[(essay date 1988) In the following essay, Stambaugh examines Dinesen's portrayals of the effects of patriarchal Christianity on men and women in her short fiction.]
Dinesen's opposition to Christianity appears not only in the stories I have discussed but is also reflected elsewhere, in "The Caryatids," for example, in the story of the priest, Father Bernhard, who opposes the gypsies but ultimately capitulates to them. Her general attitude is expressed by Boris of "The Monkey" as he avoids Pastor Rosenquist: "beware ... of people who have in the course of their lives neither taken part in an orgy nor gone through the experience of childbirth, for they are dangerous people" (SGT [Seven Gothic Tales], p. 145). Her opposition to Protestant denigration of the flesh is also reflected in her reactions against nineteenth-century writers whose statements or plots she apparently read as denigrating women.1 Certainly the stories she wrote throughout her career illustrate feminist readings of her male predecessors. Her work is filled with biting analyses of misogyny, almost always countered by the pagan values she considered more humane.
As I indicated earlier, patriarchal religion is deleterious to men as well as women. The effects upon men are particularly reflected in the double standard practiced so casually by Dinesen's nineteenth-century male characters. Their Pauline roles as masters of their wives also encourage the blind egotism which blackens Dinesen's least sympathetic characters, Prince Pompilio of "The Cardinal's First Tale" and Mr. Clay of "The Immortal Story," for example, whose mercantile values Dinesen associates with Christian ones in "The Dreamers." Lincoln Forsner's rich British father is a Bible-reading captain of industry who "[feels] himself God's one substitute on earth. Indeed," says Lincoln, "I do not know if he was capable of making any distinction between his fear of God and his self-esteem." As might be expected, the enemy he battles is his Dionysian attraction to music and Italian opera (SGT, pp. 280-81).2
In Dinesen's tales, however, the effects of patriarchal Christianity fall most heavily upon the women, who, for example, remain invisible to the men around them because the Christian idealism of such characters as Johannes Søeborg of "The Last Day," the Bishop of "The Supper at Elsinore," or the parson of "Peter and Rosa" prevents them from seeing women as anything but stereotypes. Although Christianity is not exclusively responsible for the misogyny suffered by so many of Dinesen's female characters, Dinesen does not hesitate to make the association specific.
If a number of her stories present Christianity in conflict with life, at least one presents the conflict as especially between Christian fear of life, art, and experience and the Dionysianism of the natural woman. "Alkmene" reflects a popular nineteenth-century motif, that of the royal child who is raised by foster parents and who must seek his real parentage and identity. In using it Dinesen may have in mind Thomas Carlyle's Diogenes Teufelsdröckh or Wordsworth's more famous foundling of the "Immortality Ode":
Earth fills her lap with...