Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937
In the first paragraph of the story, Dinesen explains that the events happened one hundred and fifty years ago in the Danish countryside. The two young people at the center of the story are Sigismund, aged twenty-four, and Lovisa, aged nineteen, newlyweds who have been married only a week. In Dinesen’s aesthetic—indeed in her view of the world—such facts are important because much of human identity comes from milieu, the particular place and time in which an individual finds himself. Sigismund, the story says, is a ‘‘squire,’’ a propertied gentleman-farmer; that is his role. Lovisa’s role is the gentleman-farmer’s loving wife. It is a case not so much of individual but of traditional, even geographic, identity. The two young people have not yet transcended their milieu to become fully individual; rather, they still bear the impress of the countryside where they were born and of the roles which circumstances have bestowed on them. Interestingly, Lovisa thinks that Sigismund’s intentness on being a scientific sheep-farmer is boyish, a pose, but she does not see her own affectations or understand her own immaturity. Identity is something into which one grows.
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More than this, however, identity—healthy identity— combines unique individual traits derived from experience with a deeply internalized relation to institutions and norms, like business and marriage, or moral and legal standards accepted by the majority of one’s community. Identity, in Dinesen’s understanding, consists of a balancing act that requires careful and fully conscious maintenance by every person. The relation of the individual to society, and to norms, is often conflicting, in that the individual must sacrifice much of his own will to the peace of the community, or to specific other persons within the community, just as a man and a woman concede much to each other in marriage.
Duty and responsibility
As Dinesen saw it, individuals enter a world which none have made, which exists prior to their birth, and which makes certain nonnegotiable demands. Some of these demands are simply physiological: birth endows a person with the characteristics of one sex or another and with all of the organic limitations inherent in being a mortal creature. Tradition, too, imposes and coerces, with the norms and standards which constitute the prevailing moral consensus of a people. Arising from centuries of human existence, morality guards against behaviors that disrupt communal order and generate misery. Sigismund has a duty to succeed at sheep farming so he can keep his wife from poverty; he must devote himself to his role even if doing so entails paying less sentimental attention to his wife than she, for her part, might demand. The wedding ring binds them not only to each other but to centuries of custom and to the wisdom that custom contains.
The Meaning of Life
Before her encounter with the thief, Lovisa thinks she knows the meaning of life: it is to be loved by her husband and to love him in return. The encounter leaves her in grave doubt, and giving away her wedding ring in an attempt to barter for her life puts her in a new and unsettling relation with marriage, the one social institution on which she has founded her new life.
Consciousness, for Dinesen, is an external awareness of oneself and one’s condition. Lovisa’s passage from naive satisfaction with her life to anxious dissatisfaction with it is a passage from unconsciousness to consciousness, mediated by an encounter with violence. Sigismund, by contrast, remains absorbed in the pragmatics of squiredom. Lovisa claims to Sigismund that she has ‘‘no idea’’ what became of her ring, but she knows she is lying. At the same time, she grasps her life in a new and startling way, as though she were an observer looking at herself with cold objectivity. The thief, animal- like in his wild appearance and silence, evokes the danger of unconscious or animal urges, such as those associated with sexuality.
Dinesen tells the reader that Lovisa was quite recently still playing with dolls, a childish activity indicating a pre-sexual existence. Also like a child, Lovisa plots to draw her husband into a game of hide-and-seek. They have been married a week, but the reader does not know whether the newlyweds have consummated their union. Sigismund is too preoccupied with his farm during the course of the story to give his wife much of his attention, in contrast with Lovisa’s musings on wedded bliss. Her entry into the glade has been taken by some as a metaphor for sexual penetration, and her encounter with the thief contains a variety of sexually suggestive elements, such as the unsheathing and resheathing of the bloody knife and the criminal’s taking her handkerchief (a hymeneal symbol). Sigismund’s plan to improve his stock through the importation of English stud-animals also has a sexual aspect.
Violence and cruelty
The farmers introduce the theme of violence in their discussion of the sheep-thief, and Lovisa encounters the source of that violence in the glade. In Dinesen’s view, violence and cruelty are part of human nature, but however disagreeable in themselves, they also denote the presence of vitality, of something like the ‘‘will-to-power,’’ as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed it. Violence and cruelty therefore represent the energy that fuels creative endeavor, that awakens consciousness. The question for vital human beings is how to channel their vitality, their will-to-power, creatively rather than destructively. In Dinesen’s Nietzschean view of things, art is the sublimation of violence, and every instance of beauty (as in Lovisa’s glade) contains something violent.