What a book, what a book.
The most arresting moment of the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, perhaps the one when I cried the most, was when the daughter of Lavrans Bjorgulfson watched her eighth son, her baby Erlend, die.
All of Kristin and Erlend’s children grew up past infanthood and into vim, so unlikely for that time but so fitting for the children of parents of such strength. And now Kristin’s son is dying.
And Kristin thinks, knows, that her son’s weakness is God’s punishment for her pride, and that if she could swallow her pride He would let her son live.
And Kristin loves her son, she loves him as a mother loves her son, and how we know how Kristin the mother loved her sons, as much as anyone can be said to love anyone.
And yet comes the harrowing moment when she kneels to pray for her son and say the Pater Noster, but she cannot bring herself to say the words …et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. She is too Christian, and too honest with herself, to just say the words in rote fashion. She cannot say them, because she cannot forgive her husband.
And so she loves her son as much as anyone can love anyone, and yet for his life she cannot bring herself to swallow her pride, and so her son dies.
This, ultimately, is what the novel Kristin Lavransdatter is about, and since it is also what human nature is about, it is why Kristin Lavransdatter is a great novel.
It is sometimes said that Kristin Lavransdatter is a novel about sin, but it is not a novel about sin because people fornicate, and cheat, and steal, and kill. It is a novel about sin because it is a novel that shows what happens when people love their pride more than their fellow man (or more than God, which is the same thing). That is to say, it is a novel about each and every one of us.
This is the true nature of sin. Real sin is not transgression, or rather, the transgressions are only the consequence of real sin. The real sin is pride, because it is what leads to the other sins. I touched on this in my previous post, but it becomes even more apparent as the novel progresses.
Kristin’s story is a story about love. Kristin is a woman who, first, loves. She loves her father, she loves her lover—and Kristin never stopped loving Erlend as a lover, even when he became husband and father—, she loves her children. And she loves her pride. And thus her life is propelled by this unstoppable force, careening through the world and obstacles to whatever may.
How does Kristin Lavransdatter end? One can say that it ends as tragedy, as Kristin loses everything bit by bit: her wealth, her reputation, her husband, her children (some of them die, but the others stop needing her which, perhaps, for Kristin Lavransdatter, is worse), her health. One can say that it ends as apotheosis, in the etymological sense, as she is shorn of everything and as she is shorn of everything she, at last, finds the only thing that matters, which is love. “The Cross,” indeed.
But it is not so clear. Let us talk about her final act. What you do to the least of them, you do to Me. Ever the mother, Kristin risks her life to save a child whom no one would save. And to a vagrant woman, forgotten of all, who died of the black plague, she gives a Christian burial, risking and losing her life in this final act of love. Or is that it? It is not so clear. This is such a Kristin moment. Her mother superior tells her not to go, to wait, but she goes anyway—a breach of obedience, a sin if there ever was one for a nun. She has been taunted to go bury the woman, and this, perhaps, is the real reason why she goes. She is Kristin Lavransdatter, and when she moves, nothing can stop her.
So, in that final moment, was she acting out of pride, or out of love? It is the only thing that matters. If she did it out of love, then everything is redeemed. Kristin has learned to love her fellow man more than pride. If she did it out of pride…
The evil genius of Sigrid Undset! It is hard to say. Her book is not a simple morality tale. She who takes us on dives in the rich and deep inner lives of her characters, here she puts up a veil. We see Kristin act, but we do not know what she thinks. We do know that she dies at peace, and feeling God’s love. This, perhaps, is the moral of the story, if there is one. Perhaps Kristin acted out of pride to the very end—but even so, even for us who are prideful always, God’s love is always there, in us. If that is so, it would be most fitting. Kristin did not die a saint, but she was saved nonetheless.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the phrase Undset chooses to end her novel on, spoken by Kristin’s priest: “no one is good without God. And we can do nothing good without Him. … Even if all the mountains should fall, [a good deed] would still stand.” Nevermind whether Kristin acted out of pride or out of love. She did good, and therefore she was with God. Her pride is not so much extinguished as transfigured. Perhaps.
As the years have gone by I’ve lost a lot of patience with archetypes. (This explains the sourness of my review of Tree of Life.) When I was a young man, I thought that art was about archetypes. What I loved as a young boy was Greek myth, and Greek myth is all about archetype: Achilles, Ulysses, Oedipus, Antigone… As a teen I loved genre cinema not so much because of the boobs and gore (although—yay!) but because it is all about archetypes.
The challenge and beauty of art, to me, was to lift the human condition out of its messiness to show us a sort of Platonic ideal of humankind, to show us that heroes can (or at least should) be heroes, that temptation can be overcome (or what happens when it is not), and so on. Not simple morality tales, no, but tales, certainly, where things happen for reasons, and people have arcs, and there are symbols. Archetype is not myth, either: Bel-Ami is a realist novel through and through, yet the eponymous character is certainly an archetype.
I’m pretty sure it was War and Peace that changed this for me, which is why I always come back to it as the ur-novel, the one to which I compare all others. Tolstoy has such mastery of understanding of human nature that his portraits of characters are incredibly compelling. His characters are not archetypes, or better, he initially shows them as archetypes and then subverts the archetype, or at least complicates the picture. Pierre and Prince Andrei start out, if not as archetypes, then certainly as types, but Tolstoy peels the layers and shows that no one is a type, or an abstraction. We have infinite depths of complexity within all of us. We are not archetypes, we are human beings.
Archetypical art has some value, because some forms and ideas and types, for mysterious reasons we should be respectful of, tug at something deep in our souls (think of the Hero with a Thousand Faces). But I became convinced that both the greater truth and the greater skill in art are in showing the deep complexity of humankind. Incidentally, that’s when I stopped wanting to become a novelist.
Undset does this as well as anyone I’ve read. No one in Kristin Lavransdatter is a type. Every character is made out of crooked timber.
Lavrans is The Father, all love and charity and strength and genuine, devout Christian faith. Yet Lavrans is also a bit of a coward, keeping his wife distant from him because she keeps him distant from her—like the bravest men, he is cowardly about something intimate and this cowardice is in a way silly and “out of character” for him but actually deeply in-character. Lavrans for all his Christlike charity cannot ever fully forgive his daughter for her sin, even though God forgave it. Because he is so righteous, he can never fully understand, and therefore truly forgive, his daughter’s sin. This man who could wash a reformed murderer’s feet if he asked for his charity cannot bring himself to love his daughter in quite the same way.
The most type-like characters, of course, are Erlend Nikulaussøn and Simon Andressøn. They are opposite types: Erlend the cad, and Simon the devoted husband. Erlend who is impatient with little kids, and Simon who loves them. Erlend who dies because of pride, and Simon whose final moment is an act of love. They are even opposite physically: Erlend, tall, thin, handsome; Simon, short, fat and forgettable. One quickly gets the sense, especially when Simon returns in the picture, that Undset sets them up as symmetrical types. I even had to cringe a little bit when she actually said it.
And yet, that’s not true.
Erlend is a cad, but he’s also a man of duty. He’s a womanizer, but he loves Kristin deeply from start to finish. Erlend is foolish, but also intelligent. Erlend is that worst of types, the one who, when he sins, knows that it is a sin, yet finds a self-justification to tell himself and others that his sin is not a sin. And yet, he also knows that his self-justification is wrong.
When Erlend cheats on Kristin the second time, setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to his downfall, he needs self-justification to do so, but afterwards he fully realizes the enormity of his sin.
After Erlend’s downfall, when he has to live in Jørundgaard and live the life that he always ran from—the life of a humble, content man—the type that he was would have grown embittered and spiteful and would have taken his self-loathing out on his wife and children. Instead of, like the gambler he surely was, trying to cook up some other scheme to make back his loss, he accepted his fate, out of shame of how much he hurt her. He found a way to rid himself of his bitterness, because he accepted his responsibility in his downfall and found a way to refocus on his love for Kristin. In the end he had to run away again, because that’s the kind of man he is, but not to get up to his old tricks again.
Erlend the cad and the self-justificator was, in the end, also a stalwart lover of his wife and, in his way, a devoted husband. When, early on, he swears that he did not touch his concubine after promising himself to Kristin, one believes him, even though the type that he is would surely have found some self-justification to do otherwise. And even though that devilish Undset doesn’t actually tell us whether he was truthful.
When Undset returns Simon into the picture, she sets things up so that the reader thinks, with pangs of pain: “Oh, if only she had kept her oath. Oh, if only she’d never met Erlend and had married Simon, then this tragic chain of events would not have happened.”
Except that it’s not true. Simon the adult who returns into Kristin’s life is not Simon Andressøn her fiancé. Simon the adult can love her because he is acquainted with sin. He has cheated on his wife, and done so with effrontery, fathering and recognizing a bastard. He now understands sin, and how one can sin. Simon the young man had, so to speak, never left his valley or his father’s shadow, and had no way to understand Kristin’s sin. In his youth, he rejects her even as he helps her, not for her, but merely for propriety and for the sake of her father.
Meanwhile Kristin always had this fire, this prideful passion. If she had never met Erlend Nikulaussøn and married as her father intended, there would have been some tragedy. She would have found some other way to sin, and her husband would have despised and hated her.
Kristin Lavransdatter might have loved Simon the adult, but she could never have loved Simon Andressøn the young, and he could never have loved her.
Simon early on in the novel acts out of duty, but later on he acts out of love—a sinful love, for his wife’s sister, for the woman who betrayed him. Simon is a good man. He plans to be selfish in his final act—confess his love to Kristin—but instead despite himself he ends in an act of selflessness, pushing his love to reconcile with her husband, because he loves her and wants what’s best for her, genuinely.
No types, then. The only “literary” moment in the novel is Kristin’s death. Her death is very unlike the Black Plague, whose symptoms Undset so accurately described earlier: she falls down and dies in a matter of hours, without any of the characteristic buboes and sores. But it is fitting, in a novel where elves and dead saints occasionally appear, that God should abruptly take His daughter when she is ready.
I think there should be a fine for anyone who describes the character of Kristin Lavransdatter as “headstrong.” First, for the lack of imagination. Second, because it’s so wrong.
This is something I’ve touched on before, but Kristin is in no way “headstrong” in the way we usually describe her. She is not actively engaged in rebellion against anything or anyone. Her strength is not about controlling or winning things. Her strength is deeper, more elemental. It arises in strange moments.
The thing that struck me most is that after Erlend’s downfall, Kristin is completely passive. It is Simon who shakes Heaven and Earth to secure Erlend’s freedom. Kristin is brought low by the enormity of Erlend’s downfall. She takes as a given her womanly ignorance of politics and dares not overstep her bounds in social life. Kristin is also immobilized by the guilt she feels—even though Erlend bears responsibility for his adultery, he went on this path because of the hurtful words she told him, and she’d meant for those words to hurt him, to drive him beside himself. This is not how a “headstrong” woman behaves.
No, Kristin’s strength is something else—the strength of love and pride mixed. I don’t know what the right word is, but it’s not “headstrong.”
Now that I’ve come back from my internetless exile I’ve read Carrie’s great post on re-reading Kristin. My first urge after putting the novel down was to flip to the first page and start over. I haven’t reread it yet, but I’m sure I will, and that it will mean a lot. This is such a rich book that it requires several readings.
I agree with Kristin’s nameless minority of teachers that there is no book that no age can appreciate. (The absence of any link between age and maturity is one of my hobbyhorses. When my age was in the single digits, a French teacher of mine dutifully explained to me that there were some texts I couldn’t understand. In response, I wrote a quite explicit—and, even in retrospect, perfectly realistic—erotic story.) And Kristin hasn’t changed my view on this. When I read the first book of Kristin I of course had to wonder how I would take it if my now-19-months-old daughter brought home a scoundrel to marry, and admit I don’t know. That said, I fully intend to recommend it as strongly as possible to my children as soon as possible, and I commend Carrie for giving it to read to a 14-year-old.
I also agree that the religious themes are not overbearing. Since I’d expected a “book about religion” or at least “with strong religious themes” I expected a lot more. Kristin is also a very naturalistic book. It’s not so much a Catholic book as a book about Catholics, although undergirded by Christian and Catholic themes.
In short, I agree with Carrie: it has one of the attributes of great literature: universality in its particularism. (You might even call it…a catholic novel.)