A nest of Chinese boxes

In one of Karen Blixen’s Last Tales, “The Cardinal’s First Tale”, the Cardinal says that the best way to answer the question “Who am I?” is to tell a story. This explains a typical trait in her stories, which is already evident in Seven Gothic Tales: when the characters discuss existential matters they often explain themselves by telling a story. This is a little reminiscent of the function of parables in the Bible – to illustrate or comment on an issue within the body of the text. “I will tell you my whole story,” says the old lady in “The Roads Round Pisa”, “so that you will understand what I want you to do for me.” In “The Deluge at Norderney” young Jonathan Maersk says: “Yes…I will tell you my story. Perhaps I shall understand it all better when I can, at last, give words to it.” In this way each tale comprises many stories within stories, constructed like a nest of Chinese boxes.

The use of stories within stories is not, however, just a compositional technique. It is also a manifestation of the author’s fundamental outlook: our lives are largely shaped by the choices we make and our actions over a period of time, which is exactly what a story deals with. Karen Blixen considers it an inevitable condition of life that we cannot assess the consequences of our actions and choices before it is too late to redo them.

Later on

In many of the stories there is a “later on…” or “afterwards he thought” pointing out that it is not until “afterwards” – i.e. too late – that the characters realise they ought to have acted differently, made a different decision in a specific and crucial situation. In a letter from Africa (July 4 1926) Karen Blixen wrote about this predicament: “I think that so many errors and mistakes are made in life because when one is confronted directly with things one cannot get a comprehensive view of them.” The painful recognition that our understanding surfaces too late contributes to the fundamentally tragic and wistful tone of Karen Blixen’s tales.

The young characters in Seven Gothic Tales find it particularly difficult to discover who they are and where they stand in relation to the expectations of those around them and their own hopes and longings. The nub and conflict in all the tales stems from the relationships between young men and women of marriageable age. Should women live up to the male ideal – as in “The Old Chevalier”? Does the man see the woman he meets for what she is, or is he only looking for an affirmation of his own being – as in “The Dreamers”? Or are the women too proud and inflexible to give themselves free rein for the sake of love – as in “The Monkey”? Should young men and young women bow to the older generation – which has its own agenda in relation to the young people and tries to manipulate them – as in “The Roads Round Pisa” and “The Poet”?

A number of these questions are brought together in a single tale, “The Supper at Elsinore” – a story of two sisters and their brother, which demonstrates the imbalance between the opportunities afforded the sexes to develop and extricate themselves from the demands placed on them by their bourgeois family. Many of Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa consider in detail the inequality of opportunity for men and women in the bourgeois milieu in which she herself grew up.