Study Guide

The Snake Pit

by Sigrid Undset

The Snake Pit Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After Olav Audunsson receives his wife Ingunn from her kin, he returns with her to Hestviken to claim his inheritance. Lime trees are in blossom, and their scent brings back to him childhood memories of the manor that had not been his home since he was seven years old. Hestviken, on a ridge above Oslo fjord, was a place of chieftains. One of the heirlooms of Viking days is a wood carving showing legendary Gunnar surrounded by vipers in the pit where Atle threw him.

While Olav was growing up as Steinfinn’s foster son at Frettastein and during his years of warring and outlawry, an aged kinsman lived at Hestviken. Old Olav, called Half-Priest because he studied for the Church before an accident crippled him, was more clerk than franklin. Under his stewardship the manor does not prosper, and young Olav has less wealth than he expects. Still, Hestviken is a rich homestead, and so he cheerfully sets about repairing the houses, increasing his herds, and outfitting boats to trade by sea. Besides, he likes Olav Half-Priest and spends many evenings listening to stories of his ancestors and their deeds in the old days.

Olav Half-Priest knew four generations of the Hestviken men, and his greatest wish, as he often tells Ingunn, is to see her son and Olav’s before his death. The child Ingunn has the summer the old man dies lives only a few seconds. In the next four years she has three more children, all stillborn. During part of that time Olav is away on raids against the Danes, but when he is at home there is little cheer between them. Ingunn is fretful and sick, resentful of Signe and Una, Olav’s distant cousins, impatient with her maids. Olav knows that she is thinking of the healthy son she had by Teit, the Icelander he killed to hide her shame, but there is no mention of the boy between them.

Olav’s crime weighs heavily upon his own spirit. If he proclaimed it at the time, men would have found justice in Teit’s slaying; his silence makes his deed secret murder. Unable to confess his guilt without bringing shame to Ingunn, whom he loves, he knows that he must live with the burdens of his sin. Perhaps, he thinks, the dead children are part of the chastisement he must suffer. He is always tender toward the useless wife whose misfortune he took, by violence, upon himself.

When Ingunn becomes really ill, Olav hires Torhild Bjönsdatter, whose mother was a serving woman at Hestviken, to keep his house for him. Afterward the manor is in better order, and for a time Ingunn’s health improves, so that one spring she travels to see Tora, her widowed sister, at Frettastein. While there, she goes to see little Eirik, her son, at his foster mother’s house. He is half-frightened of the richly dressed woman who gives him gifts and holds him so tightly. On her return to Hestviken, Olav asks her if she longs greatly for the boy. She says that Eirik is afraid of her.

Ingunn’s brother Jon dies, and Olav rides north to collect her share of his...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)