The Monkey (Aben) by Isak Dinesen, 1934

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by Isak Dinesen, 1934

Considered by many readers and scholars to be Isak Dinesen's most compelling tale, "The Monkey" ("Aben") is included in her widely acclaimed collection Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934 soon after she returned to Denmark from nearly two decades abroad in Africa. (She wrote the stories in English and then translated them into Danish.) "The Monkey" borrows from the tradition of transformation used by such disparate writers as Ovid, Mary Shelley, and Nikolai Gogol, but it is most indebted to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," which helped usher in modernism.

At first "The Monkey" appears to be made for readers of adult fairy tales and romance. A soldier visits his aunt, the prioress of Closter Seven, who is, we are told, part of an institution whose "proud and kindly spirit of past feudal times seems to dwell in the stately buildings and to guide the existence of their communities." The prioress is delighted to offer advice on finding a suitable mate for her nephew Boris. Boris's professed interest in marriage, we learn, is to relieve him of the scandal associated with his sexual dalliances among the soldiers in his regiment. He now views marriage with pleasant detachment, and he shows no resistance when his aunt suggests a woman who is large, much larger than he is, and who, as it turns out, is capable of turning aside his forced sexual advances to the point of knocking out his front teeth. A toothless Prince Charming does not daunt the narrator or, it seems, us as readers.

Boris sets out to woo his aunt's choice, Athena, who is a veritable Valkyrie, the warrior her name implies. Athena does not share Boris's newly discovered enthusiasm for marriage, and she refuses his proposal. Furious, the prioress decides to match wits with Athena and plans a seduction supper, with Boris as her instrument. During an evening of intoxicating wine Boris precociously and erotically undresses his intended, imaginatively and surrealistically proceeding in his thinking to her bones, the very skeleton that appeals to him even more, which disconcertingly delivers us into the gothic realm.

After a rather muddled sexual encounter Boris is bested and turned aside by Athena's greater strength. But the prioress is counting on the naïveté of Athena when she informs her the next morning that a child will result from the kiss Boris managed to press on her lips and teeth. Athena reacts incredulously. From that she will have a child?

The aunt is not unreasonable to count on Athena's naïveté, for after all Athena has never seen herself in a mirror. To have never seen oneself in a mirror suggests intriguing possibilities. We can assume that Athena's existence cannot be entirely defined by the boundaries of flesh and bone a mirror would reflect, certainly not in her own mind even if Boris is thus tempted. Her sense of self is much larger in scope and reaches more easily to the ether of the gods, to the goddess whose name she carries. She escapes the self-consciousness of being human, the vanity and folly of human beings. She cannot marvel at the beauty of her human features in an act of narcissism, but she can participate in an instinctive grasp of herself within the human flux.

The transformation is the problematic issue in "The Monkey." It appears at the moment when Athena seems lost to Boris. What is it exactly that happens from the beginning of the tale to the end? The tale begins with a poised, confident, almost demure prioress who commands respect among her peers, and it ends as a wild, unrestrained animal claws and clatters up the Closter Seven wall after breaking through the glass of the window and sending the prioress into a frenzy before she is forced into transformation.

Dinesen delighted in paradox, in creating endings to her tales that were equally poised between opposite intentions without the linguistic details to suggest where the balance was meant to be heaviest. Here the temptation becomes to decide who indeed is the real prioress. It seems that we can trust the narrative, which insists that the "true Prioress" emerges at the end, if only because the previous one seems to have behaved fairly badly and not in keeping with the proprieties expected from a prioress. She can now be given another chance. From this newly evolved prioress we do not expect an arranger of seductions.

From Dinesen's private papers we learn that in early drafts of "The Monkey" the prioress was referred to as a witch, one whose power as a chaste older woman came from being associated with the supernatural. This was an idea Dinesen on occasion encouraged about herself when she claimed to have psychic powers in a Denmark that tended to a no-nonsense attitude toward people.

"The Monkey" reflects Dinesen's own lifelong struggle with maintaining a stable sense of being. The tale is modern in its shattering of identity and concomitant retrieval of that identity. But unlike Kafka, for whom Gregor's insect in "The Metamorphosis" exemplifies a modern world in which forms of bourgeois existence bring ruin, Dinesen playfully takes the reader back to a more graceful century and whimsically speeds up Darwinian evolution, leaving us acutely aware of the glass fragments lying on the floor at the end. The shattering of glass breaks our hold on fixed meaning and reminds us that to imagine any human existence in the past is subject to the modern circumscription of self. With perception that is not intact, predictable, or consolingly firm, text and gender are deflated, and our romantic expectations are overturned. We are left with a tale whose linguistic turns have deflated us, suggesting instead a suspect uniting of the reconciled couple, Boris and Athena, who have witnessed the transformation as an extremity of experience. They momentarily face the world as a unity, which they were incapable of doing before and may well be incapable of doing in the future.

On occasion Dinesen advised people facing troubles to let the monkey out as the solution to their dilemmas. Within the tale it is significant that the monkey lands on a bust of Kant, the purveyor of reason. It is a reminder that, as humans, we falter if we embrace only reason and forget that fate as meted out by the gods can cause eccentric quirks in our existence, can thwart us unexpectedly with humorous results that discomfit us. Only those with a fluid sense of reality—those who realize that at certain points good and evil flow into the same space and that they are not always easily distinguished and, for Dinesen, should not be—are able to retrieve themselves. They may be "a little out of breath from the effort" in a modern world that has lost the emotional organization of feudal times, the spirit of which is nostalgically and aristocratically remembered in the story. To "learn justice, and not to scorn the gods," as the Latin inscription at the close of "The Monkey" cautions us, is to aim at balanced reason. But one must realize that there is a place reason does not reach, a hidden void in which we find ourselves unwitting subjects of destiny.

—Olga Pelensky

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The Monkey (Aben) by Isak Dinesen, 1934

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