Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset, Simone de Beauvoir

Kristin LavransdatterI am, unfortunately, very late to the Kristin Lavransdatter party.  I finished the first book a few weeks ago, but did not have any inspiration for what to post about.  The Wreath was a well-written medieval tale that made that the time period come to life unlike any book I’ve read.  I fell in love with the setting and enjoyed the story, but outside of that, I didn’t quite know what to say.

On Tuesday, inspiration struck during my literary studies class after we read and discussed “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir and it put a completely different spin on The Wreath.  More or less contemporaries, there are certainly similarities to be found.

But it’s an artist that I want to be, a woman artist, and not a pen-wielding lady.

Undset wrote those words in a correspondence with her friend.  I think she lived up to that.  Kristin Lavransdatter is nothing short of an epic, that not only brings into question what it meant to be a woman during medieval times, but what it meant to be a woman in the 20s.  I can’t speak for Undset, obviously, and her intentions, but whether the reflection of her own tumultuous, post-WWI Europe in the medieval was intentional or not, the similarities are impressive.  There are frequent references to the changing times in Norway that breeds an ominous tone throughout the whole first book.

But, the first thing that struck me about the novel was the sheer beauty of the description in conjunction with the simplicity of the language.

There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains.  On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds.  But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes.  (pg 13)

Though there is beautiful language throughout The Wreath, there is also a darkly ominous side to it.  I was surprised by that dichotomy that was present as soon as the first chapter.  The relationship between young Kristin and her father is lovely, but there is always that underlying knowledge that there is going to be the betrayal later on, that Kristin will go against her father’s wishes.  There is so much foreshadowing in the beginning of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution; all sensible people know that.  That’s why I think that sensible people have to be satisfied with the good days – for the grandest of days are costly indeed.  They call a man a fool who fritters away his father’s inheritance in order to enjoy himself in his youth […] But I call him a true idiot and fool only if he regrets his actions afterward, and he is twice the fool and the greatest buffoon of all if he expects to see his drinking companions again once the inheritance is gone.  (49)

At those times when one needs either prayers or advice one usually has no mind to learn or understand. (49)

There is a lot of mention of Catholicism and religion in this novel, but also of paganism.  More duality!  What stood out for me was the constant referral to woman as witch, or the “mysterious woman” that de Beauvoir talked about in “The Second Sex”.  Undset outright contradicts this assumption: “It could be that the woman knew more than was good for the health of her soul – and yet one should not forget that ignorant people often spoke of witchcraft as soon as a woman showed herself to be wiser than the councilmen”  (55).  

These “ignorant people” that Undset refers to are the “masculine hearts” of de Beauvoir’s essay.  She says:

Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman […]  Of all these myths, none is more firmly anchored in masculine hearts than that of the feminine “mystery.”  It has numerous advantages.  And first of all it permits an easy explanation of all that appears inexplicable; the man who “does not understand” a woman is happy to substitute an objective resistance for the subjective deficiency of mind; instead of admitting his ignorance, he perceives the presence of a “mystery” outside himself: an alibi, indeed, that flatters laziness and vanity at once.  A heart smitten with love thus avoids many disappointments: if the loved one’s behavior is capricious, her remarks stupid, then the mystery serves, then the mystery serves to excuse it all.  (1409)

Simone de Beauvoir wrote critically about it and Undset wrote it into her novel.  It did not necessarily seem to be Kristin that, thus far, has given anything to contradict the tendency for the representation of women in literature, but rather Aashild, her Erlend’s aunt.  I wonder if Kristin will continue to act this way or if she will change with the rest of the novel.

But what all of this boils down to is that I just don’t know what I think of Kristin and Erlend.  Yes, Kristin follows her heart and gets what she wants, but at what cost?  Is there irony here?  That for all of her forward-thinking, Kristin falls into the same trap as all the other women?  She frequently talks about how little she wants to be intimate with Erlend, but allows him to.  I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to think about this couple and I’m torn between believing that Kristin is an independent woman ahead of her time to thinking that she gave up one kind of servitude for another. If only she’d stuck with Arne!  He was the one and it ended in tragedy.

Now she felt that she had grown up from maiden to woman.  This was not just because of the passionate, secret caresses she had received and given.  She had not merely left her father’s guardianship and subjected herself to Erlend’s will.  Brother Edvin had impressed on her the responsibility of answering for her own life, and for Erlend’s as well, and she was willing to bear this burden with grace and dignity.  (159)

I’m not too worried, though, Kristin has plenty of time to prove herself as a strong woman as the story continues.  I’m looking forward to getting back to the medieval world of Kristin!

Thanks to Richard and Emily for hosting this read-along!  Other participants: kiss a cloud, She is Too Fond of Books, nonsuch bookpage 247, 5-squared, Rhapsody in Books, Save Ophelia, what we have here is a failure to communicate, Fizzy Thoughts, tuesday in silhouette, Life Is A Patchwork Quilt, This Book and I Could Be Friends.

See you again at the end of the month for Part II!

9 thoughts on “Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset, Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Wow, fascinating Undset – Beauvoir connection! I thought Undset struck an interesting balance in the other characters’ interactions with Aashild; her witchy reputation does put them off, but at the same time it’s not like they’re ignorant that the witchcraft accusation is often used for self-serving reasons on the part of the accuser.

    And you’re definitely not alone on your uneasiness about the Kristin-Erlend match. We’ll see how it pans out… 🙂

  2. Glad you got your thoughts together for this post! It’s been a difficult book for everyone to write about, but what interesting takes and points each person has come up with. That foreshadowing quote about not regretting the good days slipped past me, but it casts such an interesting light on what follows!

  3. I love that you connected it to something very relatable and feminist. And for the record, it’s better to be fashionably late than not to attend at all 😀

  4. Very interesting analysis. I think Undset betrays a decidedly non-Beauvoir attitude toward women in one sense: in my opinion Kristin was beloved by so many because of her looks, and that was about it. But even moreso, Undset seemed to buy into the notion that looks=value as well. And when she waxes rhapsodic about the beauty of Kristin’s long blonde locks arrayed over her shoulders, it sounds to me more like Aryan romanticism than early feminism.

    And yes, Arne was good, but Kristin forgot about him five minutes after he was dead. At any rate, I think he was “too” good, i.e., Kristin (or Undset) needed to have someone to be a love interest with whom Kristin could play out her inner turmoil of good versus evil.

  5. Wow, what an interesting analysis! I noticed a lot of dichotomies too – guilt/innocence, Christian/paganism, and so forth. But it didn’t occur to me that the conflict between old traditions and new ideas presented in KL (the Christianity/paganism) might reflect the tumultuous atmosphere of Europe in the 1920s. (Actually, the spirit of modernism began at the end of the 19th century, but WWI really did a lot to demolish Victorianism.) I finished The Wreath having no idea what made KL Modernist, beyond the time in which it was written, but this post really clarified that for me. Thanks a lot for that.

  6. Lu, your post is really interesting as usual–but I think you give Undset way too much credit! I can actually see Kristin as a somewhat feminist character for bucking expectations (her family’s and, by extension, society’s) in choosing Erlend over her arranged marriage partner. That Erlend is a “bad” choice as a mate is irrelevant from this point of view, but I believe Undset missed an opportunity to exploit this dynamic (i.e. Kristin as a strong woman but a bad decision maker) in any meaningful way. Instead, we get the cheap sensationalism with Eline and a title character who’s unhappy whether she’s with Erlend or without him. I hope things pick up in the second book, but I still feel kind of guilty for proposing a shared read for a writer whose forte seems to be in nature writing for crying out loud!

  7. I haven’t read any of the books you mention, but what an interesting comment on women and choices in KL! I look forward to reading it and the more I see discussion of it, the more excited I get!

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