Archive for August 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

August 3, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter does not know how to forgive and forget.

Marriage is the overriding subject of the novel. Kristin and Erlend are not able to have a happy marriage together because they are unwilling to give way to each other for very long. Erlend is a carefree and irresponsible knight. He has already lived with another man’s wife, Eline, before he marries Kristin. In one of the more memorable scenes in the book, Kristin and Erlend take advantage of Eline’s weakness to put her away so that Erlend can be free to marry Kristin. They cover up the death with the help of Erlend’s aunt, rumored to be a sorceress. Kristin breaks off her arranged engagement to Simon in order to have her true love, Erlend, though this means disobeying her parents and causing scandal because of Erlend’s reputation. She is set on getting what she wants, without regard for what may come later.

The novel curiously concludes the chapters on the marriage of Kristin and Erlend with a long discussion between Kristin’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid, from which we find that Ragnfrid  has for years held onto her resentments against her husband. Their marriage was never happy, and her admission to  Lavrans only makes things colder between them. Although the scene doesn’t seem to flow neatly from the narration, it’s a fitting conclusion to the first third of the novel and states one of the book’s main themes–that no marriage is a happy one.

The action takes place in fourteenth-century Norway. The culture is Catholic, but pagan elements persist. Some are harmless folk tales about trolls and elves. Others are more dangerous, such as resort to sorcery in desperate times. Kristin’s Christian faith never wavers, though her pride often leads her to great sin, but even she resorts to calling on the pagan gods to help Simon’s sick child. At the end of the novel, she must prevent  a more dangerous appeal to sorcery by others in order to save a child’s life.

The cast of characters is long, and many of the names are repeated, as children are often named for their ancestors, so there is some doubling, which causes confusion. My edition did not have a Dramatis Personae at the front of each part, as in some editions of Tolstoy.

If one can speak of a feminine approach to novel writing, Undset dwells on the details of emotional relationships in  a way that recalls George Eliot. Violence erupts into the story unexpectedly, however, and this is perhaps the way of the Vikings, not the Victorians.