Diminishing Danish Influence Militarily, economically, and artistically, Denmark was a much more influential nation in the nineteenth century that it would be in the twentieth. This fact is significant for an understanding of Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), whose life straddles both centuries. When the nineteenth century began, Denmark controlled an empire: Iceland, Greenland, the Faeroe Islands, and the Danish Virgin Islands were all territories of the Danish crown, and so was the region of Slesvig-Holstein, a corner of the European continent which would, in the war of 1864, fall under the control of Prussia. Not only did Denmark begin the nineteenth century both as a power and with an empire, but in the middle of that century it suffered a humiliating defeat. One effect of the loss was to disabuse the Danes of further geopolitical ambitions and provoke them to seek status by cultural means. For a small country, Denmark could already, by mid-century, claim a good share of Europe’s literary and artistic achievement, not least in the work of well-known and respected writers like Hans Christian Andersen, Adam Oehlenschlager, Meir Goldschmidt, Jens- Peter Jacobsen, Soren Kierkegaard, and Georg Brandes. Even the redoubtable Henrik Ibsen, though a Norwegian, wrote in Danish and could be considered part of Danish literature. As for Brandes, he was, in the last third of the nineteenth century, the most influential literary critic in Europe, a herald and explicator of the burgeoning, self-conscious movement of artistic modernity. In painting, Edvard Munch broke ground as an exponent of the expressionist school.
Dinesen came of age exactly at the turn of the century, an era of sophistication. She enrolled as a student in Det Kongelige Akademi, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Copenhagen, aiming at making a career as a painter. It did not work out that way, but in Copenhagen Dinesen was exposed to the leading currents of contemporary thought and art. Under the influence of Brandes, for example, she made herself familiar with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, the radical German thinker popularized by Brandes in a widely disseminated book called Aristocratic Radicalism, whose title in many ways describes Dinesen’s own outlook. Nietzsche argued that all the inherited ‘‘values’’ of European civilization were exhausted of their relevancy and that a new breed of men was required to create new values to replace the dead ones. In Nietzsche’s view, life was entirely ‘‘immanent,’’ that is, life was what people might make of it, and if their aims were heroic, then life itself would be heroic; but if their aims were those of shopkeepers and bureaucrats, the bourgeoisie, then life would be a paltry affair of routine and habit. In the absence of God, urged Nietzsche, the locus of all genuine values was art; under Nietzsche’s dispensation, the justification of life lay in beauty, not in worship.
Just as the war with Prussia in 1864 chastened Denmark, so too did the World War of 1914 to 1918 chasten all of Europe. The traditionalists who thought that tradition itself formed a bulwark against catastrophe and the radicals who thought that the unleashing of the will would lead to a utopia of supermen—all found that humanity was a fragile thing that could collapse out of control if not supervised with the utmost vigilance. Although Denmark had kept out of the war, Dinesen herself, in Kenya at the time, was in it, for her farm lay in the skirmishing ground between British and German forces in East Africa. Dinesen returned to a Europe devastated by war, intoxicated by the ‘‘Roaring Twenties,’’ headed for financial collapse in a worldwide depression...
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(1929), and plunging into an era of fascism and nationalism. In the heady atmosphere of the 1920s, the leading lights in art and literature were selfproclaimed modernists, either experimentalists like James Joyce in England or social realists like Tom Kristensen in Denmark. Although a modernist in her outlook (she remained a Nietzschean, even after the war), Dinesen belonged to a group of Scandinavian writers who were severe critics of modernism, advocates of a type of Gothic or preindustrial ethos.
Two writers are important in this regard: Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset, both Norwegians. Hamsun’s novels celebrate the world of the Norwegian coastal village, a world of fishermen and small farmers; Undset’s look back to the medieval period, when Christianity was newly consolidated in Scandinavia and the fishing and farming communities described in Dinesen’s tales had found their basic form. In her Gothicism, Undset is particularly close to Dinesen, and her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) explores on an epic scale the same issues that are central for Dinesen. But Dinesen’s earliest significant work, the Seven Gothic Tales, appeared only in 1937, much later than Undset’s work; Anecdotes of Destiny belongs to the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, the heritage of English literature exerted some influence on Dinesen, who spoke the language well enough to write the Seven Gothic Tales in English. Shakespeare meant a great deal to her, and so did Edgar Allan Poe, an earlier critic of modern life and another expert teller of the short story.
The Europe of the height of Dinesen’s career (1937-1957) saw even more tumult than the Europe of her youth. A second world war did not spare Denmark but engulfed it; the Nazis’ professed admiration for Nietzsche and his concept of the ‘‘superman’’ tainted the Brandesian notion of aristocratic radicalism so dear to Dinesen. Unsullied by twentieth-century developments, however, and at last coming into his own as an important thinker was Kierkegaard, a Christian psychologist and aesthetician who became increasingly visible as a factor in Dinesen’s outlook. For Kierkegaard, human life consisted of profoundly consequential choices, each one of them an ‘‘either-or’’ which admitted no compromise and demanded action. Before Nietzsche, before Freud, Kierkegaard had conducted a brilliant and disturbing analysis of human motives, and Dinesen was not the only one during the Second World War and after to turn to him in qualified preference to the now-suspect Nietzsche.
Dinesen’s last decade (1952-1962) belonged to the Cold War and to the increasing possibility of nuclear destruction. The impulses of the would-be superman were now more dangerous than ever, but were the circumstances of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century landed gentry more relevant to the modern condition than they had been before or only less relevant than ever? It was still an assertion of aristocratic radicalism to pay no attention to the critics, to depend on the discernment of sensitive readers, and to forge ahead according to one’s own lights. In her last years, the facts of the contemporary world, of milieu, diminished in importance for Dinesen. She exerted her own influence rather than taking her cues from the present.
Style Isak Dinesen faced the accusation throughout her career that she used an archaic style irrelevant to the social reality of the modern world. While less baroque and internally complicated than some of her other stories, ‘‘The Ring’’ nevertheless illustrates what critics mean when they accuse Dinesen of archaism. Here, Dinesen travels beyond the baroque, back to the style of medieval folktale and saga. For example, there is a moment, in The Prose Edda, one of the great mythological poems of the Scandinavian middle ages, when the god Thor fights the World Serpent. Thor will slay the Serpent, the poet says, and then stagger back nine paces—not a few paces, not eight, not ten, but precisely nine paces—and then die from the Serpent’s poison. The ritualistic exactitude is reported matter-of-factly.
Dinesen’s style, in ‘‘The Ring,’’ derives from the laconic, the ritualistic, precision of medieval narrative. Dinesen narrates Lovisa’s encounter with the thief in her glade step by step, with saga-like matterof- factness and precision. When Lovisa finds the thief he stands precisely ‘‘two steps off’’ from her; their silent transaction requires exactly ‘‘four minutes’’; and when she offers her wedding ring that the thief should take it and depart, ‘‘her young form had the grave authoritativeness of a priestess conjuring down some monstrous being by a sacred sign.’’ Again, the thief’s movements when he picks up Lovisa’s handkerchief from where she has accidentally dropped it get a precise description. Dinesen calls the encounter a ‘‘pantomime,’’ and in endowing each movement with visual precision so that the reader can imagine it perfectly, Dinesen also charges every gesture with significance.
Setting Like the English countryside in the poetry of William Wordsworth or the novels of George Eliot, the Danish countryside tends to achieve the status of a character in the works of Isak Dinesen and of other Danish writers. But the Danish countryside is flatter, altogether less variegated, sparer, and at times bleak. It is settled in the form of farmsteads and associated small villages. Throughout the nineteenth century the rural areas of Denmark retained their isolated character; they were not in continuity with cities like Copenhagen or Aalborg, but they were in continuity with their own massive traditions. It is into such a milieu that Dinesen places Lovisa and Sigismund, on a summery day around the year 1800. On Sigismund’s sheep farm, footpaths lead through the gently rolling furze, and there are, here and there, stands of trees.
One such stand, or glade, serves as the principal setting of the tale. Lovisa’s secret glade differs from the surrounding countryside. It consists of a thick tangle of underbrush and tree branches, which she must force apart in order to gain entry to the inner ‘‘alcove,’’ as she calls it. The glade has the character of an inner sanctum, shut off from the rest of the world, an asylum of pure privacy—now violated, however, by the presence of the thief. The cinders of his fire, strewn about with gnawed bones from his rude feast, give the scene a primitive character.
Stream of consciousness Although the story begins as a classic thirdperson narrative, the episode of Lovisa’s encounter with the thief exhibits elements of stream-of-consciousness narration: during this event Dinesen lets the reader see, without interruption and with little comment, through Lovisa’s perception. The shift in narrative technique emphasizes the paradoxical awakening of consciousness.
Realism Despite the archaism and the distance of the setting, Dinesen charges ‘‘The Ring’’ with elements of her characteristic realism. This realism chiefly concerns the encounter with the thief, whose physical state Dinesen carefully describes. On the other hand, the thief’s vanishing is so abrupt that it acquires a magical quality, which challenges the episode’s concreteness, giving it a dreamlike quality.
Paradox If one of the principal themes of ‘‘The Ring’’ is consciousness, one of the ways in which Dinesen conveys this theme is through the construction of a paradox. In Dinesen’s vision, consciousness itself is paradoxical. The paradox consists of the fact that Lovisa’s happiness turns out to be a delusion. Delusion is a state from which one would want to be delivered, if one knew about it, and yet the very deliverance from it, into objective knowledge, entails the dissolution of happiness. And happiness, seen from the perspective of the anxiety of doubt that comes with consciousness, can seem a refuge. Having come into consciousness—having, that is, understood something of the truth about her condition— Lovisa finds that she cannot speak the truth to her husband, as when she ironically says that she has no idea where her wedding ring disappeared. Earlier, Lovisa expressed the thought that she was ‘‘a hundred years older than’’ Sigismund, but by the end of the story that delusion gives way to the truth that she is only now wiser than he. She thus understands the import of his words, when he argues that the loss of the ring means nothing, because both of them ‘‘are the same’’ as on their wedding day. He remains the same; she has become something different.
Structure The structure of ‘‘The Ring’’ reflects the changing relationship between Lovisa and Sigismund. In the beginning, husband and wife are walking together, then they separate, leaving Lovisa on the trail home by herself. Next the story ushers Lovisa into the glade to confront the thief, who at last vanishes, whereupon Lovisa finds herself back on the path with Sigismund, walking this time not beside him but in front of him, with her back to him, so that their unity is heavily qualified.
Symbolism The symbol of the wedding ring dominates the story, a purely conventional symbol upon which the meaning of the events depends. A wedding ring is the token of unity of a married couple, signifying their decision to make themselves one in the sight of God. Facing the thief, Lovisa’s wedding ring becomes for her an amulet that has the power to chase away an apparition, and in removing the ring, although she does not think of herself as bartering for her life, she does devalue the symbol of her marriage. The reader cannot be sure whether the ring becomes, at that instant, merely a knickknack, quite replaceable, or whether the act of trying to give it to the thief in exchange for his departure possesses richer significance for Lovisa. The story does link the ring to a marriage which has been transformed, in her eyes, negatively, and the removing of the ring to Lovisa’s ‘‘marriage’’ to a crueller understanding of life and fate—a philosophical marriage which becomes the transcendental context for the naive marriage to Sigismund. Another symbol is the thief’s bloody knife, commonly endowed with phallic characteristics in the manner of a Freudian interpretation. But the knife can also symbolize violence in general, in addition to sexual violence. Commentators have identified the glade both as a sexual symbol and as a symbol of consciousness; it can be seen as the interior of Lovisa’s mind.
Thurman, Judith Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
Wissen, Thomas R. Isak Dinesen’s Aesthetics, Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973.