Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The stories in Winter’s Tales, although they are many-faceted and highly complex, place a heavy emphasis on the role of women in human existence. Women are portrayed as insightful, resourceful, and powerful; although most of their activity takes place behind the scenes, they are in control of the truly important events of life. Other themes of the volume, such as the role of art and the place of religion, are all informed by Isak Dinesen’s larger concern with the nature of the universal female force. Dinesen wrote Winter’s Tales, which was published after Dinesen’s homeland, Denmark, had been occupied by Germany during World War II, partly to encourage her countrymen in their hour of need. Her emphasis on the life-giving female power, as opposed to the destructive masculinity of war, was a way of reminding her readers that the war would not last forever; there would be better times ahead.

The eleven stories in the volume are arranged slightly differently in the American and the Danish editions. In the American version, tales 1 and 11, “The Young Man with the Carnation” and “A Consolatory Tale,” are both focused on the function of art in human life. The Danish edition of the book is introduced by “The Sailor-boy’s Tale,” which is a forceful story about female archetypal power. The difference in organization between the two editions is probably a function of the different circumstances in Denmark and the United States...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dinesen became a writer out of economic necessity. Having spent many years as a coffee farmer in Africa and finally having had to sell her farm, she had nothing but her artistic talent to fall back on when she returned to Denmark in 1931. Some stories that existed in draft form in her African years found their way into her first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934). She further mined her experience in Africa in the autobiographical narrative Out of Africa (1937), which established her as a major literary presence both in Denmark and in the English-speaking world. As a divorced, penniless woman, she wrote in order to make a living.

Winter’s Tales was a great success with both the critics and the public, as were her other books. It was, as were four of her other volumes, chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. She was appointed an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1957, and she was repeatedly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early on, Dinesen was not recognized specifically as a writer of women’s literature; she was seen as a woman who wrote stories. Her love of the past (many of her stories are set in the 1870’s) and the values of a bygone era made it easy to think of her as a cultural and political reactionary. Commentators often focused on the aristocratic values of her characters and the fantastic elements in her texts. With the renewal of the women’s movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, she began to be read differently, as it became easier to see how truly radical she is in her view of the nature of the female and its role in human life. Dinesen came to be recognized as a superb literary artist who also had some very interesting things to say about what it means to be a woman. She has attracted the attention of many gifted critics, some of whom have a feminist bent, and the criticism that has been produced has added much to her reputation. She has also been the subject of a large number of doctoral dissertations.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henriksen, Aage. Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen: The Work and the Life. Translated by William Mishler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Written by a friend of Dinesen who is also a pioneering scholar of her works, the six articles in Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen cover numerous aspects of her life and oeuvre. Commentary on the stories in Winter’s Tales is found throughout, but especially in the essay “Karen Blixen and Marionettes.”

Johannesson, Eric O. The World of Isak Dinesen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961. From a Neo-Critical perspective, Johannesson offers close readings of Dinesen’s tales, concluding that the art of storytelling is the author’s central theme and the basis for her worldview. The book serves as an excellent introduction to Dinesen’s work. There is a good bibliography as well as an index.

Juhl, Marianne, and Bo Hakon Jørgensen. Diana’s Revenge: Two Lines in Isak Dinesen’s Authorship. Translated by Anne Born. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1985. This volume contains two essays of considerable length. Juhl’s “Sex and Consciousness” is informed by feminist theory. Jørgensen, in “The Ways of Art,” discusses the relationship between Dinesen’s sensuality and her art. Their book has a good bibliography and is particularly strong in its discussion of...

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