Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1370
When Isak Dinesen’s SEVEN GOTHIC TALES first appeared in 1934, their old-world atmosphere, their romantic style of writing, and their aura of mystery made them highly popular. Particularly in America, these tales of nineteenth century aristocratic life and of the supernatural found a wide audience of people tired of the vast amount of realistic and naturalistic fiction of the age. At that time, few Americans knew Dinesen’s real identity (she is a Danish Baroness, Karen Blixen-Finecke). In fact, Dorothy Canfield, who wrote the introduction to the first American edition of SEVEN GOTHIC TALES, did not know whether the author was a man or a woman and only ventured the guess that the author was a northern European of aristocratic background. These tales, and Dinesen’s subsequent work, have held a loyal audience ever since, although for many readers the enthusiasm that originally greeted the SEVEN GOTHIC TALES has been tempered by an awareness of the overwriting and the tricks frequently used to bring the plots together.
Many of the plots involved in the SEVEN GOTHIC TALES deal with a vanishing aristocracy in Europe in the early or middle years of the nineteenth century. The aristocracy, concerned with passing its blood down from generation to generation, finds the lines of breeding corrupted by illegitimacy. The uncovering of illegitimacy, or sometimes of legitimacy, is one of the major plot devices in Dinesen’s work. In “The Deluge at Norderney,” for example, Jonathan Maersk is trying to escape the knowledge that he is really a baron’s son instead of the son of a simple seaman. The knowledge that he is the baron’s son makes Miss Malin Nat-og-Dag arrange a marriage between him and her godchild while they are all waiting in a hayloft for a rescue boat during a flood. The plot hinges on Jonathan’s disclosure of his origin, no matter how melancholy this revelation makes him, for melancholy is fashionable among the aristocracy of the time. The question of legitimacy also plays a strong part in the working out of several of the other tales.
Most of the stories also contain a strong element of the supernatural. People assume the identities of others, as the servant Kasparson assumes the identity of Cardinal Hamilcar von Sehestedt, after he has killed the cardinal in “The Deluge at Norderney”; or people’s lives strangely follow the pattern of long-dead historical figures as in “The Poet,” in which the situation repeats the pattern of a royal triangle that had led to tragedy in the same town half a century before. It is as if men are not the agents that control their destinies; rather, they are pushed by powers greater than they, powers that are never explained or described in any rationally comprehensible manner. Mysterious transformations also take place in this northern and supernatural world, as the prioress is transformed inexplicably in “The Monkey.” Along this gloomy northern shore, men are haunted by ghosts of history and their own past actions. The supernatural is not always inexplicable; it is sometimes, in Dinesen’s work, used as the symbol for the past of the character influencing his present. Morten De Coninck’s return to the sea, in “The Supper at Elsinore,” is at least as much a reaction against his sisters and his boyhood memories as it is a mysterious “call” from powers stronger than he. In other stories, such as “The Monkey,” both Athena’s and the prioress’ actions seem attributable only to supernatural causes.
These stories are full of heroic and aristocratic action. For example, in “The Roads Round Pisa,” a young Danish nobleman who helps an old lady after a road accident finds himself led into a complex of events that eventually causes him to become involved in a duel. The stories have floods and storms, long voyages and tragic deaths, a constant kind of romantic derring-do. If the characters are expected to maintain strength and heroism in the face of adversity, if they do avoid self-pity (although not melancholy), they still become involved in incidents like duels for love or honor, in raging storms or floods, that recall the romantic tradition. The only element in Dinesen’s work that distinguishes it from the supernatural, romantic tale is the need of the characters to meet their fate without wailing, with bravery and often stoicism, as an aristocratic old woman faces the decay of her class and her own possible death during a furious storm in “The Deluge at Norderney.” At its best, Dinesen’s work shows the courage involved in facing the unpredictable, the romantic defeat, the powerful supernatural force.
Some of the tales, such as “The Poet” and “The Supper at Elsinore,” have more simple and domestic settings. Instead of dealing with bizarre aristocrats considering bloodlines and legitimacy, these stories deal with simple townspeople or seafaring families. These people also become involved in strange events that they cannot control, and they find the romantic promptings of their souls unfulfilled in the quiet ways of life they are expected to lead. “The Poet” deals with the love triangle of the town councillor, the poet, and the beautiful lady who has just come to town. Their romantic urges, their characters, and their fates make a conflict inevitable, despite their awareness of a historical warning concerning the same kind of triangle. Two sisters, who have unwillingly become old maids because their brother ran away from his intended bride at the altar, wait faithfully for the brother in “The Supper at Elsinore.” He returns but again runs away, for the pathetic and romantic sisters have come to represent exactly what he fled in the first place. Dinesen is able to look at her characters clearly in these stories, analyze the motives that impel them, sympathize with their romantic dreams, and yet treat their defeats without falling into mawkish excess.
One of Dinesen’s stories is more glibly ironic than are the rest. In “The Old Chevalier,” an old baron who has been successful with the ladies for many years is approached by a lovely young girl in Paris. He takes her to his room, invests her with all the characteristics of the enigmatic and romantic waif, makes love to her, and feels he has found something pure, ideal, and beautiful. Then, as she is leaving, she asks him for her standard fee. Like Dinesen’s other aristocratic heroes, he takes his defeat with good grace but with knowledge of the ironic situation in which he finds himself. Although obvious similar devices of plot are frequent in SEVEN GOTHIC TALES, the bizarre details and the supernatural aura of stories such as “The Monkey” and “The Deluge at Norderney” make them far more interesting for most readers than is “The Old Chevalier.”
The frequent use of both the bizarre and the supernatural is paralleled by Dinesen’s rich and provocative style. Although often repetitious, the prose is full of gloomy images of the northern seas, a full use of comparisons, and great ease of manner. Dinesen is a true storyteller, able to evoke a mood with richness, ease, and power. Her prose is also distinguished by touches of humor that, without disrupting the thread of the narrative, are apparent in all of her work. These frequent injections of humor do much to relieve the fullness and the supernatural aura of the ornate prose.
Despite the humor and despite an awareness of psychological motive, Dinesen is not essentially a twentieth century writer. Her adroit, easy style, her fondness for the bizarre and the supernatural, her construction of elaborate plots based on a trick, a mistaken identity, a sudden inexplicable transformation—all these make her tales far more characteristic of nineteenth century rather than twentieth century writing. Because she writes out of allegiance to the earlier Gothic tradition and with consciously contrived artistry, it does not seem likely that she will be celebrated as one of the greatest, most profound, or most interesting writers. At the same time, her deliberate adherence to a past literary tradition and an earlier style and point of view makes her work an interesting example of the diversity of contemporary literature and provides her with a loyal and enthusiastic group of readers.
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