Karen Blixen’s second collection of tales, Winter’s Tales, was published in Denmark on October 10 1942, in the midst of the German wartime occupation of Denmark (1940-45). It was published the same year in Great Britain, but did not appear in the USA until 1943, where it was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, just as her first two books had been.
After the Gothic, aristocratic and African environments of her two previous books, in Winter’s Tales Karen Blixen returns home to very Danish landscapes and milieus and a style that is closer to a Danish literary tradition – in keeping, for example, with Steen Steensen Blicher’s stories. During the 10 years since her return from Africa, Karen Blixen had obviously been reflecting on the nature of her own Danish upbringing. A fundamental aspect of her entire body of work is the search for determining factors in the life and destiny of a human being.
CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE
The central tales in this collection concern children and very young people. An overall theme is that of children who, for different reasons, feel like strangers in the environment in which they are growing up. Alkmene in “Alkmene” is a “love child” adopted by a parson and his wife who have a pietistic philosophy of life that crushes the girl’s innate spirit and sensuousness. The young people in “Peter and Rosa” also grow up in the austere and bleak atmosphere of a parson’s house. Their prospects of breaking with this environment are, however, completely different. Peter dreams of following the migratory birds and going to sea, whereas Rosa, who also yearns to leave, is compelled to stay by reason of her gender. Jens in “The Dreaming Child” grows up with adoptive parents, this time in a bourgeois milieu; but the tale also concerns a child endowed with qualities and a nature that the parents do not recognise or understand.
Karen Blixen grew up at a time when the role of women was changing. Instead of being confined to the roles of wife, mother and housewife, women began to want greater independence: the right to be in direct touch with the world and not merely to experience everything second-hand, via men. This provoked much conflict, not just in relationship to men and the older generation, but also in women themselves. They felt torn between the wish to be loved by men, for whom the ideal of the woman was still the submissive wife and mother, and the desire to be allowed to be independent individuals in their own right.
Karen Blixen wrote about the issue in various ways and to varying degrees. In Winter’s Tales the conflict is seen most clearly in “The Heroine”. Here the dilemma of women’s rebellion is summed up by the scene in a Parisian music-hall, where the central character, Heloise, performs in the tableau Diana’s Revenge. The show represents the Greek myth in which Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, changes Actaeon, a King’s son, into a stag and sets his own pack of hounds on him because he has watched her and her attendant nymphs bathing naked in a lake. Heloise does not, however, take revenge on Frederick, the man who had watched her but did not seriously desire her. At the end of the story, when Frederick is making a good career for himself and is engaged to be married, Heloise can merely ascertain: “It is we who feel it, the women. From us time takes away so much. And in the end: everything.”
TITLES OF THE WINTER’S TALES:
- The Sailor-Boy’s Tale
- The Young Man with the Carnation
- The Pearls
- The Invincible Slave-Owners
- The Heroine
- The Dreaming Child
- The Fish
- Peter and Rosa
- A Consolatory Tale