Sorrow-Acre (Sorg-Agre) by Isak Dinesen, 1940

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by Isak Dinesen, 1940

Isak Dinesen was a pseudonym of a writer who was born into an old family of Danish nobility and who wrote both in Danish and in English. She became famous for Out of Africa (1937), her reminiscences about 17 years of experiences in British East Africa, a book that decades later served as the basis for a popular Hollywood movie. Both of her first two collections of short stories—Seven Gothic Tales (1934) and Winter's Tales (1942)—were written in English and then translated into Danish, and both enjoyed large sales. "Sorrow-Acre" ("Sorg-Agre"), which is generally considered her masterpiece, was originally published in her second collection and later appeared in Ladies' Home Journal (May 1943), as did other stories such as "Babette's Feast."

Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dinesen had an imagination that was typically stirred by events of a distant past, and she found her inspiration for "Sorrow-Acre" in a spare little folktale from the South Jutland village of Ballum and dating from 1634. In roughly 250 words the folktale tells of a mother whose son has been condemned to death for having killed a robber trying to steal the family's property. She gains a promise of clemency from the ruling count on the condition that between sunrise and sunset she mow a field of barley said to be so large as to require the labor of four men. Accomplishing this Herculean task and winning her son's freedom, she falls dead from a broken back. A figure of the woman holding a sickle and a sheaf is etched on her gravestone in the churchyard. The legendary converges with accurate historical fact in the conclusion, where we learn that the field of the nameless woman's labors is "known [still] as 'Sorrow-Acre."' Dinesen's concluding paragraph only begins to suggest the elaborate changes she made in what turned out to be a story of some 14, 000 words: "In the place where the woman had died the old lord later on had a stone set up, with a sickle engraved in 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." In Dinesen's revision of her ancient source the memory of individual identity and of historical fact give way to a haunting sense of legendary, parabolic enchantment.

The folktale is but a skeletal fragment of the story that became Dinesen's work, and she took great liberties for the purpose of telling a richer, denser saga. The largest changes were at once novelistic and romantic. She fleshed out as major characters the unnamed lord and his new 17-year-old bride, whom he had married after the death of her intended, his one remaining son. The lord's bailiff and the crowd of a hundred peasants, as well as the old woman's son, come to play roles as an active audience. Dinesen added still another major character, the lord's nephew and potential heir, the young Adam, who, having grown up in "the big house at the top of the avenue, the garden and the fields [that] had been his childhood paradise," now returns after an absence of nine years on the very day of the peasant woman's ordeal. He has spent his time traveling in Rome and Paris and is currently a member of the Danish legation in London, where he "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." Adam's return is "to make his peace" with these scenes of his childhood before emigrating "to America, to the new world."

Dinesen thus set the stage for a dramatized conflict between radically disparate worldviews, and to do so she shifted the action from 1634 to the late eighteenth century, the period between the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions and the period just before Denmark's own liberation of its peasant serfs in 1787. Old and New World political, social, and cultural conflicts—feudal hierarchical orders as against the Enlightenment and the ideal of the perfectability of the common individual—are conflated here. So too is a Christian/sacral history. Dinesen named the peasant mother Anne-Marie, the lavishly described landscape is Edenic, the lord's rule is absolute, and his new bride bears regal and biblical names (Sophie-Magdelena). In the single scene devoted to her she takes an Eve-like gaze into her own nakedness in a mirror. The tormented son's embrace of his dying mother symbolizes an inverted pietà. Thus is Anne-Marie's sacrifice recast as a performance acted out in front of the two opposing views of the lord and Adam, the manorial and the modern, respectively.

Dinesen knew not only the original folktale but also a 1931 retelling by another Danish writer, Paul la Cour, whose story presented the action from the point of view and anguished feelings of the mother herself. Dinesen recentered the drama by framing the widow's labors with a dialogue between the lord and Adam, and in the process it is Adam who undergoes a profound transformation and resolves to stay in his hereditary home. As the lord tells him Anne-Marie's story, Adam comes to learn that the charges against her son might have been false and that Anne-Marie was herself not well thought of by the villagers, rumor having it that "as a girl she had a child and did away with it." Dinesen's lord comes to assume a tragic burden similar to that of Melville's Captain Vere in Billy Budd. For Adam, "more dominantly even than the figure of the woman struggling with her sickle for her son's life, the old man's figure … kept him company through the day." Initially fearing his uncle as despotic and self-indulgent "in senile willfulness," Adam gradually realizes that the man is possessed of an ennobling vision of existence that, however paradoxically, involves him integrally in the widow's rite of sacrifice and that celebrates the heroic nature of her destiny. Adam finally bears witness to the fact that peasant and lord share the same suffering and that he himself is able to "comprehend in full the oneness of the world … the unity of the universe." The landscape itself has mystically "spoken" to him. Born into a new, heightened consciousness, Adam knows that "this hour was consecrated to greater emotions, to a surrender to fate and to the will of life."

—J. Donald Crowley