(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Kristin Lavransdatter, the life of a woman is divided into the stages of childhood, marriage, motherhood, and religion. In each stage, the corresponding identity of a woman is primarily defined in terms of her relationship with others: daughter to parents, wife to husband, mother to children, and votary to God. Although such a schematization of life-stages might sound rigid, in practice, it seems to contain a logic of its own; Undset seems to be aware of the biological, social, and religious impulses that constitute human life. In the first book, The Bridal Wreath, young Kristin, burdened with guilt over her younger sister’s crippled existence, barters to God her youth for a life in the cloister, in exchange for her sister’s well-being. It is instructive that Undset moves Kristin from that path and places her into a passionate romance that is at once sweet and bitter. Kristin goes through a stormy marriage with a vain, fickle, irresponsible man who turns out to be a good lover and an acclaimed knight but a negligent husband and father. It is precisely that experience, however, that molds the strong and mature personality of the adult Kristin; Undset seems to say that it is only through suffering that one can know one’s true limits, one’s special strengths and resources.

Undset ranks the occupation of motherhood very highly in this scheme of a woman’s life. Kristin bears eight children to Erlend, and the births and the mothering process are described in considerable detail. Kristin’s tenderest introspections favor her children; she is at once elated, fearful, proud, and possessive about her sons. The experiences of pregnancy and motherhood are described in a language that swells with images of fertility and sweet happiness; Kristin feels shriveled and barren when she is not carrying Erlend’s child. Yet this glow is balanced with harsh outbursts about the burdens of fertility to women—the realities that sensual love involves the risk of conception and that women are the primary care-givers for...

(The entire section is 834 words.)