“Sorrow-Acre” opens with a leisurely description of the Danish landscape, and it is clear that the setting is to be as strong a character in this folktale as any of the humans populating its stage.
It is the end of the eighteenth century, and at the opening of the story, everything is still in its time-honored place, from manor house through the church to the peasant huts in the village. The winds of change are beginning to blow, however (the serfs will be freed here in 1887), and enlightened ideas from England and the Continent are just beginning to be heard in this semifeudal land.
Adam has been serving in the Danish legation to the court of King George, but now he has returned to his ancestral home “to make his peace with it.” In his long absence, his sickly cousin and the heir to this estate has died, leaving Adam, for the moment, as the heir himself: The old lord has now married his son’s betrothed, and he hopes to perpetuate his line with another son. During the day of the action of “Sorrow-Acre,” Adam spends most of his time in the company of his young step-aunt, and the indication is that he himself will marry her after his uncle’s death.
Early in the morning after his arrival, Adam is strolling the grounds and meets his uncle, who, in Adam’s childhood, was a second father to him. The uncle is up early, even for this first day of the harvest, but, as he explains, “a matter of life and death” is being acted out that day. It seems that a young peasant has been accused of setting fire to one of the lord’s barns. His guilt is not clear, for those who have accused him have reasons to be envious. Anne-Marie, the boy’s mother, has intervened, however, and the lord has struck a bargain with her: If Anne-Marie can mow a field of rye by herself, her son will be freed.
When Adam returns that afternoon to the field where his uncle has remained all day, all other work has ceased, and the other peasants are following Anne-Marie in her slow and painful progress. Adam sees that she is close to death, and he urges his uncle to end this “tragic and cruel tale,” but the old lord, who believes in the retributive justice of the old order and argues that “tragedy is the privilege of man, his highest privilege,” refuses. “I gave Anne-Marie my word,” he says simply. In anger, Adam says that he must leave the estate: “I shall go to America, to the new world.”
At this very moment, when Adam has apparently given up any opportunity for reconciliation with his homeland, a strange pity takes hold of him. He sees his uncle as a tyrant close to death himself, a man who has lost his only son (as Anne-Marie is killing herself to save hers) and whose own semifeudal world is breaking up. Adam’s “forgiveness” of his uncle leads to a “sudden conception of the unity of the universe” and “a surrender to fate and to the will of life.” Adam tells his uncle that he will stay, and a clap of thunder sounds: “The landscape had spoken.” Adam has been reconciled to his homeland; he now has a “feeling of belonging to this land and soil.”
Adam returns to the manor house and does not witness the final act of this tragedy. Several minutes before sunset, Anne-Marie finishes the field, the old lord frees her son, and she dies in her son’s arms. The story closes, as it has opened, with a sense of place:In the place where the woman had died the old lord later on had a stone set up, with a sickle engraved on it. The peasants on the land then named the rye field “Sorrow-Acre.” By this name it was known a long time after the story of the woman and her son had itself been forgotten.
At his mother's urgent request, a young man named Adam has returned from England to his ancestral home in Denmark at the height of the short Danish summer. He meets his uncle in a beautiful garden on the estate. After an amiable discussion comparing the tasks confronted by the gods of Rome to those of the earlier Norse gods, Adam notes...
(The entire section is 1,445 words.)