Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

By the time ‘‘The Ring’’ appeared in Anecdotes of Destiny, the critical judgment on Dinesen had long since fully registered, and whatever controversy her stubborn art had earlier generated had become the mere expert background to her work. Critics who wrote about her did so mostly from a stance of approval, and those who disapproved—the ascendant Marxist school, for example—tended to ignore her. Judith Thurman in Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller (1982) summarizes the initial critical reaction in Denmark to Dinesen’s fiction this way: ‘‘Many readers were offended by Karen Blixen’s frank nostalgia for the ancien regime and by her flight from the grim realities of Danish life. There was also some resentment over the fact that she had written originally in English and had had her first success in America.’’

After the Second World War, Danish writers began to reassess their earlier commitments to social realism. A generation grew up whose work implicitly acknowledged the influence of Dinesen: both Martin A. Hansen and H. C. Branner looked to earlier centuries than the twentieth for settings which might foreground the essentials of the human condition, and both were, like Dinesen, critics of modernity. Appreciative accounts of Dinesen and her work began to appear by respected critics like Aage Hendriksen.

Critical response to Anecdotes of Destiny is perhaps best summed up by Thomas R. Wissen, who writes in Isak Dinesen’s Aesthetics (1973) that this final volume amounted to a denouement in that it ‘‘contains stories . . . which do not contribute significantly to the illustration of points she has made previously.’’ Nevertheless, says Wissen, ‘‘the tales will not disappoint . . . they conform to a fully realized aesthetic.’’ And yet critics have responded with interest to individual tales in the Anecdotes. Bruce Bassoff recognizes ‘‘The Ring’’ as an instance of Dinesen’s assertion that human beings respond to a native urge towards transcendence. Writing in 1990 in Studies in Short Fiction, Bassoff states that Lovisa ‘‘muses over her happiness’’ only to discover, through her encounter with the thief, that ‘‘life is both more and less than imagined promises.’’ More than that, in Bassoff’s reading, Lovisa’s encounter leaves her with the sobering conviction that ‘‘she is no longer free,’’ as she had earlier imagined herself. Robert Langbaum offers an interpretation in The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen’s Art (1964) that suggests for the tale an underlying vampire-aesthetic: ‘‘The sexual symbolism [in the encounter] suggests that there has been a union between [Lovisa and the thief], that he has taken her spiritual, as well as her physical, virginity.’’ Yet Langbaum also claims that only in the loss of the ring is Lovisa’s ‘‘marriage to [Sigismund] fully consummated.’’

Janet Handler Burstein, writing in Texas Studies in Language and Literature (1978), avails herself of the contemporary critical idea of ‘‘otherness’’ to bring out what, for her, is the significance of ‘‘The Ring.’’ According to Burstein, it was Dinesen’s conviction that individual identity included ‘‘otherness’’ essentially; that which is not one’s self, which is different, as poverty is to wealth or cruelty to kindness, nevertheless forms a basic and non-negating part of every individual person. Thus ‘‘although [Lovisa] is happily married to the man she loves,’’ she nevertheless discovers, in her encounter with the thief, an opposite to her world which, in effect, completes that world. Lovisa’s consciousness, says Burstein, ‘‘is changed [and] henceforth, at the very heart of her secure and familiar world, [she] will know the ‘other’ whose alien eyes have met her own.’’ Burstein’s reading reveals an emergent trend in writing about Dinesen: feminist criticism. Yet while Dinesen was, to put it in terms of gender politics, a great female artist, she was not herself of any ‘‘progressive’’ persuasion and still less any kind of feminist.

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Essays and Criticism