Sorrow-Acre Essays and Criticism
by Isak Dinesen

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What the Thunder Said

(Short Stories for Students)

Like fable, allegory describes one thing—usually something quite specific—to talk about something else that shares similar features or characteristics. So, for example, Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare" isn't really "about" a tortoise or a hare; instead, it is about plodding perseverance and mercurial quickness—the tortoise and the hare are merely physical manifestations of these moral attributes. Similarly, Dinesen's "Sorrow-Acre" is neither about a young man named Adam nor about the fate of the widow Piil. These characters are representations of—or standing in for—what turns out to be a complex use of history. Unlike fable, however, allegory rarely presents a clearly discernible moral. While "slow and steady wins the race" neatly summarizes both the story of the race run by the tortoise and underscores the (moral) value of perseverance, it is difficult to draw a single, clear moral from Dinesen's story. This difficulty is due both to the complexity of the ideas the characters manifest and to the greater length and larger cast of allegory in general and Dinesen's story in particular. However, while one may not be able to reduce the meanings of "Sorrow-Acre'' to a single phrase, it is nonetheless clear that the story has as its focal point Adam's question at daybreak, and the landscape's answer at dusk.

Returning to Denmark after an extended stay abroad, Adam finds his homeland deeply familiar, but his absence gives him new vision, enabling him to stand outside this familiarity. He sees his homeland, and his hereditary place in it, as natural, but not inevitable. He sees the windmill, the church, the manor—all of these give evidence of a process by which the land and the people who live on it have worked upon and shaped one another, in much the same manner as sea and seashore exist in simultaneous opposition and partnership, each denning itself against, but also through, the other. As the omniscient narrator observes, "a human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by its soil and weather, and had marked it with its thoughts, so that now no one could tell where... the one ceased and the other began."

However, though Adam returns as "nominal" heir to his manor and estate, his stay in England coincides with the powerful emergence of a set of ideas that throw into question doctrines arguing that the rights of kings and lords over their subjects represent the will of God, and are therefore the divine intention:'' [H]e had come in touch with the great new ideas of the age: of nature of the right and freedom of man, of justice and beauty. The universe, through them, had become infinitely wider to him." Thomas Paine's "The Rights of Man" (1791), the French Revolution (1789), and the American Revolutionary War had in common a theme most forcibly articulated in the second paragraph of the American colonies' Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Perhaps it is the dissonance between this strident call of the future—a call for rulers to be accountable to the ruled—and the feudal, thousand-year past through which Adam finds himself walking that morning, that makes Adam speak to the land "as to a person, as to the mother of his race.'" He asks: "Is it only my body that you want ... while you reject my imagination, energy and emotions? If the world might be brought...

(The entire section is 7,943 words.)