The Blue Jar by Isak Dinesen, 1942

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by Isak Dinesen, 1942

Danish author Isak Dinesen is best known for her three volumes of Gothic and romantic short stories—Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and Last Tales—and her memoir Out of Africa. She wrote her stories in English first and then translated them into Danish. They fall into the oral tradition of The Arabian Nights, often distanced in time or set in exotic locales. Her characters experience trials that would test a Job yet are rewarded by a moment of epiphany that allows them to accept their destiny.

Dinesen's story "The Blue Jar" is actually a story within the story of "The Young Man with the Carnation" in Winter's Tales. It may have been influenced by Mallarmé's poem, "L'Azur." "The Blue Jar" has all the elements of the fable, the once-upon-a-timeness we expect, the lack of physical description of the characters, the pointed moral of the story at the end. We know little about the characters' lives except for their obsessions. These rich aristocrats can afford to indulge their whims. The father is perfectly blind to the real needs of the daughter, whose name, Lady Helena, echoes "the face that launched a thousand ships."

The brevity of "The Blue Jar" and its finely honed craftsman-ship make this story within a story a model for Dinesen's art. The father cares for nothing but collecting ancient blue china. Apparently he cares little for his daughter, for he abandoned her easily when his ship was sinking. Arriving on the deserted deck, she was saved by a young English sailor. The two "fugitives" have escaped both death by drowning and the ordinary lives they lived before. For nine magical days they sailed together as stars ran across the sky and seemed to fall into their boat, as the sea glowed phosphorescent from the fire of the burning ship, as the blue of the ocean and the blue of the sky held and rocked them. And in the midst of that blue world their hearts "beat gently," "innocent and free."

The state of unity that Lady Helena enjoyed is a rare state that many wish for: a kind of relaxed joyfulness that children, in their innocence, have known. In such a state, at one with nature, all the elements of air, earth (the clay jar), water, fire, and god's creatures come together, balanced in harmony for a few precious moments. Such harmony is lost when the lovers are parted by the unfeeling father. At the end of her life, though, Lady Helena regains this sense of unity when she finds the true blue porcelain, then dies at peace with the world.

The "blue jar" that is never quite the perfect blue is symbolic of her quest for the bliss she once shared with the sailor, floating in a brilliant blue sea with a beautiful blue sky above. The separation she feels, and the intensity of the quest, is symbolized by her mystical image of the earth as a blue orb with water above and below, her ship sailing on one side, while below, under the sea, the shadow ship of her lover accompanies her.

The values of the father contrast with the values of the daughter in their divergent views of the sailor. The father's sense of class distinctions make it impossible for him to see the sailor as a suitable partner for his daughter. Thus he pays the sailor to sail on the other side of the world because he finds it unpleasant that a "peer's daughter" and "a young sailor, who made his bread in the merchant service," spent nine days alone together. The daughter, on the other hand, thinks, "If I stopped sailing, what would those poor sailors who made their bread in the merchant service do?" She sees the sailor with compassion and love and foretells that when she dies he will die with her: "In the end my ship will go down, to the center of the globe, and at the very same hour the other ship will sink as well—for people call it sinking … and there we two shall meet."

The daughter both follows and rejects her father's vocation of a collector of blue china. While she too sails the world searching for the blue jar, rejecting all other meaningful pursuits, she is really searching for her lover. And unlike the father she is looking for the one true blue.

Frequently in fables, the father, a symbol of the powerful, patriarchal culture, separates the young lovers. In these tales the young man often becomes the focus of the story as he braves the wrath and power of the father to attain his love. In a marvelous twist on this old take Dinesen focuses the story on the daughter; the sailor disappears, and the woman takes charge of her life.

In "The Young Man with the Carnation" Dinesen addresses the dilemma of the writer who becomes isolated from nature by focusing on words. Her solution, and that of the main character who narrates "The Blue Jar," is that the artist and the sailor alike must submit their lives to a divine destiny. Dinesen includes in her pantheon of superior beings the aristocrat, based on the dichotomy she witnessed between her own repressed middle-class mother and her aristocratic, free-thinking father, whom she adored. In the pattern of her life she experienced moments of intense joy in her union with nature in Africa, and like Lady Helena she was forced to separate from that bliss by the demands of her powerful family. Dinesen turned to writing to recapture the joy of her formerly happy years through imaginative recreation.

In "The Blue Jar" Dinesen connects the themes of nature and art, showing how imagination is the force that unifies all opposites. Love, art, the sea, and the quest for the ideal are recurrent themes in this story. To Dinesen the quest is the holy task that must be fulfilled, no matter what the cost, no matter how senseless it may appear to others.

—Judith Rosenberg