Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 996

Sigrid Undset was one of many European writers in the twentieth century who felt a strong attraction to traditional Catholicism. Undset differed, though, from writers such as T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, and Charles Maurras, who supported reactionary political regimes and were opposed to the personal autonomy characteristic of...

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Sigrid Undset was one of many European writers in the twentieth century who felt a strong attraction to traditional Catholicism. Undset differed, though, from writers such as T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, and Charles Maurras, who supported reactionary political regimes and were opposed to the personal autonomy characteristic of the modern era. Undset was not opposed to twentieth century liberalism and individualism. She saw personal autonomy as expressing a human dignity consonant with Christian conception of the potentially exalted character of humanity that, though inevitably sinful, was redeemed by the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.

This delight in individualism can be seen in Undset’s portrayal of the character of Kristin Lavransdatter. Kristin is no plaster saint. She has human desires, human passions, and human failings. She also is a pious Christian throughout the course of the work, although her religious dedication only reaches its full consummation in the last portion of the trilogy, The Cross, when she formally enters a convent. Undset indulges in no melodramatic contrast between pagan sin and Christian devotion. She recognizes that, in a society as totally Christian as medieval Norway, Christianity tended to embrace the full range of human attributes and behaviors, even if it could not have officially condoned them all. Kristin’s drives and passions may be gently chided by the clerical authorities in the book, but they are not constrained. Indeed, the defiance of social norms that Kristin displays at the beginning of the book (for instance, in her premarital relationship with Erlend Nikulaussön) is also displayed at the end of the book, when her passionate spirit diverges from the social norm in another direction (selfless devotion to the Church).

The significance of the character of Erlend is often missed by critics. Erlend’s inadequacies as a man and as a husband are evident. Before he marries Kristin, he sires an illegitimate child by another woman. After their marriage, he has numerous affairs. He mismanages and mortgages his property to advance his unrealistic personal interests. At first, the reader infers that Kristin has made a disastrous match and that her religious devotion is a repudiation of Erlend’s wayward secular morality. The truth, on consideration, is more complicated. Erlend, like Kristin, will not tolerate the limits placed upon him by stolid, unimaginative, run-of-the-mill people. Erlend’s appetite can lead to ignoble and disagreeable behavior, but it also possesses a kind of zeal that has much akin to Kristin’s own spiritual fire. If anything, Kristin’s clear moral superiority to Erlend can be seen less as a religiously motivated gesture on the part of the author than as a feminist critique of male adventurism and self-serving charisma. It is in the middle section of the trilogy, The Mistress of Husaby, that the ambiguities of Erlend’s character are most fruitfully displayed. Erlend agitates to replace the Swedish hegemony over Norway with rule by a native Norwegian noble. This conspiracy fails in worldly terms and is judged by Kristin to be a distraction from the truly primary spiritual goals of human life. Kristin’s perspective is reminiscent of Beatrice’s view of Dante Alighieri’s political intrigues in Florence in Dante’s Paradiso (c. 1320; English translation, 1802). The conspiracy does reflect a praiseworthy desire on the part of Erlend to make life better for his people and to strive for the general good. Erlend’s Norwegian nationalism was hardly unattractive to Undset, who was twenty-three years old when Norway finally gained independence from Sweden in 1905. Kristin might have had a less tragedy-filled life had she married a more placid and dutiful man, such as her devoted suitor Simon Darre (who always remains constant to Kristin even after she marries another man), but her passions and ambitions would have been less fulfilled.

Erlend’s house, Husaby, also plays an important role in the book, especially in contrast and in comparison with Jörundgaard, the house of Kristin’s father, Lavrans Björgulfsön. Put simply, Jörundgaard is more of a homestead, and Husaby is more of a manor. Jörundgaard represents the simplicities of childhood, and Husaby represents the challenges, the rewards, and the sorrows of being a mature adult. Much attention is paid to how Kristin renovates Husaby and restores it to its proper rank and station in the region. However, when Kristin is old and widowed, it is to Jörundgaard that she returns, finding in its raw and windswept reaches a proper haven for her battered spirit.

It is neither the characters nor the houses of the novel, however, with which the reader must first relate. It is the setting of the book itself: medieval Norway. Almost incalculably remote to most English-speaking readers, Undset’s setting threatens to dwarf the human protagonists of the book in a wealth of exotic detail. It is Undset’s great achievement that this does not occur. Undset’s fidelity to historical detail far exceeds that of the garden-variety historical novelist, yet the book is never wooden or fusty in its depiction of the past. Although the reader develops an interest in medieval Norway for its own sake, Undset’s character portraits are so powerful that eventually the reader takes the setting in stride and evaluates the characters within their given context much as he or she would do when reading a novel concerning contemporary life. Undset’s objective historical accuracy is far greater than that of nineteenth century romantic historical writers (such as Sir Walter Scott). She is far less interested than they, however, in bringing the heroic spirit of the past to bear upon the perceived mediocrities of her time. Undset believes, rather, that people should value the past for its own sake but realize that the same conflicts that ensnare and beset contemporaries also have afflicted their predecessors. In her broad-mindedness in acknowledging the range of brilliance and shortsightedness, generosity and evil, of which women and men are capable, Undset succeeds in animating the distant past.

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