Sigrid Undset World Literature Analysis - Essay

Sigrid Undset World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The flesh and blood events of Kristin Lavransdatter would suit a soap opera. Here are adultery, inebriation, murder, rape, and treason. Here likewise are strong emotions: revenge, jealousy, sexual obsession, shame, and despair. Even though the novel’s characters lived more than six centuries ago, Undset represented them as having the same gripping inner struggles that people experience today.

Undset has been compared to other realistic writers, likeÉmile Zola. Suitable to this content, her writing flows easily. She does not use stylistic tricks or artificial phrasing. Her writing is straightforward and matter-of-fact. The telling is very rich in detail, including textures, sounds, and smells. The tempo is unhurried, permitting full development of the major characters.

Other authors before Undset had written less effective fiction set in the Middle Ages. Some, like Sir Walter Scott, presented flowery, idealized romances. Gothic novels gushed with sentimental themes. Undset improved upon these depictions with her vast historical knowledge and her unsentimental approach. Her historic fiction excelled at describing accurately the daily life of Norway in the Middle Ages, both among the rich and among the poor. In this stratified feudal system, the two lifestyles were very different. She studied medieval churches and other ruins in order to correctly paint her landscapes and dwellings. She used her expertise to accurately describe clothing and tools. She detailed the way people ate, slept, raised their children, and worshipped. The historical details are intermixed with the story without calling attention to them. Likewise, the natural background is not emphasized or separated from the human action. The reader visualizes the landscape in passing, but is not distracted by it.

Undset was very religious and her works carry strong spiritual themes. She disliked secular trends in society and felt people should seek to be less worldly, more intent on cooperating with God’s will rather than seeking their personal wants. Undset condemned materialism. Kristin Lavransdatter’s life was an object lesson about the heavy price which sinners must inevitably pay. Kristin broke church rules against sexual license and disobedience toward one’s parents. She consequently lost her reputation, physical health, and emotional health. Kristin learned that it is not a small thing to violate God’s rules. Furthermore, people can sin not only in their actions but also in their attitudes. Kristin did not learn to control her attitudes until late in her life. Before that, she was proud, self-absorbed, and lacked humility. Undset once stated that Kristin’s greatest sin was pride. These religious themes are very strong in the trilogy, but they do not get in the way of the storytelling. However, some critics feel that in much of her later writing, Undset let her religious themes get in the way of the narrative flow.

Undset used the events in Kristin Lavransdatter to show the genuine worth and validity of Christianity over the old, heretical Viking religion. The novel was set during the medieval period, when Norway’s people had recently converted to Christianity from pantheism. It was a time when the old pagan ways were still known and secretly practiced. On two occasions in the novel, characters try to exact cures through witchcraft, but these attempts fail.

Undset urged obedience to societal rules, not just church rules. For example, a common theme in Kristin Lavransdatter is the importance of honor. Many times in the novel, characters resort to physical violence when they feel a threat to their reputation or that of a loved one. Such a focus on honor was prevalent in the old Norse myths. Undset’s message was that people should rely instead on the peaceful legal system to settle disputes.

Commonly, the characters in Undset’s stories undergo a long, trying struggle, followed by resolution. The author directed her attention particularly to the difficult plight of women, showing that they can expect harsh punishment if they act on their sexual feelings. Her female characters obsessively brood over their secret sins. Undset urges them to focus instead on their chief God-given role, which is as nurturing mothers.

Kristin Lavransdatter was immediately popular in...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)