Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Seven Gothic Tales - Isak Dinesen (Part 2)

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962)

The third story in the Seven Gothic Tales is "The Monkey," and perhaps one of my favorites. The plot is relatively simple and easy to follow, allowing the reader to sit back and enjoy the unpredictability of the events as they unwind.

A young boy, Boris, is on the verge of moral decline and whether this prompts him to pursue a new fate or the fact that he has run out of things to do, he decides to seek out his old Aunt, the Virgin Prioress of Closter Seven in northern Europe and seek her advice. He would like to marry and hope his aunt can provide a good match for him.


The aunt, overjoyed at this prospect, quickly dashes off a letter to an old Count and friend of hers, the father of Athena. And as Boris, gets ready for his visit to the Count and his future bride, he is impressed with the strength and cunning of his Aunt and women in general.

"Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world..."

Similar to the protagonist of "The Old Chevalier," Boris has a fascination with women, in a sense they exist for his pleasure and to do his bidding. He sets in motion his desire and sits back as his aunt weaves her web. When he asks if there's a chance Athena might not have him, his aunt quickly dismisses the idea. Athena, she says, has no other options, probably has never been within close proximity of eligible men of any kind, and would be a fool to deny such a brilliant match. She goes so far as to say if Athena won't have him then she'll marry him herself!

Athena though, like her namesake, has no desire to consort with a lover or marry, and like the goddess proves to be a formidable challenge, choosing to fight and proclaim war rather than consent to marry Boris. She is a tall, strong, burly woman and Boris is completely shocked when she refuses his proposal, just as he is beginning to warm to the idea and envision their future stocky children.

The aunt proposes to lure Athena into a trap by getting her drunk on champagne in the guise of a quite dinner party and then leaving her to hash out her differences with Boris. Athena, slightly drunk but still able to reason, decides she needs to go to bed, and Boris eventually follows her to her room, where he figures the best course of action would be to profess his undying love, which he has just recently tried on for size and found that he is particularly adept at playing the role of unrequited lover.

"Athena, he said, "I have loved you all my life. You know that without you I shall dry up and shrink, there shall be nothing left of me. Stoop to me, throw me back in the deep. Have mercy on me."

Athena's response to his profession of love is to strike him, knocking out two of his teeth, as they wrestle each other, fighting tooth and nail for the right to impose their will on the other. As they fight, Boris thinks that nothing happier in all the world could have happened to him, and his soul is overjoyed like the the souls of the old Teutons, "to whom the lust of anger was in itself the highest voluptuousness, and who demanded nothing better of their paradise than the capacity for being killed once a day."

His mouth dripping blood, as he dodges punches and kicks, Boris somehow manages to kiss Athena and in a moment emerges the victor of their physical dispute. Athena, having never been kissed before, receives the kiss like the deadliest blow and sinks to the floor like a stone effigy.

The nest morning after taking further advantage of Athena's innocence and naivete, the prioress and Boris extract a promise of marriage from Athena. After she consents to marry Boris, she includes in her oath a further promise to kill Boris the first chance she gets, and then before she can finish speaking a monkey comes shrieking in through the window and dishevels the old aunt.

Although this short story seemed more random and chaotic then the previous two in the collection, I think the moral of what we desire most often has the propensity to kill us, is a relevant one. Boris defines Athena not as a person with her one volition and preferences, but almost as a continuation of his desires, there only to conform to his will. Boris wants to be married and the person to fill the role of spouse is veritably inconsequential. Women, in the world of Isak Dinesen are often misunderstood and unrepresented, but in Athena we are given one woman who is a true warrior of her own independence who manages ultimately to emerge the victor.

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