(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Romantic in tone and setting, the stories of Winter’s Tales have reminded many readers of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the dark, brooding fables of Joseph Conrad. Each of these eleven tales features domineering characters who take control of their lives and who define themselves by reacting strongly to another character. Most of the tales are set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, in a glittering world of aristocrats, sea captains, officers, lords, and ladies. In “Sorg-Agre” (“Sorrow-Acre”) for example, an eighteenth century Danish nobleman tells a peasant woman that she can save her son from death only by harvesting an acre of rye in the course of one day, from sunup to sundown. The woman succeeds but dies in doing so, leaving the aristocrat—and the reader—to ponder the meaning of her death. The nobleman does not allow the field to be planted again, and erects a statue of the woman on the spot where she died, as if her death were, in fact, a kind of victory over the meanness of everyday living.

In “Heloíse” (“The Heroine”), an aristocratic Frenchwoman saves a group of tourists who are trapped in Germany at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Later, one of the young men who owes his life to her discovers that she has become a dance hall girl, although she remains as proud and heroic as when he first encountered her. The air of mystery and the sense of invisible forces operating on people’s...

(The entire section is 460 words.)