by Sigrid Undset – Translated by Tiina Nunnally
‘ “You say I’ve forgotten. That may not always be the worst of sins. I’ve never pretended to be a pious man, but I remember what I learned from Sira Jon when I was a child, and God’s servants have reminded me of it since. It’s a sin to brood over and dwell on the sins we have confessed to the priest and repented before God, receiving His forgiveness through the hand and the words of the priest. And it’s not out of piety, Kristin, that you’re constantly tearing open these old sins of ours – you want to hold the knife to my throat every time I oppose you in some way.” ‘ p. 611
I jammed a piece of paper between pages 610 and 611 of The Wife to mark this spot because I felt such a release – after a chunk of book filled with little beyond domestic squabbles, fits of crying, unending childbirth, agonized soul searching, and the further deterioration of my tolerance for Kristin as a character, it was great to witness she and her husband Erland competing in an all-out bitch fit, complete with slaps and trembling fury. Maybe, finally, they would get something resolved! Or maybe not…
Erland’s one saving grace is his unapologetic way of approaching his life. He doesn’t seem to regret much, especially if his misdeeds and mishaps end up turning out all right in the end. I don’t particularly like him, but I can appreciate his willingness to move forward, get on with it, and cheerfully meet the next sloppy mess he brings upon himself (and if he can find someone to blame or some way to excuse his behavior, so much the better – not that I sympathize with that!)
I only call this his “saving grace” because in contrast to Kristin and her incessant harping, smoldering resentment, scab picking, and fits of weeping, I find myself preferring Erland.
Kristin was infinitely more bearable as the lovesick teen who fell for Erland hard and fast, and then stubbornly stuck to her guns and fought for what her heart wanted until she was allowed to walk into the church on her father’s arm and back out on Erland’s.
I wonder, if she had gotten pregnant after her marriage, how different would her life have been?
With the fruit of sin in her belly, Kristin started life as The Wife pissed off, mortified that she was in such a state and resentful that Erland had stuck her there. That fact that he was embarrassed as well didn’t help, and when the kid actually showed up and Erland wasn’t as gushingly thrilled as Kristin wanted him to be…that’s where the whole knife to the throat thing started.
Kristin and Erland bicker and make babies for 15 years, while a whole lot of political posturing goes on in the background, her parents Lavrans and Ragnfrid manage to die peacefully, and Simon – Kristin’s ex-betrothed – reenters the plot with fairly interesting and significant results. Any plot line that wandered away from Kristin and her constant guilty penance, so-called piety, and self-involved pride was welcome. I actually enjoyed the last third of the book, which dealt with the consequences or Erland’s possible treason and a whole lot of political upheaval. Fascinating stuff, compared to Kristin’s 6th or 7th pregnancy…
Undset’s prose is even sparser in The Wife, and she abandons those infrequent but lovely passages about the scenery, replacing them with utterly boring descriptions of what Kristin looks like at various points in the story. The feel of 14th century Norway is still evoked pretty well, and fairly unobtrusively, but whether Kristin was crying over the stew pot, her sewing, while skiing, or while kneeling in Christ Church, swept up in a vision of Saint Olav, I didn’t find myself very present.
The underlying story in this book seems to be Kristin’s religious struggle, and for the moment she has stalled out. She sinned, a lot, and now she seeks penance, peace, and escape from further sin. She does all the right things – frequent confession, barefoot pilgrimage, good deeds – but she can’t seem to shake her guilt, and definitely feels that she doesn’t deserve to be free of it. According to the teachings of the Bible, the way I read it, that’s what Christ is there for – to take upon himself the sins that weigh you down, that seem to be beyond forgiveness. That’s pretty much why he came to earth to die and whatnot.
I was beyond grateful that there was someone around – Erland’s priest brother Gunnulf, actually – to say to Kristin, “Are you so arrogant that you think yourself capable of sinning so badly that God’s mercy is not great enough?…”
Seriously, come on, Kristin! In her I have encountered a level of self-absorption that astounds me.
It seems like Undset herself may have been trying to work out her own questions about religion. I need to do some research into the life of the author to back that statement up, but it seems glaringly obvious that she wasn’t making a religious observation with Kristin. She presents to the best of her knowledge the state of the church in Norway at that time, and showcases various religious approaches like Kristin’s favorite confessor (a classically kind, family priest), or the conflicted Gunnulf (well educated, rich, generous, but worried that he loves his wealth more than his God), or the wandering Brother Edvin (with his intriguing opinions). Undset doesn’t present any version of Christianity as more probable than another, but sets Kristin on a wandering path full of encounters, and seems just as puzzled about how it all really works as the character she created.
So where are we left at the end of part 2? Kristin and Erland have just gone through a distressing situation that drew them closer together and perhaps helped heal some of the old resentments. A fresh start seems like a reasonable idea. Simon is still very much in the picture, which could prove awkward later. I read the darn introduction so I know some pretty traumatic events are coming – bubonic plague for starters – so it seems likely that part 3 will offer new levels of bad operatic drama. While I can’t say that I’m excited, I’m certainly looking forward to concluding this epic nonsense!
I’m also very eager to see what everyone else who has made it thus far (come hell or high water or incessant weeping) thinks about The Wife. Emily is once again keeping a list as the posts go up – and much thanks to she and Richard for hosting this, um, adventure in reading!!