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,...
(The entire section is 996 words.)