Sorrow-Acre Themes
by Isak Dinesen

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Sorrow-Acre” is based on a Danish folktale, and, like that older, didactic form, it carries overt lessons. Isak Dinesen has deepened the story’s mystery and thereby made its meaning more ambiguous.

At the center of “Sorrow-Acre” is a debate, both real and dramatic, between two ways of life, the past and the present. The old lord is like a god in this aristocratic world, while Adam represents a newer, more liberal view and “the great new ideas of the age: of nature, of the right and freedom of man, of justice and beauty.” Adam’s view, surprisingly, does not prevail, and it is the uncle who is left at the end watching the close of this tragedy. Adam actually gains his reconciliation with the land by accepting his uncle’s sense of justice and order. Eventually, the reader suspects, he may inherit this manor; for now, the old lord is still firmly in control. The reader’s sympathy has similarly shifted from an easy identification with the modern ideas of Adam to a recognition of the essential harmony and unity of this almost medieval world.

However, nothing in Dinesen’s work is ever so simple. A series of overlapping parallels deepens the mystery and tragedy of the story. Anne-Marie is toiling to save her son, which is exactly what the old lord was unable to do for his own. Ironically, Goske Piil was his son’s only playmate; now he is being accused of setting the fire by a wheelwright who suspects him “with his young wife” (as the reader suspects Adam with the young wife of the lord). Finally, Anne-Marie had another “child and did away with it.” These overlapping parallels—actually triangles reminiscent of medieval religious paintings—deepen the structure of the story and reveal the complex web of human life.

This meaning is further complicated by the religious symbolism of the story. Adam is the “new man” returning to Eden, perhaps with the original sin of enlightened knowledge with him. His innocence, however, is no match for the justice of the old gods such as his uncle. Similarly, Anne-Marie is a Christ figure in her superhuman task of freeing her son (and humankind—the serfs will one day be freed) from the justice of the old order. Her effort lives on in the name of the field, “Sorrow-Acre,” which is also a reminder of the agony and anguish of human life.

What Dinesen has done, in following out the fateful lines of human interaction and playing with their religious connotations, is make the meaning of the story ambiguous and complex. At the beginning, the reader naturally condemns the cruel notion of justice in this semifeudal society; by the end, the reader’s sympathy has shifted and, as Adam senses, the order and harmony of this world seem to be acted out in the tragedy of Anne-Marie. It is not so easy, Dinesen is saying, to pass judgment on the past.


(Short Stories for Students)

Custom and Tradition
From the opening paragraphs, in which the narrator reminds the reader that "a human race had lived on this land for a thousand years" to the closing sentence, in which the reader is told that the place was known as "Sorrow-Acre a long time after the story of the woman and her son had itself been forgotten," Dinesen keeps the power of custom and tradition in the forefront of her narrative. In this fictional world, custom and tradition work hand in hand, reinforcing each other—things are done in a certain way, a customary way, because there is a tradition of doing them that way; the tradition exists because of the adherence to custom. This is, in some sense, the crux of the story, for when Adam returns from England, awakened to the ideas of freedom and equality then sweeping America, France, and England, he finds it difficult to accept the feudal state that still exists in his ancestral home. Interestingly, however, it is only when Adam is confronted with the reality of Anne-Marie's suffering that he becomes upset; this demonstrates the degree to which he has remained a product of his culture.

Duty and Responsibility

(The entire section is 1,185 words.)