Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 29, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife

Kristin Lavransdatterby 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!!


  1. I felt the same way about almost all that you write about here, Sarah, but your “epic nonsense” crack summarizes The Wife lots more concisely than I could have! I also got the sense that Undset herself almost had a crush on Kristin with all the descriptions about how “beautiful” she was in scene after scene…as if she were completely oblivious to what an unbearably unpleasant and high-maintenance creature she had created with this character. Weird!

  2. I second you and Richard both!

    And Richard, I just loathed all that “beautiful” stuff. But I do believe Undset was buying into the racial propaganda that was rife in Europe at the time.

  3. Oddly enough, with all the descriptions of her as being beautiful, she doesn’t come off as beautiful to me, because of her personality. I just can’t reconcile her beauty to her character. Is it just me??

  4. Richard, Jill, and Claire – I think it was EL Fay who has said somewhere that Kristin might, possibly – gasp – be a Mary Sue…!! I definitely am intrigued by Undset and in an effort to understand her work better I am tempted to find out what relationships in her own life might have inspired Kristin and Erland…but I almost don’t care enough to bother. We’ll see.

  5. It’s pretty sad when Erlend ends up being the reasonable one in the family.

  6. Amy – I know! I really can’t stand nagging wives, so my sympathy level for Erland just kept rising…

  7. I hadn’t been familiar with that “Mary Sue” term before E.L. Fay and you brought it up, Sarah, but I think the diagnosis fits despite its unfortunate Star Trek roots! Also think what Jill says above about Euro racial propaganda in the ’20s may have something to do with the overkill about how beautiful Kristin’s supposed to be, but I’d have to read more about Undset before coming to any conclusions on that point. Unfortunately, like you, “I almost don’t care enough to bother” at this point!

  8. Sarah, as I think we’ve established, I totally agree with your overall assessment here. And as regards the nagging wives thing, I’m reminded of Valerie’s point last time about Kristin being a male-centric novel despite having a female protagonist. The way Kristin acts just seems like a parody of the shrewish wife! I feel like the book is kind of taking an anti-woman stance, in that I feel less positive/friendly towards women after I read it.

    Re: racial propaganda, for what it’s worth Undset and her husband did have to flee Norway during WWII for their anti-fascist politics, so I don’t think she was a white supremacist. (Although, it’s totally possible to be a white supremacist and still object to the Nazis invading your country.) My guess about the “she’s so beautiful” stuff is that it’s wish fulfillment for Undset herself, if she’s using Kristin as an author-surrogate.

  9. Emily – Whoa, crazy take on the book, in regards to it being anti-woman. It makes sense though – most of the interesting, more fully drawn characters are men, with the exception of Erland’s aunt and to some extent Kristin’s mother. To finish the second part and feel more favorable toward Erland than Kristin is a bothersome place to be, since he’s still kind of abominable. Seriously, Undset – what gives?!

    Richard – Kristin is a terrible version of a “Mary Sue” though, since aside from being astonishingly beautiful (??), she doesn’t have any fun powers or a special skills. Hum drum (weepy!) Mary Sue’s aren’t the norm.

  10. Darn! I’m late for the party. And people were talking about me! My KL post is just about finished and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t write anything about Mary Sue.

    Interesting that Emily entertains the thought of KL being anti-woman, despite having wondered if her lukewarm reaction to it was anti-feminist. I’m not sure I agree with the anti-woman thing. I think there’s a pretty broad range of female characters presented; we just have to remember that there aren’t too many avenues for them to be as “interesting” as the men are. They can’t join in war and politics.

    But back to the Mary Sue thing – this test is pretty extensive. Unfortunately, a lot of it deals with the author’s relationship to the character, and I can’t answer for Undset. Kristin scored 19, which denotes a well-developed, engaging non-Sue. But somehow I think the score would be much higher if Undset herself took the test.

    Another thought: a common feature of the Mary Sue is WANGST. That is “angst+whiny.” And boy does Kristin have that in buckets. . .

  11. Wait, wait, here is an even better test! Yep, she’s a Mary Sue! (She scored 34.) But a potentially salvageable one.

  12. Epic nonsense is the perfect description!

    I remember reading that comment from Gunnulf about her arrogance and thinking, “yes! now she’ll stop feeling so darn guilty.”

    Too bad I was wrong.

  13. EL Fay – Thanks for the Mary Sue tests – can’t wait to read your review! I guess you’re right about there just not being that many interesting things for women to do in Kristin’s world… Maybe in the last part she’ll be so busy fending off the bubonic plague that she won’t have time to be so “wangsty”! But I doubt it.

    Softdrink – Too bad, too bad indeed… *sigh*

  14. I have no clue about all the references to Mary Sue. Will have to look into that!

    I had exactly the same thought as you did — would Kristin have felt as guilty if her first baby hadn’t been conceived before she got married; in spite of all the rolling in the hay she did before marriage?

    As for the beauty, it reminds me of something I heard or read a long time ago (about making marriages work) — men want their wives to continue to look good (in their own eyes– beauty is in the eye of the beholder), while wives want their men to be successful (to whatever degree; not having to worry about making ends meet) in providing for their families. It seems like Undset has this mindset.

    Good point about the male-centrism that I’ve mentioned before — it could be this way because back in those days women didn’t have much to do other than having babies (even during the time that the trilogy was originally written).

    Perhaps Undset found herself disliking Kristin, and therefore that in turn makes us dislike Kristin also — if Undset was self-loathing in writing this part (she had complicated personal entanglements herself along with the religous seeking), that would have reflected off Kristin also.

  15. Valerie – Interesting idea, in regards to Undset herself disliking Kristin! That hadn’t occurred to me. I suppose you’re right too about even Undset’s time being less women-accessible.

  16. […] Previously: The Wife, and The […]

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