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 their children.
Suffering is a key emotion in Undset’s characters’ coming to grips with their true natures, and in this respect Kristin Lavransdatter may be termed a Christian romance. The suspense-filled, love-hate relationship between Erlend and Kristin is filled with suffering, as are the unexpressed emotions between Lavrans and his wife Ragnfrid, and so it is with Simon, who cannot speak of his love for Kristin anymore, because of their kinship bond. This affliction originates with each character’s personal relationship with and interpretation of God’s nature and power; at a crucial moment when Brother Edvin advises Kristin to stay away from Erlend and from ways of sensual temptations, she tells him, “When I was a girl at home ’twas past my understanding how aught could win such power over the souls of men that they could forget the fear of sin; but so much have I learned now: if the wrongs men do through lust and anger cannot be atoned for, then must heaven be an empty place.”
Such reassuring thoughts notwithstanding, Kristin and the other characters live in perpetual fear of being “discovered” by God; the psychological introspection of most characters is transformed into self-critiques of real, imagined, and potential transgressions that cannot be hidden from the eyes of God. One exception is the character of Erlend Nikulaussön. Erlend becomes aware of his transgressions against fellow human beings and God only when Kristin reminds him of them; he is portrayed as the pagan with the heart of gold, ineffectual in practical life but enchanting to the opposite sex. He dies with a smile on his lips because...
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he has been able to forgive Kristin for her share in their troubled life, while Kristin feels ashamed to stand before God, because she has been self-righteous and proud.
Erlend and Kristin’s marriage, marital disharmony, and eventual separation offer a unique perspective on the dynamics of medieval Norwegian society. The husband and wife seem to inhabit two different elements: Kristin of Jörundgaard inhabits the earth and fields, while Erlend, the knight and courtier, is most comfortable with the sea or in remote mountains. They could very well belong to two different cultures. The lush descriptions of geography and landscape in this extraordinarily lengthy novel highlight the conflicting models of life that Kristin and Erlend harbor in their minds.
Kristin is a unique female hero in her sense of her difference from others and her boldness in speaking and acting her mind, but in fourteenth century Norway her spheres of action are limited to the home and the church. What makes her character compelling and three dimensional is the manner in which Undset binds Kristin’s personality intensely with both the pagan and Christian landscapes: From wandering to the woods to see the elf-maid, to watching their church burn to the ground, to gathering flowers with her sons, Kristin projects herself into nature so wholeheartedly that she seems to develop a complex grandeur.