Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Dorthe Nors' "The Freezer Chest," translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, was originally published in the May 25, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

May 25, 2015A couple of years ago a strange, extremely short story showed up in The New Yorker: “The Heron,” by Dorthe Nors (we talked about it here). I was a big fan, and I devoured (but have yet to review — I need to fix that) her subsequent collection Karate Chop.

I’m thrilled to see more of her work showing up in the magazine, and I’ll be joining in the discussion below once I’ve read through it.

Please leave your thoughts — or any other comments you might have — below.

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By |2015-05-25T00:08:45+00:00May 18th, 2015|Categories: Dorthe Nors, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. leroyhunter May 18, 2015 at 6:46 am

    I’ve just started her collection Karate Chop, as recommended by John Self…so far, it’s pretty good.

  2. Betsy May 18, 2015 at 9:09 am

    This is a great, great story.

    I wish I weren’t on a 6 month holiday, or I’d spend the day with it. (I’m a minor member of our “bring broadband to the hilltowns of Massachusetts” town committee – and minor or not, there’s been a lot of work to do. It’s a kind of modern-day barn-raising. Verizon and Comcast couldn’t care less about us, so it’s up to us. Of course, once our wire is up – they’ll be pestering us to use it. But we’re a 32 town cooperative and we intend to run it ourselves. I have high hopes for a yes vote at Town Meeting on June 1.)

    Once again. This story is great. Immense. Says it all, so to speak. Which is an odd thing to say, since it divulges so little.

    The word evil appears once – evil therefore being at once a real presence lurking huge and horrible at the center and at the same time willfully dismissed. Which is why the story is so great.

    I’ve been reading The Golden Bowl, by Henry James. Everybody reads that novel differently. “Evil” is at its core, but the reader is left to make out what exactly the evil is. Same here.

    “The Freezer Chest” seems in conversation with “The Golden Bowl” – but that may just be because everything reminds me of “The Golden Bowl” at the moment.

    What I’m trying to say is that Nors feels on a level with James: Olympian in what she is trying to do, and oblique, oblique, oblique.

    Because I cannot spend the day with this story, I would point out this great fact – a fact which is part and parcel with all that the story is attempting to do – and that is that for half of the story I wasn’t sure what sex the narrator was.

    The image of the freezer chest? perfect. Even though I can’t spend the day with this story, it will stay with me for days and days and days. With thanks to Dorthe Nors for what she has accomplished. With thanks to the New Yorker for bringing it out.

  3. T May 18, 2015 at 9:30 am

    i liked this story, but i’m not sure what that final line means. can someone clarify what the narrator is suggesting? has she been the victim of incest? or henrietta? and how does this relate to the bullying story that’s she’s telling. it seems clear that that anecdote is simply intentional or unintentional misdirection–she’s talking about something much darker than just a schoolyard bully.

  4. Betsy May 18, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    I think, T, that it could be argued that Mette has been the object of incestuous attention, and that the result is her strange inattention to her own needs, as if her consciousness were working from within the depths of a freezer chest – as if the flesh and blood chest that contains her heart is itself the freezer chest that slammed down upon her heart, making it numb and unresponsive.

  5. Adrienne May 18, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    My initial impression was: too much. So much symbolism and theme and long sentences and rambling-esque thoughts. Because it is a translation, and coming from another cultural perspective, it took me a few paragraphs to realize where they were and what they were doing. There was also a numbness, a passivity to the narrator that held me from seeing things clearly.

    All of the story set-up seems at first to be clutter, but I feel it’s there to make the simple point clear and obvious. But I still haven’t cleaned up the clutter with enough readings to find the nugget, the gem, the simple point.

    This is a story that I’d love to discuss in person. So much, too much, to find all the nuggets on my own – the relationship between Henrietta and Mette. Mette and the incest. Why all the story set-up? What COULD Henrietta do about the incest? The freezer chest. Mark. And that’s frustrating.

    But I think it’s because life is too much for me today. Rough day.

    I’ll keep reading and thinking.

    I read “The Heron” and it made her style easier to adjust to. I am reading “Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen” to see if I can find more clues into how the author works. I read the Greywolf interview posted in the comments about :”The Heron”.

    “GW: What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from your book?

    “DN: I try not to dictate the reader’s experience, because it truly is theirs and not mine. But I would love people to be entertained and puzzled. It’s also important to me when I write that the text allows the reader to have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one. That is, I like people to feel AND think. To be moved in the mind as well as in the heart.” https://www.graywolfpress.org/blogs/sneak-peek-karate-chop-dorthe-nors

    It is the puzzle of this story that entertains me. I want to understand it. I just need a bit more time.

  6. Moss May 18, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Henrietta’s the incest victim, not Mette. Henrietta’s able to talk about incest, but she can’t address her personal experience. While one might think that her victimhood would give her empathy for Mette, she sympathizes instead with the man who’s bullying her – Stockholm syndrome – and utterly fails as a friend.

  7. Adrienne May 18, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks, Moss. That was the impression I got about Henrietta. Lots of evidence in that direction. The girl that pays attention to the boy at the expense of her friend. Still wondering about the last line though…

  8. Moss May 18, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    “What COULD Henrietta do about the incest?”

    When Mette refuses to let Mark define her narrative – when she refuses the pizza – Henrietta says “Shame on you.” She’s blaming Mette for not rolling over and accepting whatever Mark deigns to give her – and sure, there’s a way in which it’s pretty mild compared to incest.

    My take is that recalling this makes Mette wonder – whether with bitterness, compassion, or both – if Henrietta ever got over this way of dealing with abusive men – if she ever stopped blaming herself and started standing up for herself.

  9. T May 18, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Moss, I completely agree. That was my take upon initially finishing the story. After all, there’s that really devastating line about having to sometimes “eat shit” and just take what comes your way, something which our narrator refuses to do, but a philosophy which someone like Henrietta adheres to in order to cope. I’d like to think that in the final line the narrator is looking back at Henrietta with compassion.

    I do wonder if perhaps—despite my enjoyment of this story—there is something too one dimensional about Henrietta. The story suggests that because Henrietta was molested she is damaged (or “broken” to use her word) and therefor her way of interacting with the world is inherently wrong. Because our narrator was not molested she is inherently right. Perhaps that is so, but it does strike me as a bit righteous and robs Henrietta and victims of sexual abuse the possiblity of emotional complexity.

  10. Adrienne May 19, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Moss – The emphasis on “could” makes all the difference, I think.

    I will reread again today – we’ll see what I come up with…

  11. Roger May 20, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    I don’t think this story offers much in the way of dramatic stakes. An 18-year-old woman in her last year of high school must cope with several insults from a 25-year-old man whose behavior is tolerated by her crowd, including her supposed friend. A plausible situation with which to begin a story, but the tension never builds; it’s a largely static situation that remains prosaic, though there is some satisfaction when Mette exacts her modest revenge and stands up to Mark. I wondered why Mette was telling us the story, and by extension, why Nors is doing so. Is the reader really to believe that this was a life-shaping set of events? I get that it would be tough as a teenager to deal with this situation, especially when one feels stuck in a group that includes the cruel Mark. But others have been through worse, done better, and still not earned the privilege of having a story interesting enough to share with an audience.

    Any meaning of the references to incest is so unclear as to be consistent with many theories. Maybe Henrietta is not a victim of incest personally but has taken up the topic as some kind of issue or cause, and Mette is caustically wondering whether Henrietta “ever did anything about it, the incest,” i.e., taken steps to fight the scourge of incest. Maybe not. No meaningful dramatic stakes to this aspect, either.

    I would be interested in learning from others here what I may be missing. Did anyone else find that there was more at stake here, something concrete about the particulars of these characters and their interactions that summoned up the horror-of-evil grandeur referred to by the author in the Page-Turner interview?

  12. Adrienne May 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    @Roger –
    I reread and I even read another by Ms. Nors: https://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/mother-grandmother-and-aunt-ellen/ … and I was feeling the same thing – where’s the action. It reminded me of “My Life’s a Joke” in that it felt more vignette-like. But this tale was more “cluttered”. Either the tension and resolution, the emotional arc, was lost to me in all the action and sentences, or it was a “puzzle” (Nors) that just didn’t work.

  13. lotusgreen May 22, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    Commenting today before reading any of the above.

    Thank you, New Yorker editorial department, for appeasing the lords of literature, and for appeasing me.

    What you have offered us today is redemption; it’s true, it’s told with a vengeance, and it offers a portrait of survival despite all normal odds.

    Back some years, I visited Paris for a week, then went back six months later for six weeks. I had become friends, on the first visit, with a close friend of my brother’s, and would see him again on the longer visit. Just before I went back I was speaking with my brother on the phone (we’re cross country from each other). He said, “You know, David’s really into you.”
    “Oh yeah sure.” (David was a tall blue-eyed blond ten years younger than me.)
    “No, really — he is! He told me!”
    “But what about Isobel?” (David was hot and heavy in love when I’d been there for the first visit.)
    “That’s over!”

    This went on and on until my articulatee little brother had worked me to a reluctant acceptance of his word.

    As soon as I did, he snarled back his lip, and said, “I can’t believe you believed me,” and continued in that vein for quite a while.

    It didn’t take me long to figue out, oh, hey!, My brother was jealous, and whether he was conscious of not of doing it, he was behaving in such a way as to drive a wedge between any friendship David and I might have developed.

    What Mark’s real motivation was isn’t as clear considering what we’re given, but right from the start I thought — boy, he has such a crush on her. At the very least, he feels the need to cut her down a notch or two, a continuing motivation for a small man who even tries again to win by losing.

    And she has learned, of all of them, she’s the one who has learned; the rest still seek his reognition, his interpretation of events. She along stands and proclaims that the bonds of her freedom are defined by her alone, and no one else.

    –Lily

  14. lotusgreen May 22, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Okay, now I’ve read y’all, found my typos, none of which were there when I hit “post comment,” of course. I had some interesting reactions to the above, and please tell me if you think I’m being unfair…. To read this as nothing having happened is to miss the, as Betsy calls it, immensity here. I think it may be something a woman will hear more clearly than a man.

    It doesn’t matter, the exact specifics of the incest; for women, much in society far more subtle than incest demands passivity. Perhaps “incest” is a straw man standing for everything driving women to a settled, accepted, unseen state of passivity. Then it is with clarity revealed that there is only one response to those demands, and it is nothing short of revolutionary.

  15. Adrienne May 22, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I’m a girl :-) That being said – please tell me specifically what I missed and where it was… Wishing we could be face to face for this stuff!!

    Who, do you think, is the victim of incest? Where is the character arc for Mette?

    I feel silly, but if it is all there in a neatly-written story, I am missing it! Oy!

  16. Trevor Berrett May 22, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    I’ve only read the story once, early in the week, and I’d like to read it again to see if I can respond to any of the particular questions, but I’ll respond in part now because I don’t think those questions are the point. So I’m in the same part of the field as Betsy and Lily. It’s not my favorite from Nors, but I still think it’s strong. She’s never going to be the type to offer a character arc in a short story, which, honestly, I prefer, as I don’t think that’s what short stories do best.

    Darn — I have to run . . .

  17. lotusgreen May 22, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Adrienne, of course I know you’re a woman. Don’t I always think of Rocky every time I read your name? I was more addressing Roger.

    Meanwhile, I’m very curious about what they’ve gone and done to the length of the month of May!

  18. Roger May 22, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Hi, Lily. I am still trying to examine why I’m not feeling moved by this story the way you and others are. As I mentioned before, I took some satisfaction in the way Mette stands up for herself against the nasty Mark. But only some satisfaction. Mette behaves understandably but doesn’t do anything particularly noteworthy. She puts up with Mark’s hurtful insults because she’s 18 and has to get through senior year and Mark is the top dog in her group of acquaintances. Then, when she’s made it to the end of the school year, has found a room in Copenhagen, and has university coming up, she’s in a safe enough position to tell Mark off. Good for her. She handled the situation sensibly. She didn’t make things harder on herself than they already were. She waited till she was safe before she acted out.

    Then again, she wasn’t getting beaten up for her lunch money or having ugly rumors spread about her or, as far as we know, caring for an ailing parent, sibling, or any number of other potential crises while trying to survive high school. She was a member of a social circle dominated by a jerk. I’m not finding much drama in these particulars, and without drama at the concrete level, as a reader I don’t get stirred up by larger thematic issues like the oppression of women or the role of “evil” (which is what Nors talked about in the interview).

    Some 25 years after the events, Mette is telling this story. I just don’t see why ….

  19. T May 22, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    Roger, I really think the answer is in that final line. Were it simply a story about a high school clique, I think it’d be a failure. But Nors is doing something different here. The more I’ve sat with this story over the last week, the more convinced I’ve become that it’s about deeper, darker abuses then the anecdote we’re given.

    Raymond Carver has a masterful, little story called Fat. In it a woman who works as a waitress recounts an evening she spent serving an obese man. She goes on and on about the way he looked–his stubby fingers, his sweaty brow–paying particular attention to how much food the man was able to put away. In the final paragraph of the story we are transported to her bedroom. Her husband is forcing himself on her and she imagines herself growing as big as the obese man, so big that she can no longer feel her husband on top of her. The entire meaning of the story flips in that final passage.

    The Freezer Chest is similarly a story about trauma. It’s a story that’s presumably nagged at the narrator for years. It’s not merely a reminiscence about a jerk, but about the evil we are conditioned to accept, about the secret histories we are all burdened with that shape the way we move and act in the world. Henrietta had been molested, or at least the narrator suspects this, and she wonders if Henrietta ever learned to get past that, and, as Moss says above, started standing up for herself (which is no small thing).

  20. Moss May 22, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    It occurs to me that one reason the freezer chest is embedded deep in Mette – why she revisits the tale – could be she feels she wasn’t the friend that Henrietta needed her to be. She never took her up on the incest hints and asked her about it. They /weren’t/ friends, weren’t allies, despite what they had in common. Victim of bullying and victim of incest, each too wounded for empathy.

  21. T May 22, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    I think you’re dead on, Moss. I hadn’t thought about it like that.

  22. Roger May 22, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks, T and Moss. This is an interesting possibility. It’s more oblique than in the Carver story, so maybe more difficult, at least for me, to see. But I can see it now that you’ve posited it. It’s perhaps telling that Mette recalls that Henrietta had been talking a lot about incest and adds: “Henrietta had seen something about it on TV, she said.” That “she said” perhaps hints at some skepticism on Mette’s part — she suspects or knows (at least now) that Henrietta was talking about her own experience, not just (or maybe even not at all) about a topic she’d seen on TV.

    And then this potentially ties into other elements of the story. Mark is older than the young women in the crowd, including Henrietta, Mette, and, one presumes, the girlfriend he degradingly calls the Switchman’s Shanty. There is the creepy English teacher who, in the opening paragraph, appears to be hitting on Mette. They are both older, domineering men, and Henrietta seeks validation from one of them.

    But, if this is what is really going on in the story, I have a gripe from a craft standpoint: A first person point of view narrator probably wouldn’t be so indirect about what truly mattered about the story she’s telling us. She would more likely reveal straight out that when she was 18, she had a friend who had been molested. She would not be as artful as, say, a writer. If this had been told from a third person POV, by an impersonal narrator who is essentially an alter ego of the writer, then this craft problem would go away. E.g., “It was then that Mette wondered if Henrietta had ever done anything about it, the incest.”

    I can see why Nors would want to make Mette the narrator – there is more emotional tension throughout the story than would be the case otherwise. And I guess an argument can be made that this indirect presentation is the only way Mette could get the story out. But that strikes me as a stretch. By telling the story the way it is told, the dramatic impact about Henrietta is blunted, I think, concealed too much and in a way that goes against a reader’s intuition, or at least this reader’s.

  23. Matt May 22, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    My reading of the story is that it’s about how two similar people can view the exact same situation completely differently. Henrietta enjoy’s Mark’s stories, but that same bullying makes Mette fell like she is locked in a freezer chest.

    The story is set up as a contrast between Mette and Henriette. Mette is characterized from the start as a old soul wise beyond her years when the English teacher says “One would never know you were so young.” Mette knows “this was high school after all” and is willing to “eat shit” in order to keep up appearances as a good natured member of the social circle.

    Henrietta, on the other hand, seems to believe she knows more about reality than she actually does. Henrietta thinks she understands evil true evil (e.g. incest) because she “had seen something about it on TV”. She is so confident of her understanding of the world that she tells Mette how she should feel: “she said that if you compared the story about the freezer chest with something like incest I was being hypersensitive, and then she’d look self-important” and “Shame on you.”

    But Henrietta is naive to the evil right in front of her. After Mark suggests Mette’s naiveté, Mette says sarcastically, “Henrietta, with her special insight into evil, could barely keep her seat.” Mette,meanwhile, knew she was walking into Mark’s trap, and she was also wise enough to realize Henrietta thinks she knows evil, and yet clearly only has a distant and abstract notion of it.

    By graduation, Mette no longer needs social approval and tells off Mark, confronting the evil she saw. Mette wonders if Henrietta would ever confront the larger, more distant, evil she saw.

  24. Adrienne May 23, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    Wow, Moss… That put a new spin on it for me, too…

    Trevor – tell me more about short stories and what you think they do best, please? I haven’t discussed short stories with anyone since my high school days and I was under the tutelage of a traditional teacher – Emerson’s rules for the short story…

    T – the Raymond Carver example helped lesson this “clutter” for me… maybe even one of the “purposes” and crafting of a short story – particularly this one..

    lotusgreen –

    Still not a favorite of mine. Wouldn’t even say I liked it. I can appreciate it more now – especially as I am BEGINNING to understand the “why” behind some of the crafting…

  25. lotusgreen May 25, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    After reading all of your comments above, I reread the ending, and I guess I just mostly disagree with your take(s). It seemed to me that Mette is still smarting, from something that may have been, in her life, regardless of what it would have been in yours, a real betrayal, even, or obviously, a memorable one. In one sweep, she is frozen out of the only support system she’s got — the lid slams shut.

    In fact, she still ruminates. She still asks her once best friend, Henrietta, what? you thought you were so smart, eh? Well, then, if you knew so much, what did you ever do for yourself, or was your only method of taking a step up by climbing to stand on my back? Shame on me, indeed.

  26. Poor Yorick May 25, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Not impressed, thought the hard writing was dodged from the final argument to the whiff of incest.

  27. Greg May 26, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Thank you Trevor for providing this site for us to discuss the weekly New Yorker story! Also, thank you to everyone above who has added to my understanding and pleasure to this story!

  28. Dan May 27, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Chiming in late, as usual, with little to add to the very interesting discussion above. I just want to echo what I take to be Lily’s assertion that this story is like a breath of fresh air from the New Yorker. For my part, I am just so relieved that it is neither a novel excerpt nor a story about feckless drug-addled twenty-somethings with dysfunctional families. It seems Triesman is capable of buying deep, well-written, disturbing stories with an iceberg below them. Or at least of buying one such story. Hurray.

  29. Lee Monks May 28, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Next week: a Jonathan Franzen novel excerpt…..

  30. Sean H May 30, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Nors impressed me with her previous New Yorker effort, “The Heron,” but this one was slight and epigrammatic by comparison. It was a bit too predictably “Danish.” I like that it’s lean and mean, in more ways than one, and the terse coldness I can deal with, but the character isn’t reflecting in order to comment or expand, she’s just reflecting to reflect, it’s just not fully developed enough to call it a full-on story. Roger called it “static” and “prosaic” and though the latter might be a bit too harsh, the central character just didn’t have a enough gravitas to hold my interest by herself. I still think Nors has great chops and look forward to reading more of her stuff, but this one wasn’t substantial enough to sustain as art or as entertainment.

  31. Ken June 8, 2015 at 5:13 am

    I found this less meaningful than many above, yet, paradoxically, I rather liked it for its mystery and ambiguity. I think it’s readable as a sort of standing-up for yourself tale and also as a pointless rumination on an unhealed resentment. I mostly liked the author’s voice and skillful (or well translated) sentence construction.

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