The Riddle Solved: Cora Sandel's "En Gate."

By Rees, Ellen | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Riddle Solved: Cora Sandel's "En Gate."


Rees, Ellen, Studies in Short Fiction


When readers enter the fictional world created by the twentieth-century Norwegian author Cora Sandel, they find a place populated by marginalized characters. Perhaps precisely because Sandel's work centers on marginality, it has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves among Scandinavianists.(1) Sandel herself lived a marginalized life in exile, first in France and later anonymously in Sweden. Moreover, her work is almost unknown among scholars in other disciplines despite good translations of the major novels and short stories by Elizabeth Rokkan and Barbara Wilson. Wilson's translations of two of Sandel's finest stories have finally been made available in an anthology entitled An Everyday Story. Norwegian Women's Fiction (1984). One of the stories,"En gate" ["A Riddle" or "A Mystery"],(2) serves as an excellent introduction to Sandel's major themes and metaphors. This story was first published in the 1932 collection Carmen and Maja and Other Stories [Carmen og Maja og andre noveller] during Sandel's most productive period. In addition, the story poses particularly interesting questions in light of current debates about issues of marginality and women's fiction.

"En gate" is one of the many short stories by Sandel referred to by the Norwegian Sandel scholar, Ase Hiorth Lervik, as "deviant short stories" (192; avvikernoveller). The term "deviant" can be interpreted as a reference both to the marginalized position of Sandel's writing in the canon of Norwegian literature, and to the emphasis on marginal characters within her writing. The central riddle of the story, a woman of apparent wealth and questionable propriety, comes from the liminal realm of the sea, stays a while in the confining and patriarchal society of a small coastal town in Norway, and in the end returns inexplicably to the sea. Sandel herself knew this isolated and constricting environment intimately, and biographical information indicates that she was in many ways just as isolated as the character she creates. This woman, Mrs. Arnold, with her unknown past and, most importantly, her unpredictable behavior, is clearly a deviant figure, representing the cultural experience of women traditionally unsanctioned by the dominant patriarchy. By its very title this story demands of the reader a solution to the riddle of Mrs. Arnold. In this analysis I have produced a solution based on a reading of Mrs. Arnold as a prophetess. This solution to the riddle of "En gate" is facilitated by a brief introduction to the meaning of marginalism in the context of Sandel's authorship.

The region Sandel explored in her writing lies outside the boundaries of the sphere of dominant society. This region is explicated in the cultural model developed by the English social anthropologist Edwin Ardener. In particular, Ardener refers to the aspects of women's culture not sanctioned by or included in the dominant paradigm as "the wild zone." This term first appears in his 1975 article "The |Problem' Revisited" in which he uses anthropological field data to support his hypothesis. Ardener's research, although originally introduced within the field of anthropology, has gained influence in feminist literary criticism, mostly through Elaine Showalter's interpretation.

The wild zone itself changes its degree of wildness according to cultural perspective. When dominant culture is represented by a solid circle (X) placed on a field representing the wilderness (ABCD) and a dotted circle (Y), which represents muted culture, overlaps the dominant culture, the area they share belongs to both, and the crescents outside this area are the exclusive experiences of the respective groups. From the perspective of the muted culture, its crescent (the wild zone) has been defined by the dominant culture as marginal and deviant, while at the same time it remains the natural and non-deviant realm of the muted group. From the perspective of the dominant culture, the same crescent is associated with the wilderness outside of culture and is thus dangerous. …

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