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Critical Essay by Donald Hannah
SOURCE: "In Memoriam Karen Blixen: Some Aspects of Her Attitude of Life," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 4, October-December, 1963, pp. 585-604.
In the following essay, Hannah examines Dinesen's major works—the autobiography Out of Africa and several of the short stories—focusing on their depiction of the past and evocation of nostalgia.
It was perhaps typical of that elusive, even enigmatic figure, the late Baroness Karen Blixen-Finecke, that she was most widely known by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. But this is the least of the paradoxes with which the reader of her work is faced. Karen Blixen, a Dane, wrote most of her short stories first in English, and then "translated" them into her native language. The deep vein of fantasy and imagination in her work is matched by a rigorous process of selection and control. She was the great story-teller in an age where the story-element is considered one of the less important aspects of fiction. But possibly the most striking side of her work lies in her treatment of the past; it exercised a very strong fascination for her, and it is the dimension in which her imagination seemed most at home. Nevertheless, although her stories are set in the past, in general, spanning the period from the end of the eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth, they can be considered as historical fiction in only a very limited sense.
When one turns to the details of her work, the impression of paradox is strengthened. She was both Isak Dinesen, the detached, impersonal story-teller, seldom, if ever, entering into her work to comment upon the action, and Karen Blixen, the author of an autobiography in which comment and action are of equal importance. As Isak Dinesen, she published four collections of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Winter's Tales (1942), Last Tales (1957), and Anecdotes of Destiny (1958). These are her chief works of fiction, but to these should be added her novel, The Angelic Avengers, published in 1974 under another pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel. This was written, as a diversion, during the German occupation of Denmark, but except for the fact that it too is set in the past, in mid-nineteenth century England, it lies outside the main scope of her work. Her autobiography, Out of Africa, was published under her own name in 1937. This was supplemented by a small volume, Shadows on the Grass (1960), published under her usual pseudonym.
Karen Blixen was born in 1885 at Rungstedlund in Denmark; just before the first World War she went out to Kenya. She spent the next seventeen years of her life there as the owner of a large farm near Nairobi. Then she returned to Denmark to begin a new life as a writer, living again at Rungstedlund until her death on September 7, 1962, after a long drawn-out illness which she bore with characteristic courage.
Karen Blixen and Isak Dinesen. Her own story and her tales. Her life and her art. How are these related to one another? Karen Blixen's work is, in fact, the expression of firmly held convictions and a sharply individual attitude to life, shaped and moulded by personal experience. To discover something of the basis of this experience, one must turn to Out of Africa, for it was during the period recorded there that the connecting link was forged between Karen Blixen's life and her art. During her latter years in Kenya, her life was shadowed by personal tragedy and by incessant struggle against debt and failure of harvests. From life she turned to fiction, from the present to the past:
I began in the evenings to write stories, fairytales and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times.
[Out of Africa]
In 1931 the farm had to be sold. The moving and restrained account of her grief at this and at the tragic death of her beloved friend, Denys Finch-Hatton, should be read in its entirety for no isolated quotation can do it justice.
But her life in Kenya was not all tragedy:
Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air … you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.
"Looking back … where I ought to be." The two phrases suggest the whole tone of the book and the mood underlying it. For if the predominant impression left on the reader is one of the splendour of Karen Blixen's life in Africa, there is also a persistent undertone of deep sadness. Out of Africa has been written and is read in the shadow cast by the title.
The great attraction of Kenya for Karen Blixen was not only the splendour of the surroundings, but also the way of life on the farm. As the owner of much land, she had many duties to perform, as law-giver, doctor, hunter, for the Africans living on it. She carried these out with great sympathy and insight, as both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass bear witness, but she was also happy in doing so. "Life out there," she once said, "was, I believe, rather like 18th Century England: one might often be hard up for cash, but life was still rich in many ways." Not only the short stories are set in the past: Out of Africa too recalls a vanished epoch:
The Colony is changing and has already changed since I lived there. When I write down as accurately as possible my experiences on the farm … it may have a sort of historical interest.
Writing of the death of Berkeley Cole, one of her close friends, she says, "When Berkeley died, the country changed…. Up till his death [it] had been the Happy Hunting Grounds, now it was slowly changing and turning into a business proposition." The book describes a society before the full effects of this change were felt. Inevitably, when the farm was sold, Karen Blixen's life in Kenya came to an end, and the Africans living on the farm were similarly uprooted when they were given six months' notice to get off the land. Seen from this point of view, the fact that the farm was parcelled out as building-plots, and that her house was turned into a club for the new residential quarter, acquires an almost symbolic meaning. The departure from the farm was the signal for the full establishment of the "business proposition" and the consequent disruption of the settled, determined, and ordered life of the past. The semi-feudal conditions of life on the farm meant that she had actually lived in the past and felt deeply attracted to it. It was natural, therefore, that Karen Blixen should return to the past in her fiction, although actually not with her mind "a long way off."
This is not to suggest, however, that, as a process of nostalgic wish-fulfilment, Karen Blixen simply transposed into her short stories the details of her own story in Africa. It is true that Out of Africa has some "sort of historical interest," but of equal importance is the way in which that historical interest is coloured by the personality of Karen Blixen herself. This is also true of the short stories. The paradox of the contrast between them and Out of Africa is not really so great, for despite the apparent elimination of the personality of the author by the technique adopted for the narration of the tales, despite the substitution of the figure of Isak Dinesen for the personality of Karen Blixen, the attitude to life and the personality behind them can be clearly traced, and it is that of the author of Out of Africa. In the stories an historical period is recorded; yet an imaginative world, based upon personal experience, is also created.
The ruling principles of this world are firmly held convictions which determine its every constituent element. Karen Blixen's short stories are the result of a completely disciplined and a completely conscious artistry. There is no chance or triviality in the world she creates; all irrelevant incident and detail is either eliminated or is later shown to be an integrated and connected strand woven into the total pattern and thus contributing its part to the completed design. There is no figure in the carpet; the figure is the carpet itself. The narrative pattern of the story and the life which is described and traced out by this pattern become one and the same thing. A world is created by her art, where it is possible for a character to play an accepted and ordained role, which is accepted by the character himself, is ordained by the demands of the story, and where the choice of the role is made both possible and necessary by the period in which the story is set. This conception of playing a role is fundamental both to Karen Blixen's art and to her attitude to life. The parallel which this offers with Karen Blixen's own life as the great landowner in Kenya does not need stressing. It was a role which she accepted for herself, and which the conditions in Kenya at that time made it possible to play and necessary to accept.
The world described in Out of Africa, set and rooted in the past, is intertwined with Karen Blixen's own; and this is also true of the stories. Nowhere do these aspects eventually become clearer than in the short story "Sorrow-Acre," included in Winter's Tales. This story represents in a small compass many of the major aspects of her work; it also marks what is probably Karen Blixen's greatest single achievement in fiction.
"Sorrow-Acre" is based on a folk-tale from the south of Jutland. The details of the folk-tale vary, but the most important version for our purpose is given in F. Ohrt's Udvalgte Sönderiydske Folkesagn (Selected Folk-Tales from South Jutland), published in 1919. This version runs as follows:
During a flood with high tidal waves, a good deal of flotsam drifted ashore near Ballum. Amongst it, a young man from the town recognised some pieces belonging to his family and started salvaging them. Whilst he was doing this, one of the robbers from Skaerbaek came and wanted some of it. They started fighting and the young lad unfortunately killed his opponent. At that time, however, these beachrobbers were so powerful that they had him condemned to death at the court-house. His mother, deeply distressed by this, went to the Count at his castle of Skakkenborg, told him of her grief, and implored him to show mercy towards her son. The Count promised her to do so on the condition that she must mow a field of barley between sunrise and sunset. This field was so large that four men would have had much labour to cut it in one day. If she could do it, her son would be set free. The mother accepted the task, and did finish it. When she had cut the last handful with her sickle, she said,Now the sun will set
Now God's mercy I will get
But at the very moment when she raised herself from her bent position, her back broke and she fell dead. The mother was buried in the churchyard at Ballum. On her grave, a stone has been laid on which she is drawn with a sheaf and sickle in her arm. The field where she cut the corn is still shown. To this day it is known as Sorrow-Acre.
The date of the events giving rise to the folk-tale can be determined with some accuracy, since the flood took place in 1634.
In March, 1931, the Danish writer Paul la Cour published a much longer version of the folk-tale in the periodical Tilskueren. The original version, as found in Ohrt's collection, was also included. Karen Blixen had already published some work in this periodical, which occupied a prominent place in Danish cultural life, but although this contribution to Tilskueren therefore was probably the actual source of "Sorrow-Acre," her short story, nevertheless, differs considerably from both la Cour's version and from the original folk-tale itself.
Paul la Cour follows the details of the original story very closely. But considering these bare details as "schematic and too condensed" he lengthens them very considerably, mainly by dwelling on the feelings of the mother, through whom much of the story is presented. The focus of the tale is consequently shifted, and the final result is an emotionally heightened elaboration in which the feelings receive as much emphasis as the events. Karen Blixen's short story, however, contrasts sharply with la Cour's since the stress falls on the narration of the actual events, while the details of the narrative, as found in the folk-tale, are extensively changed.
In "Sorrow-Acre," a young man on the estate of a Danish lord has been accused of setting fire to one of the barns. Anne-Marie, his widowed mother, intercedes for him, and, like the mother in the folk-tale, is told that if she can cut a field of corn between sunrise and sunset her son will be set free. But if she fails, the case against her son will go through and she will never see him again. To this agreement the lord pledges his word and Anne-Marie accepts the conditions. We learn of this in retrospect, since "Sorrow-Acre" begins with the thoughts and reminiscences of the lord's young nephew, Adam, newly returned from a long stay in England. It is through his eyes that much of the action is presented, and the conflicting ideas forming the centre of the story emerge from the conversations which take place between the two men when Adam entreats the lord to retract his word, thereby annulling the agreement. He refuses to do this, and the rest of the story follows the folk-tale, with the mother dying just as she has completed her task. The son is freed, and the field afterwards is named "Sorrow-Acre."
From this, some of the changes made will be apparent; two, in particular, are very significant. A completely new character, Adam, is introduced, and his importance in the story is stressed by the method of narration. The other major change from the folk-tale is that the date at which the events take place has been altered by well over a hundred years. This date is just as firmly given as it was in the folk-tale, though in a more indirect way. During the course of the story, Adam lends his uncle a book which has recently been published. Since it is described as a tragedy by Johannes Ewald dealing with the gods of Nordic mythology, it is clear that the work is Balders Död, first published in 1775. The introduction of a new main character and a shift in time from about 1634 to 1775—why are these changes made?
These two major alterations are connected and together they point to one of the major themes. The story is set in the period when the long-established, semi-feudal, landed society of the eighteenth century is beginning to face the challenge of new ideas. Moreover, the fact that Balders Död gives rise to the discussions is clearly intended by Karen Blixen, not only to give the period in which "Sorrow-Acre" is set, but also to cast further light upon the opposing attitudes. Ewald's drama centres on Balder, who in this work is a Nordic demi-god driven to his death by the irresistible force of his love for Nanna, a mortal woman; although a demi-god, he is powerless to control his emotions. The main significance of Balders Död for the old lord is that it marks the emergence of a new era, which "has made to itself a God in its own image, an emotional God" ["Sorrow-Acre"]. and is thus in complete opposition to his own ideal of omnipotence upon which he bases his conduct and which is represented for him by the ancient gods of classical mythology. The setting of the folktale has been deliberately transferred by Karen Blixen, so that now her short story stands near one of the great turning-points in Danish and European social and cultural history, and the figure of Adam is introduced to be the voice of the new age. The two ways of life confront each other in the impassioned appeal made by Adam:
"This woman is ready to die for her son,—will it ever happen to you or me that a woman willingly gives up her life for us? And if it did indeed come to pass, should we make so light of it as not to give up a dogma in return?"
"You are young," said the old Lord. "A new age will undoubtedly applaud you. I am oldfashioned, I have been quoting to you texts a thousand years old. We do not, perhaps, quite understand one another."
A ready sympathy is aroused by the views here expressed by Adam. But, perhaps, the sympathy is felt a little too readily and the identification with one character made too swiftly. For part of the greatness of "Sorrow-Acre" lies in the fact that the reader is gradually forced from this identification with one character to a clearer perception and imaginative understanding of the old lord's role, and everything which this represents. In particular, we are made to realize the full implications of what is merely "a dogma" or "a whim" for Adam. The conflicting issues in "Sorrow-Acre" are not simply presented in abstract terms in discussions; they take on a life of their own and are embodied by the complete story. They are strands which are woven into the completed pattern, and which must be related to the whole; indeed, we are compelled to relate them by the narrative method adopted, the deceptive simplicity of which really conceals much artistry.
The artistry by which we are made to look on the old lord's role with a maturing sympathy and a gradually quickened understanding needs to be stressed, since it can be so easily overlooked. The method of narration is actually used in order to weight the scales against the lord, since we see him mainly through the eyes of a highly critical Adam. It is a criticism which is presented with scrupulous honesty and to which full weight is given. And although Anne-Marie dies at the supreme moment of her love and glory, her sacrifice, which has been exacted by the conditions imposed by the lord, is not minimized in any way. On the contrary, it has been counted against him in the beautifully rendered description of Anne-Marie's death at the end:
At the sound of [her son's] voice she lifted her face to him, a faint, bland shadow of surprise ran over it, but still she gave no sign of having heard what he said, so that the people round them began to wonder if the exhaustion had turned her deaf. But after a moment she slowly and waveringly raised her hand, fumbling in the air as she aimed at his face, and with her fingers touched his cheek. The cheek was wet with tears, so that at the contact her finger-tips lightly stuck to it, and she seemed unable to overcome the infinitely slight resistance or to withdraw her hand. For a minute the two looked one another in the face. Then, softly and lingeringly, like a sheaf of corn that falls to the ground, she sank forward on to the boy's shoulder, and he closed his arms round her.
With all these factors apparently weighing so heavily against the old lord, how is the reader brought to an understanding of the part he plays and the ideals he represents?
The simplest answer to this question is to consider the way in which his character is conceived and presented by Karen Blixen. His attributes of firmness, stateliness, and nobility are clearly brought out by the manner and style with which his speech and his actions are presented. They compel the reader's admiration. But he is not really individualized in the story, not even given a name; he remains from first to last "the old lord." And this lack of individualization in terms of the story reflects his position in the particular period of history in which the story is set. Describing the life of the great country houses, the author remarks:
To the King and the country, to his family and to the individual Lord of the manor himself it was a matter of minor consequence which particular Rosenkrantz, Juel or Skeel, out of a long row of Fathers and Sons, at the moment in his person incarnated the fields and woods, the peasants, cattle and game of the estate.
The reader's understanding of the character of the old lord also extends to the part he has to play. His character in the story is his part in life; the two cannot be separated, for they are made one by the way in which he is presented. An understanding of the lord's character clarifies what he stands for; by her way of representing him, Karen Blixen has succeeded, against all modern predilections, and against all odds, in investing his duties with nobility, grandeur, and understanding. He is seen as the embodiment of the duties of the great land-owners of the past, both to their land and to the people living on it. This fact offers an indication of the part which the superb evocation of the Danish landscape at the beginning of the story contributes to the whole. The pen in Karen Blixen's hand is here used like a brush (as a young girl she attended courses in painting and art in Copenhagen and Paris), but the details painted in so deftly and delicately, stroke by stroke, are not merely there to provide local colour. Like the splendour of the description of the surroundings in Out of Africa which convey something of the same quality to the account of her life there, these details in "Sorrow-Acre" contribute to the total effect of the story. The description is of a landscape—but of a landscape with figures; rendered in terms of the people and society which inhabit it, it ceases to be merely this, and becomes a land where life falls into an ordered pattern, drawn by generations of people, traced by stability, marked by tradition and order, and maintained throughout the centuries by these same qualities:
A child of the country would read this open landscape like a book. The irregular mosaic of meadows and cornlands was a picture, in timid green and yellow, of the people's struggle for its daily bread,—the centuries had taught it to plough and sow in this way….
… But where, amongst cupular woods and groves, the lordly, pyramidal silhouette of the cut lime-avenues rose in the air, there a big country-house lav … as firmly rooted in the soil of Denmark as the peasants' huts.
In this description and rendering of a way of life, country-house and peasant hut, peasant and lord, are parts which together form the complete whole. The old lord's word—to Adam only a dogma and a whim—is the principle of this land upon which the maintenance and continuation of this whole order and way of life rests. "Sorrow-Acre" itself is but one field in the whole pattern drawn in the landscape. Much more is at stake for the old lord than Anne-Marie's individual fate and destiny, or even his own.
None of the characters are individualized, standing out in bold relief from the story; instead they are made to play their parts which are fitted into the design depicted at the beginning. Representation of the complete pattern of this life becomes the total design of the story—design in every sense—which is reaffirmed at the close, when, in the evening-light, the people left in the field after Anne-Marie's death bind up the corn she has cut, "imitating and measuring her course from one end of the rye-field to the other." The unity between the old lord and the people has been maintained; "the old Lord stayed with them for a long time, stepping along a little, and again standing still. As it grew darker he could walk up quite close to them or move amongst them, without being recognised."
The old order has been re-affirmed and maintained, the unity of this life has been continued—but for how long? Ultimately history itself breaks into this stable world, set in the past and enclosed by the story. Adam too has his destiny to fulfill. There is no heir to the land; the lord's son has died, and while Adam was in England, it was predicted to him that a son of his would inherit the estate. His relationship to the lord's young wife and its implications are not elaborated, but they also form part of the events and point symbolically to the future. The setting in the past, which causes the conflict between the two ways of life, also indicates the way in which the issue will be decided. And it is one which heightens the stature of the old lord into that of an indomitable figure defending a dying order.
One final point remains to be made about the old lord, for behind this figure can be discerned much of the attitude which shaped Karen Blixen's whole life and work. For him, "tragedy is the privilege of man, his highest privilege," whereas "the true art of the Gods is the comic." He develops this belief by saying, that here on earth, "we, who stand in lieu of the Gods … should leave to our vassals their monopoly of tragedy, and for ourselves accept the comic with grace," and he acts accordingly by leaving to Anne-Marie her monopoly of tragedy. But if she is made a tragic figure by the old lord's actions, he, in turn, is made into something rather different by the author. By implying that the old lord will be made a cuckold by his young wife and Adam, Karen Blixen has thus turned him into one of the most traditional figures of comedy; moreover, by doing so, she has implicitly endorsed the validity of his attitude and belief. In fact, she has revealed, simply through the narrative events of the story and the turn given to them, how closely she herself is to be identified with his ideas. The old lord remarks that "the very same fatality which, in striking the burgher or peasant will become tragedy, with the aristocrat is exalted to the comic. By the grace and wit of our acceptance hereof our aristocracy is known." If these beliefs govern his attitude and behaviour in "Sorrow-Acre," they also define, with equal force, the attitude and behaviour of Karen Blixen herself as revealed in Out of Africa.
Adam, however, remains unconvinced by his uncle's point of view, as indeed he must as a character in the story with an historical role. Nevertheless, there is a point, where suddenly, he seems to perceive the meaning of life, and to see a concord arising out of the conflict:
All that lived must suffer, the old man, whom he had judged hardly, had suffered, as he had watched his son die, and had dreaded the obliteration of his being,—he himself would come to know ache, tears and remorse, and, even through these, the fullness of life. So might now, to the woman in the rye-field, her ordeal be a triumphant procession. For to die for the one you loved was an effort too sweet for words…. As the song is one with the voice that sings it, as the road is one with the goal, as lovers are made one in their embrace, so is man one with his destiny, and he shall love it as himself.
The concept of destiny expressed here is a theme which echoes again and again in Karen Blixen's work, for it voices some of her most deeply felt convictions. In Out of Africa, a passage which has rightly been described as "quintessential Blixen," offers a close parallel to Adam's thoughts:
Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it. He does not strive towards a happiness, or comfort, which may be irrelevant to God's idea of him. His success is the idea of God, successfully carried through, and he is in love with his destiny. As the good citizen finds his happiness in the fulfilment of his duty to the community so does the proud man find his happiness in the fulfilment of his fate.
People who have no pride are not aware of any idea of God in the making of them, and sometimes they make you doubt that there has ever been much of an idea, or else it has been lost, and who shall find it again? They have got to accept as success what others warrant to be so, and to take their happiness, and even their own selves, at the quotation of the day. They tremble, with reason, before their fate.
[Out of Africa]
This passage illustrates very clearly the attitude and beliefs which have created the figures in "Sorrow-Acre," and accounts for the way in which they are conceived and presented. Their role is their destiny successfully carried though and they become at one with it. Adam sees the actions of the people in "Sorrow-Acre" as an illustration of the general destiny of human life. Because the story is set in a particular period, the conflicts, reflected in it, cannot be reconciled in those particular historical terms. Nevertheless, they are brought into concord; not, however, in terms of the past, but in those of Karen Blixen's own attitude to life. The old lord, Anne-Marie, Adam, all fulfil their destiny, and just as these characters are not individuals, but part of a total whole, so too are the events in the field, "Sorrow-Acre." "All that lived must suffer" …; man is "one with his destiny." The story illustrates the general law of human existence for Karen Blixen, and one which is independent of a particular time and a localized place. As in other stories, she establishes, the world of this story in an age and society of the past, but uses it to illustrate the law of her own world. "Sorrow-Acre" is only one short story and one small field; it is, however, large enough to stretch out to a farm in Africa and to span the world of Karen Blixen's fiction.
To realize fully how much of this world it does span, one must go back at least a decade further than Out of Africa to a short play, Sandhedens Hævn (Revenge of Truth), first published in Tilskueren in May, 1926, but probably written many years before. In a letter to me, Karen Blixen once said, "I wrote it when I was a young girl, my sisters and brothers and myself acted it here at Rungstedlund."
The play is short, it was written in Danish, and it has not been translated into English. It is subtitled "A Marionette Comedy," but this description can be misleading. As Karen Blixen's letter indicated, it was originally performed by her brothers and sisters and herself. The play, therefore, was not written for puppets acting as human beings; it is, rather, the human beings in it who act as puppets. They are turned into marionettes by the plot, which tells how a witch casts a spell over the characters staying at an inn so that any lie they tell eventually becomes the truth, and they are unable to prevent this from happening. Thus the subtitle, "A Marionette Comedy," does not so much describe the type of play as indicate its major theme. Undoubtedly, here in this early play can be seen the genesis of much of her later work.
Sandhedens Hoevn itself is brought quite explicitly into a short story, "The Roads round Pisa," included in Seven Gothic Tales. In that story, the main figures, like those in the play, are brought together at an inn, and during the evening some of them watch the performance of a marionette comedy. This play is actually Karen Blixen's own earlier work:
The play which was being acted was the immortal Revenge of Truth, that most charming of marionette comedies. Every body will remember how the plot is created by a witch pronouncing, upon the house wherein all the characters are collected, a curse to the effect that any lie told within it will become true…. At the end the witch appears again, and on being asked what is really the truth, answers: "The truth, my children, is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy. What is important more than anything else in a marionette comedy, is keeping the ideas of the author clear. This is the real happiness of life, and now that I have at last come into a marionette play, I will never go out of it again. But you, my fellow actors, keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences."
[Seven Gothic Tales]
If the three passages, Adam's thoughts in "Sorrow-Acre," Karen Blixen's own attitude as expressed in Out of Africa, and this last extract, where two works overlap into one, are compared, some striking parallels immediately become apparent. Man is "one with his destiny—and he shall love it as himself…. "—"His success is the idea of God, successfully carried through, and he is in love with his destiny"—"keep the ideas of the author clear. Aye, drive them to their utmost consequences." Obviously, these are much more than verbal echoes. What we witness here, in fact, is the intersection for Karen Blixen of her life and her art, the point where her attitude to life becomes her attitude to her art, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen merge into one figure, and life and literature meet and become one single entity.
"The truth," says the witch in Sanhedens Hoevn, "is that we are, all of us, acting in a marionette comedy." And this is true, not only for that particular play, but also for Karen Blixen's work in general—with one essential qualification. The choice for her figures is not whether they should be in a marionette comedy; they are already in it, by being figures in the stories. The choice lies in whether they should act in it or not. The persons in Karen Blixen's stories can be divided into two main categories. There are, first, those who choose a role and play it so successfully that they become their role. We have already seen this process in "Sorrow-Acre," and similar figures can be found in many other stories. In several tales, the parts which they succeed in playing are even suggested by the titles—"The Invincible Slave-Owners," "The Old Chevalier," "The Heroine." The persons in this category are those who have "faith in the idea that God had, when he made us," and having faith, they "keep the ideas of the author clear." Secondly, there are those who are unable to play a role, who "are not aware of any idea of God in the making of them," persons such as "The Dreamers," who do nothing to choose their own ways, or like Count Augustus von Schimmelmann in "The Poet," who has "to accept his happiness according to the quotation of the day."
Even from this brief summary, several implications will be clear. The two main categories, to which Karen Blixen's characters conform, are those set out in the two paragraphs on pride in Out of Africa. If these paragraphs are "quintessential Blixen," they also establish the central tenets of Isak Dinesen. They not only record an attitude to life, they are also the expression of an artistic creed.
Behind Karen Blixen's attitude is the firm belief that there is a purpose in life, that we have been created with a particular design in mind. Our function in life is to realize what this design is, and to carry it through. It is also possible, however, to refuse this role, by being unaware of the idea underlying our creation, in which case we lose any sense of purpose in life. This is precisely the choice with which the persons in her stories are confronted; we have already noted how the figures in "Sorrow-Acre" accept their roles and play them to a conclusion. The persons in her stories are not individualized; they are stylized to a type and simplified to a basic idea—their role. They are personifications of the ideas of the author, and their purpose is to trace out her design.
This conception of fulfiling one's destiny by playing an allotted role, however, is not one of passive resignation. Although there is little choice of the type of part, nevertheless, the true choice for Karen Blixen, both in her own life, and for the figures in her stories, is always one between active acceptance and passive refusal. Both persons in real life, and the figures in the stories, may be marionettes—but it is also possible for marionettes to get the strings entangled. Her stories are concerned with the attempt to unravel them.
Possibly, by thus analyzing Karen Blixen's attitude and beliefs, one has also reached the position from which the true perspective of the setting in the past can be seen. The world of her short stories is both the reflection of a particular historical period, and, at the same time, a mirror in which can be discerned her attitude to life. And this is true even for "Sorrow-Acre," possibly the short story where the historical setting figures most prominently. As important as the historical past, in which the stories take place, are the past years of Karen Blixen's own life spent in Africa.
Finally, there is a rather curious analogy with Karen Blixen's attitude to life, particularly towards her life in Africa, which may also help to define her beliefs more clearly; the analogy is with that of W. B. Yeats in some of his poetry. If she had her farm in Africa, Yeats also stayed often at Coole Park, and for both of them, these places represented much more than simply large landed estates. Yeats's feeling that here "Life overflows without ambitious pains; / And rains down life until the basin spills" ["Meditations in Time of Civil War—Ancestral Houses," in Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1950] is also a constant theme in the account of Karen Blixen's life in Africa, and it is one which gives the book some of its characteristic tone. Even the fate of both estates was the same; Coole Park was also sold. "All that great glory spent" ["Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931," Collected Poems]; Yeats's remark could easily afford an epigraph to Out of Africa. There is also an analogy between Karen Blixen's idea of choosing a role and Yeats's theory of the "Mask," even though in his work, of course, the theory is much more complex. Moreover, if Yeats, as a poet, felt himself to be one of the last Romantics, in a poetic tradition going back many thousands of years:
We were the last romantics—chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever's written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
["Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931"]
Karen Blixen was equally conscious, as a story-teller, of belonging to an age-old tradition, of possibly being one of the last representatives of it. On a record, which she made in Denmark, she prefaced telling some of her stories by saying:
I belong to an ancient, idle, wild and useless tribe, perhaps I am even one of the last members of it, who, for many thousands of years, in all countries and parts of the world, has, now and again, stayed for a time among the hardworking, honest people in real life, and sometimes has thus been fortunate enough to create another sort of reality for them, which, in some way or another, has satisfied them. I am a storyteller.
["Karen Blixer Fortaeller …," Louisiana Grammofonplader]
If the passage on pride in Out of Africa was the key-stone of Karen Blixen's life and work, Yeats's own "pride like that of the morn" ["The Tower," Collected Poems] is part of the foundations upon which "The Tower" is established. And what better summary of Karen Blixen's work is there, than Yeats's own epitaph?
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
It is obvious that Karen Blixen's short stories, based on these beliefs, will never gain an easy popularity—nor do they court it. They are the expression of an attitude and controlled by certain convictions, which are, perhaps, hard and uncomforting; indeed, they reflect a world where happiness, ease, and comfort are simply irrelevant considerations. No one reading Out of Africa can doubt that these beliefs were reached at the cost of much personal suffering and endurance. Formed and confirmed by hard and bitter experience, they were tenaciously and uncompromisingly carried through until the end both in life and in fiction. But the result is an achievement which wins our respect—and deserves our admiration.
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