- The Witch and the Goddess in the Stories of Isak Dinesen
At last, here is a full-length study of Isak Dinesen that unabashedly treats her as a feminist. Not that Sara Stambaugh refuses to acknowledge the complexity of Dinesen's feminism. Out of step with militant feminists of her time, Dinesen apparently believed women should "develop in their own way" and should not "imitate patterns established by men." According to Stambaugh, however, many have felt Dinesen also perpetuated male glorification and vilification of women, assigning females as she does to one of four categories: guardian angels, housewives, prostitutes, and witches. But although the first three groups contain male stereotypes, Dinesen's last group is, writes Stambaugh, intriguingly peopled by wise, independent, sensual women, capable of being ogres or fairy princesses. These witches occur frequently in Dinesen's work and "reflect . . . [her] idealized view of womanhood untrammelled by the restrictions of convention or misogyny." Stambaugh defines her purpose as surveying Dinesen's work for portraits of such [End Page 640] nineteenth-century women existing within the patriarchy and showing the ways in which these women undermined it.
In a chapter titled "Entrapment," Stambaugh focuses on the artificial images women were forced to project in order to appeal to men. As Stambaugh notes, "Few men, Dinesen realized, are romantically intrigued by a woman who is what she seems." Facing the necessity of hiding their real selves—by means of clothing and false conduct—women in Dinesen's stories "contort themselves to embody" something they are not. Still this false image gave them power of a sort. Stambaugh concludes her chapter by noting that "Strongly as [Dinesen] . . . attacked traditional restrictions upon women, it is clear that she nonetheless admired the power they were capable of generating."
A second chapter, "Patriarchy and Subversion," focuses on the ways in which women subverted the patriarchy, obtaining sexual freedom despite pressures to do otherwise. A central joke of one of Dinesen's stories is that despite society's ability to constrain virgins, no nobleman could be sure that he "sired the children who bear his name." In fact, Dinesen's bourgeois portraits often show women violating convention and those of noble women "generally show women stepping beyond their . . . marriage roles." Chapter Three, "Bayaderes and Witches," deals sympathetically with prostitutes but points out that in Dinesen's view a prostitute "had her calling, her justification, and her importance [defined] in relationship to man." A witch, on the other hand, existed independently from men, even though, like the prostitute, she broke the rules. In Chapter Four, "The Apotheosis of Woman," Stambaugh counters earlier critics in showing that many of Dinesen's witches "have feminine knowledge and power which predate Christianity." In fact, according to Stambaugh, most of Dinesen's stories are anti-Christian or ignore Christianity while "posit[ing] an order of living in which people assume responsibility for their own souls and heal the Christian split between spirit and flesh." Further, the gods that Dinesen does depict are strongly feminine. God's earthly representatives, the "artist-priests," are either female or definitively feminine. In a final chapter called "Misogyny," Stambaugh argues that many Dinesen stories contain "feminist readings of her male predecessors" and are filled with "biting analyses of misogyny"; for example, in "The Deluge at Norderney" Stambaugh describes as Dinesen's most "devastating presentation of the subject." She also discusses female self-loathing as presented in several Dinesen tales. Dinesen repeatedly shows, according to Stambaugh, the damage that occurs when men teach women through religion and convention to hate their own bodies. Dinesen appears in her fiction, says Stambaugh, to have decidedly mixed feelings about men. She divides men into groups: those sympathetic to women and those who, to state the case most sympathetically, are "misguided."
I found Sara Stambaugh's arguments fresh, convincing, and forthrightly presented. Having always felt at home reading Dinesen, I now know more clearly why. [End Page 641]