Isak Dinesen Dinesen, Isak (Vol. 95) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Dinesen's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 29.

Dinesen is best known for Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and the autobiographical novel Den afrikanske farm (1937; Out of Africa). Acclaimed for her poetic prose style, complex characters, and intricate plots, Dinesen was concerned with 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. Hailed as a proto-feminist by some critics, scorned as a colonialist by others, Dinesen is chiefly regarded as a masterful storyteller. Ernest Hemingway once 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 Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, a cousin, 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, she continued to lecture and give interviews. She became a founding member of the Danish Academy in 1960. Dinesen 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. For example, in "The Deluge at Norderney," a Cardinal directs his high-born com-panions to give up their places on a boat to save peasants during a flood. Out of Africa presents Dinesen's experiences as a British East African coffee plantation owner, 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, which precipitated her return to Denmark. 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," for instance, 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 pseudonymn 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 that are 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 Pellegrini 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 Graesset (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 whom she first wrote about 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 ultimate and 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 contain 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. Critics applaud 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 expatriots 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." Finally, many critics have recognized humor as an integral part of Dinesen's literary style and agree that her stories consistently reveal a positive attitude and "passion for life," which embraces life's challenges and adversities as well as its triumphs and joys.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seven Gothic Tales (short stories) 1934
Sanhedens Haevn [The Revenge of Truth] (drama) 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 Graesset [Shadows on the Grass] (autobiography) 1960
Osceola (short stories and poetry) 1962
Ehrengard (novel) 1963
Essays (essays) 1965; also published as Mit livs mottoer og andre essays [enlarged edition], 1978
Breve fra Afrika 1914–31. 2 vols. [Letter from Africa 1914–31] (letters) 1978
Daguerreotypes, and Other Essays (essays) 1979
Samlede (essays) 1985

Katherine Woods (review date 6 March 1938)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen's Fine Record of Life on an African Farm," in The New York Times Book Review, March 6, 1938, p. 3.

[In the following review, Woods enthusiastically praises Out of Africa.]

The book [Out of Africa] which Isak Dinesen has made from her life on an African farm is a surprising piece of writing to come from the author of Seven Gothic Tales. After dazzling the public with what Dorothy Canfield called "the strange slanting beauty and controlled fantasy" of the first book, this amazing Danish master of English prose has stepped now into the clearest reality, the utmost classic simplicity, the most direct—yet the most exquisitely...

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Eric O. Johannesson (essay date Winter 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen, Søren Kierkegaard, and the Present Age," in Books Abroad, Vol. 36, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 20-4.

[In the following essay, Johannesson examines the similarities between the philosophical views expressed in many of Dinesen's works and those of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, notably themes relating to human identity, human interdependence, and passion for life.]

To compare Isak Dinesen and Søren Kierkegaard may seem a rather frivolous undertaking particularly to those who see in the former a sophisticated and witty Danish Baroness who likes to tell decadent and bizarre tales about a bygone era or produce elegiac memorials to a vanished...

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Donald Hannah (essay date October-December 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Memoriam Karen Blixen: Some Aspects of Her Attitude of Life," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, October-December, 1963, pp. 585-604.

[In the following essay, Hannah examines Dinesen's major works—the autobiography Out of Africa and several of the short stories—focusing on their depiction of the past and evocation of nostalgia.]

It was perhaps typical of that elusive, even enigmatic figure, the late Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke, that she was most widely known by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. But this is the least of the paradoxes with which the reader of her work is faced. Karen Blixen, a Dane, wrote most of her short stories first in...

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Janet Lewis (essay date March 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isak Dinesen: An Appreciation," in The Southern Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, March, 1966, pp. 297-314.

[Lewis is a novelist, poet, editor, educator, and librettist. In the following essay, she discusses Out of Africa and the short stories in Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and Last Tales, noting the thematic and stylistic differences between Dinesen's fiction and nonfiction.]

When you have read Out of Africa you will have learned a great deal about Isak Dinesen. There remains a certain amount of mystery, however. She centers her attention on the African aspects of the farm. Even the account of that down-at-the-heels, fugitive actor...

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Thomas R. Whissen (essay date Winter 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bow of the Lord: Isak Dinesen's 'Portrait of the Artist,'" in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 47-58.

[In the following essay, Whissen examines the theme of the artist in several of Dinesen's works. He contends that she sees the artist as God-like, but that the human artist "is not the master of the situation, for he has an adversary in the greater artist, God."]

In a little play, The Revenge of Truth, written long before she was to achieve fame with her first collection of tales, Isak Dinesen expresses an idea that most critics have interpreted as the governing principle behind her attitude towards life and art. At the end of...

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Anthony Burgess (review date 6 September 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Saga of Africa," in The Observer Review, September 6, 1981, p. 29.

[Burgess was an esteemed English novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). In the following review of Letters from Africa: 1914–1931, he favorably assesses Dinesen's writing style, contending that she "never fails in grace, sharpness, and humanity."]

At the end of 1913, Karen Dinesen left Denmark and sailed to Mombasa. She disembarked to marry immediately Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke of Näsbyholm, to whom she had been engaged for a year. Baroness Karen Blixen and her husband then went to Nairobi to manage a...

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Sara Stambaugh (essay date Summer 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Witch as Quintessential Woman: A Context for Isak Dinesen's Fiction," in Mosaic, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 87-100.

[Stambaugh is an educator, novelist, and critic whose works include The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen (1988). In the following essay, she examines Dinesen's "complex" relationship to feminism, drawing mainly on her letters published in Letters from Africa, 1914–1931.]

In Isak Dinesen's "The Dreamers" Lincoln Forsner begins his tale of Pellegrina Leoni by saying, "You must take in whatever you can, and leave the rest outside. It is not a bad thing in a tale that you understand only half of it." The major...

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Vivian Greene-Gantzberg and Arthur R. Gantzberg (essay date November 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Karen Blixen's 'Carnival,'" in Scandinavica, Vol. 22, No. 2, November, 1983, pp. 159-70.

[In the following essay on the short story "Carnival," the critics examine Dinesen's literary style, characters, and use of fantasy, while exploring the themes of aristocratic life and the role of the artist. They also discuss the influence of Aldous Huxley, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and E. T. A. Hoffman on Dinesen's work.]

'Carnival', which is among the most recently published of Karen Blixen's tales, dates from the 1920s—presumably around 1926, just after she had completed the shorter marionette comedy entitled Sandhedens Hævn....

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Casey Bjerregaard Black (essay date Autumn 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fantastic in Karen Blixen's Osceola Production," in Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1985, pp. 379-89.

[In the following essay, Black describes Osceola as a collection of "three kinds of fantastic tales" whose "interrogations of reality" satirize bourgeois values and sensibilities.]

Until recently, the only examples of Karen Blixen's juvenile works were to be found in the little known collection Osceola, in the marionette comedy Sandhedens haevn, and in the Karen Blixen Archives at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In 1977, however, "The De Cats Family" and "Uncle Theodore" appeared, and in 1981 and 1983, several...

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John Updike (essay date 23 February 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seven Gothic Tales: The Divine Swank of Isak Dinesen," in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1986, pp. 3, 37.

[Updike is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, dramatist, and critic. In the following essay, adapted from the "Introduction" to a special edition of Seven Gothic Tales published in honor of The Book-of-the-Month-Club's 60th anniversary, he presents an overview of Dinesen's life and discusses the main stylistic and thematic features of the collection.]

When the Book-of-the-Month Club offered Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen, as its selection for April of 1934, its newsletter...

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Sidonie Smith (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Other Woman and the Racial Politics of Gender: Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham in Kenya," in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 410-35.

[In the following excerpt from an essay in which she examines Beryl Markham's West with the Night (1942) and Out of Africa, Smith considers the ways in which Dinesen's autobiographical persona reflects the influence of western colonial and patriarchal power in Africa.]

Africa meant a variety of things to the Europeans who settled there in the early decades of the twentieth century. For...

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John Burt Foster, Jr. (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cultural Multiplicity in Two Modern Autobiographies: Friedländer's When Memory Comes and Dinesen's Out of Africa," in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 205-18.

[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he discusses both Out of Africa and Saul Friedänder's memoir of the Holocaust, When Memory Comes (1978), Foster examines the ways in which Dinesen's autobiographical persona represents an amalgamation of the cultures she experienced: her native Danish culture, the British colonial culture in East Africa, and the native African cultures.]

The phrase "cultural multiplicity" in my title is a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Aiken, Susan Hardy. "The Uses of Duplicity: Isak Dinesen and Questions of Feminist Criticism." Scandinavian Studies 57, No. 4 (Autumn 1985): 400-11.

Examines the short story "The Cardinal's First Tale" from a feminist perspective and addresses the issue of women's selfhood within patriarchal culture.

――――――. "Writing (in) Exile: Isak Dinesen and the Poetics of Displacement." In Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, pp. 113-31. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Discusses the role of "woman as...

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