in it, which, near the lamps, seemed to be drinking in the light, and farther from them looked like pools of dark crimson into which one would not like to walk.

                                     (SGT, 151)

The room is being viewed through Boris's eyes, and of course he is the "one" who does not feel comfortable walking into this space.

The only unfeminine object in the room is Athena, who looks like "a sturdy young sailor boy about to swab the deck" (SGT, 152). Athena defends her virtue with considerable vigor. Annelies van Hees, Bill Mishler, Anders Westenholz, and Grethe Rostbøll all agree that when Athena knocks out Boris's two teeth it is a symbol of castration.36 Curiously, this seems to make Boris happy. According to van Hees, his castration obviates the necessity for Boris to be unfaithful to his mother. The struggle goes on and ends with a kiss that disgusts them both. There is something out of proportion in Athena's reaction to the kiss. It is "as if he had run a rapier straight through her" (SGT, 154). The kiss is a symbolic consummation that saps the virgin warrior of her strength in an almost magical way, not altogether unlike the way in which Samson is deprived of his strength by having his hair cut off. Athena is later compared to Samson, but a Samson who has regained his strength again (SGT, 159).

The discussion the morning after is quite comic. The Prioress takes it for granted that the rape has been committed, and Athena is too ignorant of the birds and the bees to know whether one can get pregnant from a kiss or not. Even though the Prioress extorts from Athena the promise to marry Boris, Athena still remains true to her Diana nature and promises to kill Boris at the first opportunity. At this juncture there is a tapping at the window, and shortly thereafter the remarkable metamorphosis of the Prioress and the monkey takes place. Boris, Athena, and the reader are all quite startled, and Dinesen has her little joke by having the monkey sit on the bust of Immanuel Kant, author of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781). What has just happened exists beyond the limits of reason, and Kant can't help us. Interpre-tations of what this scene means for the two young people vary widely.

Hans Brix seems to feel that the Prioress's subjugation of the monkey has instructed Athena that she must subject herself to Boris.37 Langbaum feels the scene makes Boris and Athena "ready for human love," by which he must mean that they have in some sense been "cured."38 Juhl and Jørgensen believe that the two have learned that the relationship between men and women must be sexual, and thus, these critics also endorse the notion of a cure, as does Vibeke Schröder.39 Mishler also seems to subscribe to the couple's experiencing a psychological liberation from their respective complexes.40 Van Hees feels that the scene has caused Boris and Athena to accept their sexuality as it is and also to realize that they can marry in any case.41 Dag Heede sees a happy ending, "in an 18th century view, that the two combine in a reasonable, sensible union, where they probably will do little damage to another."42

Indeed, Boris's homosexuality and Athena's desire to remain chaste are not in conflict, as the Prioress has already noted: "She will have nothing … and you will give nothing. It seems to me, in all modesty, that you are well paired" (SGT, 137). Athena and Boris can keep up appearances and enjoy a certain sort of freedom within the circle of their marriage. Closter Seven is the namesake of Kloster-Zeven, which is famous in history as the site for the signing of a treaty between England and France in 1757, in which England capitulated to France and agreed to remain neutral in the European arena for the rest of the Seven Years War. Thus, Closter Seven seems a suitable spot for generating peaceful agreements. Athena does not need to kill Boris, and they can probably get along in the future.

A fan wrote to Dinesen requesting clarification of "The Monkey," and Dinesen's response is worth quoting at length:

With regard to the tale "The Monkey," I am, as always when a reader asks me what a story means, quite uncomfortable, since I feel the only honest answer would be: "There is no meaning." I think it would be a shame if an author could explain a story better with outside information than it explains itself! I believe that when I wrote "The Monkey," I thought of the situation as follows: The Prioress has a monkey that is very close to her and in whose company she needs to take refuge from her limited life in the cloister. Every now and then she feels such an attraction and need for a free life in nature that she changes shape with the monkey and for a while is absent from the cloister, where the monkey takes charge. As a young girl, I myself had a beloved dog about which I had a similar fantasy. If one is looking for a deeper meaning to the story, it would probably be this: When human relations become unusually complicated or completely mixed up, let the monkey come. It is monkey-advice and monkey-help that Boris gets in the cloister; only when, through these methods, a way out can be glimpsed and darkness begins to lighten, does the Prioress come back and resume her place. The monkey has plainly chosen a criminal path upon which the Prioress would not have set foot, but in its solution there is salvation for Boris and, it should be understood, also a promise of a more human happiness for Athena. This is not a good explanation, but you are free to come up with a better one.

                                     (KBD, 2:433)

Dinesen's words about salvation for Boris and a more human happiness for Athena are sufficiently vague, so that interpreters are free to continue to speculate.

At the beginning of the tale, Boris fantasized about how his aunt would take the news of the scandal, and he weighs possible reactions in the form of Latin phrases. "Et tu Brute" (You too, Brutus!), which is an exclamation that marks betrayal: "How could you!" "Ad sanitatem gradus est novisse morbum" (It is a step towards health to recognize sickness) anticipates the Prioress's perception of Boris as a deviant who needs to be healed. "Discite justitiam moniti, et non temnere divos" (Be warned, learn justice and learn not to despise the divine) is an important phrase since it appears again, without the warning note, as the last line of the story. Since at the beginning of the tale, Boris and the reader both think of the Prioress as a defender of moral rectitude, the admonition Boris anticipates would be something like "Follow the rules of Christian behavior." By the end of the story, our understanding of the Prioress has changed and we realize that the divine forces at play have been pagan. The original "Discite …" quote is from Virgil's Aeneid, not a Christian text at all. The divine in "The Monkey" embraces the two-sided, double nature of Siwa. The second time the phrase is invoked, it might be construed: "Learn justice and embrace both sides of the divine." The revelation at the end of the story forces us to reevaluate not only this phrase, but the entire story. Repeating a phrase whose significance has changed is a technique that Dinesen will use again in "Alkmene." It is a device that makes the reader reexamine her or his assumptions. The sentence has not changed, but after experiencing the story, the reader has. The reader's expectations and understanding of this fictional world have altered—another metamorphosis has taken place. Now everything must be reexamined and reinterpreted.

Notes

1. Valdemar Rørdam, interview, Berlingske Tidende, 16 May 1934.

2. Ibid.

3. Lewis Gannett, "Books and Things," New York Herald Tribune, 9 April 1934: 13.

4. Jenny Ballou, "These Magic Tales Have an Air of Genius," New York Herald Tribune Books, 8 April 1934, VII: 3.

5. Howard Spring, Evening Standard, 6 Sept. 1934.

6. Gerald Gould, Observer, 9 Sept. 1934.

7. Scap, "Hyldest til Isak Dinesen," Politiken, 3 Dec. 1935; and Mario Grut, "Trana i sparvedansen," Aftonbladet, 13 Oct. 1958.

8. Frederik Schyberg, "Isak Dinesens, alias, Baronesse Blixen-Fineckes Syv fantastiske Fortællinger," Berlingske Tidende, 25 Nov. 1935.

9. Svend Borberg, "Isak Dinesen-Karen Blixen," Politiken, 9 March 1936.

10. Vidi, interview, Politiken, 1 May 1934.

11. Ibid.

12. Susan Hardy Aiken, Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 70.

13. William Maxwell, "Suffused with a Melancholy Light," New York Times Book Review, 9 May 1943: 2.

14. Curtis Cate, "Isak Dinesen," Atlantic Monthly, December 1959, 153.

15. Eric O. Johannesson, The World of Isak Dinesen (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961), 28.

16. Sibyl James, "Gothic Transformations: Isak Dinesen and the Gothic," in The Female Gothic, ed. Juliann E. Fleenor (Montreal: Eden Press, 1983), 138-52.

17. Vidi, interview, Politiken, 1 May 1934.

18. Eric O. Johannesson, "Isak Dinesen, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Present Age," Books Abroad, winter 1962, 20-24.

19. Johannesson, The World of Isak Dinesen, 29.

20. George C. Schoolfield pointed out to me that another text along similar lines is Aino Kallas's (1878–1956) Sudenmorsian (1928), which was translated into English as The Wolf's Bride (1930), and was widely reviewed. In that tale, a forester's wife turns into a wolf.

21. Hans Brix, Karen Blixens Eventyr (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1949), 65.

22. Pointed out to me by George C. Schoolfield.

23. Bernhard Severin Ingemann, Samlede Skrifter, vol. 12 (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzels Forlag, 1872), 208.

24. Ibid.

25. Robert Langbaum, Isak Dinesen's Art: The Gayety of Vision (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 88.

26. Marianne Juhl and Bo Hakon Jørgensen, Dianas Hævn (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 1981), 49.

27. William Mishler, "Parents and Children, Brothers and Sisters in Isak Dinesen's 'The Monkey,'" Scandinavian Studies 57, no. 4 (autumn 1985): 425.

28. Dag Heede, "Gender Trouble in Isak Dinesen's 'The Monkey,'" in Karen Blixen—Out of Denmark: Papers from a Colloquium at the Karen Blixen Museum, April 1997 (Copenhagen, 1998), 116.

29. Ibid., 110.

30. Ibid., 112.

31. Mishler, "Parents and Children," 426.

32. Annelies van Hees, "Hemmeligheder i Karen Blixens 'Aben,'" Edda, 1984, no. 1: 9-24.

33. Mishler, "Parents and Children," 433; Robert S. Phillips, "Dinesen's 'Monkey' and McCuller's 'Ballad': A Study in Literary Affinity," Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1963–64): 73.

34. Robin Lyndenberg, "Against the Law of Gravity: Female Adolescence in Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales," Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 4 (winter 1978–79): 523.

35. Van Hees, "Hemmeligheder," 16.

36. Grethe F. Rostbøll, Længslens vingeslag (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1996), 55; Anders Westenholz, Den glemte abe (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1985), 109.

37. Brix, Eventyr, 69.

38. Langbaum, Gayety of Vision, 88.

39. Juhl and Jørgensen, Dianas Hævn, 51; Vibeke Schröder, Selvrealisation og selvfortolkning i Karen Blixens forfatterskab (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1979), 82.

40. Mishler, "Parents and Children," 449.

41. Van Hees, "Hemmeligheder," 22.

42. Heede, "Parents and Children," 121.

Abbreviations for Editions Used

AD
Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
CV
Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
DG
Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
KBD
Karen Blixen i Danmark: Breve, 1931–1962. 2 vols. Edited by Frans Lasson and Tom Engelbrecht. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1996.
LA
Letters from Africa, 1914–1931. Translated by Anne Born; Edited by Frans Lasson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
LT
Last Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
MU
Karen Blixen Mindeudgave. 7 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1964.
OA
Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
OC
Osceola. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962.
OMM
On Modern Marriage and Other Observations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.
SGT
Seven Gothic Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
WT
Winter's Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Further Reading

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

Biographies

Migel, Parmenia. Titania: The Biography of Isak Dinesen. New York: Random House, 1967, 325 p.

Offers a balanced view of Dinesen's life.

Thurman, Judith. Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: Picador USA, 1995, 512 p.

Provides a detailed study of Dinesen's life.

Criticism

Aiken, Susan Hardy. "Gothic Cryptographies." In Isak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative, pp. 67-83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Examines the ways in which Dinesen uses Gothic conventions to explore "the notions of writing and sexual difference" in her works.

Palevsky, Joan. "Tales of the Past." Books West 1, no. 7 (1977): 20-36.

Discusses Dinesen's ease in depicting mysterious characters and distant worlds in her fiction, as evidenced in the collection Carnival: Entertainments and Posthumous Tales.

Stoddart, Helen. "Isak Dinesen and the Fiction of Gothic Gravity." In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 81-8. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

Explores the themes of storytelling as well as weightlessness and gravity in Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales.

OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:

Additional coverage of Dinesen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 50; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 29, 95; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 214; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 10; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 6, 13, 20; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 7, 75; Something about the Author, Vol. 44; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Isak Dinesen Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Dinesen, Isak

Next

Dinesen, Isak (Pseudonym of Karen Blixen)