Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy. The first novel, The Bridal Wreath, depicts the eponymous character’s girlhood and adolescence during the fourteenth century. Kristin’s early childhood is idyllic. She lives on Jøundgaard, a prosperous estate in Gudbrandsdal, Norway. She has a very close relationship with her father, Lavrans Bjøgulfsøn, the master of the estate and a pious, respected man. One rare childhood tragedy is the crippling of her little sister Ulvhild in an accident.
With puberty, Kristin’s life becomes troubled. Arne Gyrdsson, Kristin’s close peasant friend, worships Kristin and dies defending her honor. Kristin rejects her parents’ spousal choice, the mature and pious Simon Darre, because she is not romantically attracted to him. While residing temporarily at a nunnery in Oslo, Kristin is seduced by Erlend Nikulausson, a worldly knight. Kristin is accidentally complicit in the death of Erlend’s former mistress, Eline Ormsdatter. The headstrong Kristin breaks church rules requiring chastity, truthfulness, and obedience to one’s parents. She also goes against the cautionary teachings of her friend and adviser Brother Edvin, a wandering friar. Kristin’s parents do not approve of marriage to the impulsive, immature Erlend, but love-smitten Kristin is determined to marry him and they relent. Secretly pregnant at her marriage celebration, the physically ill bride experiences doubts about her marital choice.
The second novel in the trilogy, The Mistress of Husaby, describes Kristin’s difficult life as a spouse and mother. Throughout her first pregnancy, she worries that the child will be deformed because of her sins. Erlend’s estate at Husaby is in disarray, a result of his mismanagement. Kristin is almost continually pregnant, bearing several sons who survive infancy. The constant pregnancies wear her out and interfere with her closeness to her husband. Kristin blames Erlend for ignoring his sons yet feels left out when he does bond with them. Kristin obsesses over these and other difficulties, which she interprets as retribution for her earlier sins. She becomes a cold mother and a bitter, complaining wife. She prays regularly but without sincerity, and she makes a painful pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine, seeking atonement for her sinful role in the death of Eline.
Subthemes of the second novel concern Kristin’s father, her brother-in-law, her stepdaughter, and her first betrothed, Simon Darre. Kristin notices that Erlend lacks many virtues possessed by her father, Lavrans. In declining health, Lavrans grows close to Kristin’s mother, Ragnfrid, after a marriage in which they were distant. Lavrans advises Kristin to be respectful toward her husband. Lavrans dies, followed soon thereafter by Ragnfrid. Gunnulf, Erlend’s brother, a wandering friar, advises Kristin spiritually, encouraging her to blame Erlend for her sins. The monk secretly loves Kristin, which fosters a love/hate relationship between the brothers. Kristin has a difficult relationship with her headstrong stepdaughter, Margret. When Erlend catches Margret having an affair with a married man, Erlend cuts off the man’s hand. Subsequently, Erlend has difficulty finding Margret a husband. Finally, despite Kristin’s rejection of him as her parents’ spousal choice, Simon carries a torch for Kristin his whole life. Marrying Kristin’s sister Ramborg, he continues to have contact with Kristin and occasionally helps her; notably, he prevents Erlend’s execution following a conviction for treason.
At the start of the last novel in the trilogy, The Cross , the now bitter Kristin obsesses over many issues. She feels slighted by neighbors. She finds fault in her sons and her husband. She has ambitions for her sons and worries that they might lose their highborn status. She perceives Erlend as acting as a guest on her ancestral estate rather than its manager. In one argument, she...
(This entire section contains 808 words.)
intimates that Erlend is unworthy to sit in her father’s high seat. Irate, Erlend leaves her, choosing instead to live alone for years in squalor in a mountain cabin. Kristin is too proud to ask his forgiveness.
The overseer, Ulf Haldorsson, helps Kristin run the estate and is her platonic friend. Neighbors accuse Ulf of fathering one of Kristin’s children, not knowing of Kristin’s contacts with Erlend. In a confrontation with local men about the accusation, Erlend is mortally wounded. Before his death, he and Kristin are reconciled.
A subplot concerns Simon’s troubled marriage to Kristin’s sister. Ramborg realizes that Simon continues to love Kristin. Simon’s feelings for Kristin also interfere with his friendship with Erlend. Unexpectedly, Simon dies from an infected wound. In his last days, he advises Kristin to forgive Erlend.
In the years following Erlend’s death, Kristin accepts her sins and her life. She stops obsessing over worldly things. She no longer thinks obsessively about sins committed by herself and others. She becomes a lay nun and nurses victims of the plague (Black Death); eventually, she dies of the disease.
In Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset told the entire life story of the eponymous character in chronological order in three books. A supporting cast of characters grows old with Kristin over the time period 1320-1350 c.e. The author vividly describes the setting in medieval rural Norway. It is a brutal world with much violence and many pagan superstitions. The Viking era had ended when King Olaf Haraldson converted his kingdom to Christianity. However, many of the Viking behaviors continued, such as drunkenness, brutal talk, and vicious fights begun with little provocation. Just as Norway is undergoing a conflict between pagan and Christian ways, the book’s characters struggle between spirit and flesh.
The first book, The Bridal Wreath (also known as The Wreath), depicts Kristin’s idyllic childhood. She grows up secure and well loved on her father’s prosperous feudal estate. She is especially close to Lavrans, her father. He is an admirable figure, respected and honorable. Her protected, happy life is interrupted only by an accident that seriously injures her little sister, Ulvhild.
With puberty, Kristin’s rebellious nature surfaces. Her childhood friend Arne, a peasant, dies in a fight defending her honor. Her parents arrange her marriage to Simon, a good and wise man of her landowner station in life. Kristin, however, does not love Simon, and to delay marriage she spends a year in a nunnery. The trilogy does not contain much humor, but the nunnery section introduces Kristin’s roommate, Ingebjørg, who provides amusement with her vanity and vacuous comments. While staying at the nunnery, Kristin meets the love of her life, Erlend, a worldly knight. Erlend is handsome and charming, but he is also immature and careless. His mistress, Eline, has already borne him two children. Kristin inadvertently contributes to the death of Eline in a confrontation.
Erlend seduces Kristin, who becomes his willing intimate partner because of her sexual attraction to him. Going against the wishes of her parents, the headstrong Kristin marries Erlend as The Bridal Wreath concludes. Pregnant and nauseated at her wedding feast, Kristin experiences doubts and regrets. The wedding crown, or wreath, is a great weight upon her head.
In the second book, The Mistress of Husaby (also known as The Wife), Kristin pays a heavy price for her earlier sins. The book focuses on Kristin’s tribulations in playing her traditional female roles as mother and spouse. She gives birth to seven sons who survive infancy. Many of the pregnancies are difficult and in total they wear her out; they prevent her from being emotionally close to her husband. This story line accurately depicted medieval times, when continual pregnancies were common, along with their physical and emotional toll. Kristin finds raising her sons difficult. She is alternately cold and warm toward them. She obsesses about their failings.
Kristin is a complaining, shrewish wife to a husband who does not meet her standards, either as a father or as an estate manager. As a knight, Erlend is often away on military ventures. He allows his feudal manor, Husaby, to fall into decay. These details of an unhappy home life mirrored many features of Undset’s own marriage. Erlend is slow to connect emotionally with his sons, and when he later bonds with them, Kristin is jealous and resentful. In addition to his contentious home life, Erlend has problems with the government. He is tried for treason against the unpopular King Magnus VII. He narrowly escapes conviction, in large part due to the intervention of Simon, the man Kristin’s parents had originally chosen for her to marry. Simon has married Kristin’s sister, Ramborg, but he continues to love Kristin. He assists Kristin and Erlend on several occasions, causing tensions in both marriages. Erlend loses his feudal estate, and the family must move back to Kristin’s ancestral home.
The sad details of Kristin’s tribulations in The Mistress of Husaby do not end here. She endures the heart-wrenching death of her father. She becomes closer to her mother following his death, but her mother dies soon afterward. Her parents have secrets about their own sexual love, resolved just before their deaths.
Kristin feels remorseful about her sins and makes a painful pilgrimage to the St. Olav shrine. However, in performing this and other rituals meant to achieve repentance, she lacks sincerity, not truly giving herself over to God’s will.
The third book, The Cross, begins with Kristin’s continued misery but ends with her unhappiness resolved through religious faith. Kristin is dissatisfied with her sons, her husband, and her place in the community. She considers many of her sons to be shiftless and fears that they will lose their station in life. She blames Erlend for her troubles, telling him on one notable occasion that he is far below her father in his worth. This insult causes Erlend to move to a mountain hut where he lives in squalor for several years. Kristin wants him to return but is too proud to admit it. She is mortified to realize that the surrounding neighbors look down upon her and her family. This low community esteem comes to light in a misunderstanding concerning Kristin’s pregnancy during the period when Erlend lives at the mountain hut. Neighbors accuse Kristin of infidelity with the estate overseer, not realizing that she and Erlend had briefly been together. The insult leads to a fight in which Erlend is wounded. He dies of an infected wound.
All this misery eventually is put to rest as Kristin turns to intense religiosity. She realizes that earthly toils are unimportant, and she stops obsessing over her past sins. She finds peace, becoming content with her life. She becomes a lay nun caring for victims of the Black Death. This plotline is realistic because the pandemic arrived in Norway on a ship in Bergen harbor in 1349 and is estimated to have killed half of Norway’s population. Kristin succumbs to the plague in a dying scene in which she gives her wedding ring to the church.