In the Wilderness Essay - Critical Essays

Sigrid Undset

Critical Evaluation

The third volume in the Master of Hestviken tetralogy, In the Wilderness is set in the Middle Ages, a period whose significance in the development of Western thought and values had achieved great importance in scholarly circles when Sigrid Undset began writing her novels. More than other works in the series, In the Wilderness depends for its action on the large historical movements of the time; the protagonist’s journeys and his service in historical conflicts link the novel more closely to other examples of historical fiction, especially since Olav’s viewpoint—that of the rank-and-file soldier—on these events is one not likely to be represented in the actual chronicles of the period. The colorful details of war and trade are in fact merely the background for a concentrated examination of the protagonist’s character and spiritual condition.

The central theme of In the Wilderness is Olav Audunssøn’s confrontation with his selfish pride. With the death of his wife Ingunn, recorded in the final pages of The Snake Pit (1929), Olav expects to be able to abandon the lie in which he lived for so long. Instead, he finds himself more closely bound to it than before, for he must continue his silence about his act of murder and about the licentiousness of his wife for the sake of his daughter Cecilia and his wife’s son Eirik. The tensions created by his inability to articulate his guilt lead him to behave miserably toward Eirik, whom he accepts intellectually as his son and heir but who still brings up in Olav strong feelings of revulsion when he remembers that Eirik is the product of Ingunn’s liaison with Teit, the man Olav murders. Away from Hestviken, he hopes to escape the torments of conscience by immersing himself in travel, trade, and warfare. When the struggles of his conscience come to a head at the church for pilgrims near London, however, he decides to...

(The entire section is 783 words.)