Winter's Tales Background

Winter's Tales Background

Isak Dinesen is a pen name of Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke, a Danish author who published under several other pseudonyms over the course of her career. Dinesen was multilingual and translated most of her own works--she wrote Winter's Tales, a collection of 11 short stories, in 1942, and translated it into English within the same year.

Like many of Dinesen's other works, the stories in Winter's Tales are set in historic Denmark and are influenced by fairy tales, myths, Icelandic sagas, and Danish folktales. Dinesen's style integrates supernatural and fantastic elements. Winter's Tales, in particular, is described by the New York Times as being "as delicate as Venetian glass, as ornate with gift and glitter as a baroque chapel."

The plots and characters of the stories are strongly influenced by Dinesen's personal life, including her relationship with her parents. Dinesen's father was an author and army officer who lived among the Chippewa Native Americans of Wisconsin for some time. He returned to Denmark with syphilis, which resulted in bouts of deep depression. He later conceived a child out of wedlock with his made and, devastated by breaking his promise to his mother-in-law to remain faithful to his wife, he hanged himself. Dinesen was almost ten at the time.

Dinesen's own romantic relationships were similarly tumultuous: her husband, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, was unfaithful, and within one year of marriage, Dinesen was diagnosed with syphilis thought to have been contracted from him. Her health, among other issues, led Bror to divorce her in 1920. After their divorce, Dinesen developed a close friendship and eventual romance with Denys Finch Hatton, an upper-class army officer. Their letters show that this relationship was unstable and strained as well, due in part to Hatton's fierce independence.

Perhaps an even more important influence on Winter's Tales than Dinesen's personal life was the historical context in which the collection was written. 1942 was in the midst of World War II--by the time of the collection's publication, Nazi Germany had already been occupying Denmark for two years. While incorporating the aforementioned elements of supernaturalism and fantasy, Thomas Whissen notes that the style is starker and "earthier" than Dinesen's early works, reflecting the condition of the occupied land. According to Whissen, "the unifying theme of Winter's Tales is the interdependence of opposites"--shame versus pride, cowardice versus courage, master versus servant, life versus death, freedom versus imprisonment, rich versus poor, and even man versus woman. Whissen also notes that some of the stories also explore oppression and emphasize reconciliation and resilience over resistance.

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