Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The two central themes of “The Sailor-Boy’s Tale” are the relationship between men and women and the issue of justice. In order to outline her theory of justice, Isak Dinesen presents the reader with three interpersonal relationships, those between Simon and Nora, Ivan, and Sunniva.

The relationship between Simon and Ivan appears relatively simple. Ivan presents himself as Simon’s friend and is accepted as such by Simon, but he must die because he is trying to prevent Simon from meeting Nora. The threatening homosexual overtones in Dinesen’s description of Ivan appear to provide Simon with a justification for killing the man.

The story also shows that the essence of an intimate relationship is an exchange of value for value, symbolized by the kiss as payment for the orange given to Nora by Simon. It is in the relationship between Simon and Sunniva, however, that Dinesen most clearly spells out her concept of justice as the exchange of equal value. Because Simon once saved Sunniva’s life—when she was in the form of a falcon—she is obligated to save him from Ivan’s shipmates. While she was in the shape of the bird, she pecked so hard at Simon’s thumb that it bled; it is thus only just that she wounds her own thumb in her effort to save him. Simon also gave her a blow to her head; that, too, must be repaid in order to balance the scales of justice. The story’s concept of justice resembles that of the Old Testament’s Mosaic...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

This is a ‘‘coming-of-age’’ story, in the sense that Simon’s experiences function as a rite of passage, from boyhood to manhood. Simon’s development, over the course of the story, begins when he is a ‘‘small’’ boy, rescuing the falcon from the mast. Two years later, at seventeen, he has significantly matured, physically: ‘‘Simon had been small for his age all his life, but this last winter he had grown, and had become strong of limb.’’ Yet, at this point, Simon is still a boy. However, the acts of killing a man (Ivan) and kissing a girl (Nora) function as rites of passage, ushering him into full manhood. After he leaves Nora, Simon enters a house where a group of people are dancing. It is at this point that he experiences a shift in his consciousness, from that of a boy to that of a man:

These five minutes during which he stood by the wall of the dancing-room, in the midst of the gay, sweating dancers, were of great significance to the boy. He himself felt it, as if during this time he grew up, and became like other people ... He was Simon, a man like the men round him.

This story is centrally concerned with the theme of destiny. A key element of Simon’s passage from boyhood to manhood is marked by his ability to accept his destiny: to face life as it is presented to him, to accept himself for who he is, and, most of all, to accept the inevitability of death. As he stands amidst the dance party, his awareness of himself as a man is accompanied by his acceptance of his destiny:


(The entire section is 663 words.)