Sigrid Undset

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

The literary works of Sigrid Undset (UHN-seht) include short stories, poetry, drama, essays, and autobiographies. In her youth, Undset favored shorter forms, following her first novel with a one-act play, I graalysningen (wr. 1908; in the grey light of dawn); a volume of lyrics, Ungdom (1910; youth); and four collections of short fiction, Den lykkelige alder (1909; the happy age), Fattige skjæbner (1912; humble existences), Splinten av troldspeilet (1917; Images in a Mirror, 1938), and De kloge jomfruer (1918; the wise virgins). She wrote in German and English as well as in her native Norse, and her numerous articles, essays, and speeches reflected the major social and spiritual concerns from which her fiction grew, such as her Samtiden article “Nogen kvindesaks-betragtninger” (“Reflections on the Suffragette Movement”) in 1912 and the collection Et kvindesynspunkt (1919; a woman’s point of view).

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The passionate interest in medieval Scandinavian history that had inspired Undset’s sagalike Gunnar’s Daughter not only led to her mammoth mature novels Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken but also merged with her conversion to Roman Catholicism, to which she testified fervently in the essays collected in Kimer i klokker (1924; the bells are ringing), Katolsk propaganda (1927; Catholic propaganda), Begegnungen und Trennungen: Essays über Christentum und Germanentum (1931; meetings and partings: essays on Christianity and Germanism), and Etapper I and II (1929, 1933; Stages on the Road, 1934). In De søkte de gamle stier (1936; they sought the ancient paths) and Norske helgener (1937; Saga of Saints, 1934), she explored the lives of great European defenders of the faith. As one of Nazi Germany’s first and strongest opponents, Undset assailed totalitarian aims in “Fortschritt, Rasse, Religion” (“Progress, Race, Religion”), an essay that appeared in Die Geföhrdung des Christentums durch Rassenwahn und Judenverfolgung (1935), an anti-Nazi anthology published in Switzerland. Later, from the United States, she continued to attack Nazism and all other forms of modern paganism in the collections Selvportretter og landskapsbilleder (1938; Men, Women, and Places, 1939), Tillbake til fremitiden (1942; Return to the Future, 1942), and Artikler og taler fra krigstiden (1953; wartime articles and speeches). Her warm friendship with the United States and the American people is also reflected in her essays “Skjønne Amerika” (“Beautiful America”), “Amerikansk litteratur” (“American Literature”), and “Common Ground,” all of which were written during World War II.

Toward the end of her life, Undset published several autobiographical fragments, of which the most detailed are Elleve år (1934; The Longest Years, 1935) and Lykkelige dager (1947; Happy Times in Norway, 1942). Her last works, like her first, dwell on her Christian Scandinavian heritage, and her last theoretical and historical essays, “Scandinavia and the New World,” “Brotherhood,” and “Scandinavian Literature,” written in the early 1940’s, all stress the peculiarly Scandinavian response to life she celebrated in her novels: the “preference for the realities of life[the] interest in the innate disparities which condition our development.”


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The reality of Sigrid Undset’s early life was the necessity of leaving school and earning her living in an Oslo law office; the innate disparities between Undset and her office-mates were her ambition to write about the Middle Ages and her ability to comprehend all that she observed around her. When the draft of The Master of Hestviken that she completed in 1905 was rejected, Undset turned to the contemporary situations of working women with Fru Marta Oulie. Jenny, a novel depicting a woman defeated both in love and in artistic vocation, aroused indignant tirades from suffragettes. Undset attended one such meeting and noted “the essence of comedy.[I] waited for them to start beating one another about the head with their handbags, but unfortunately it never got so far.” Undset’s bold realism offended some readers, but according to Andreas H. Winsnes, even more upsetting was her characterization of her heroine Jenny as more closely dependent on her sexual nature than are the men in the novel, a view that seemingly reduced woman’s claim to equality. Despite this objection, Einar Skavlen and other Norwegian critics praised the novel’s painstaking revelation of the “slow process of change” in Jenny’s thoughts and feelings.

Ten years later, Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, two multivolume novels treating the Norway of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with no less vital realism, received the highest critical acclaim and were translated into every major European language. Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 for these novels, and on them her reputation beyond Norway largely rests. In Kristin Lavransdatter, European critics recognized a new dimension of historical fiction, with insights into love and marriage realistically portrayed in the context of an essentially moral universe. With The Master of Hestviken, Undset achieved a still greater triumph, a profound insight into the psychological ramifications of guilt that Sigurd Hoel has compared favorably with Fyodor Dostoevski’s portrait of Raskolnikov in Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1866 (Crime and Punishment, 1886).

By 1945, Undset was exhausted from her own battles against Nazi Germany. She returned to Norway to find her home at Lillehammer sadly devastated by the wartime occupation, but on her sixty-fifth birthday, King Haakon awarded her Norway’s highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Olav, “for eminent services to literature and to the nation.”

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 114

Many people who read Kristin Lavransdatter in the past like and remember the first book but have little memory of the other two. Why do you think this is?

How did Sigrid Undset’s own life experiences as wife and mother influence her depiction of Kristin in these roles?

Kristin was extremely close to several priests during her life. Describe two of those relationships.

How did Undset’s own childhood affect her writing?

How would Undset view current trends in marriage and family?

Contrast Kristin’s feelings toward her father with her feelings toward her husband.

Given Undset’s own religious views, what would she recommend that Kristin do, following her marriage to Erlend?


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Bayerschmidt, Carl F. Sigrid Undset. New York: Twayne, 1970. An introductory study, with chapters on Undset’s life, early works, social novels, middle age, and later novels. Includes notes and bibliography.

Beyer, Harald. A History of Norwegian Literature. Edited and translated by Einar Haugen. New York: New York University Press, 1956. Includes an essay on Undset’s place in the history of Norwegian realism.

Brunsdale, Mitzi. Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway. New York: Berg, 1988. Provides a useful introduction to Norwegian culture and literature, a short biography of Undset, analysis of her early novels and later masterpieces, and a final chapter assessing her achievement. With chronology, notes, and a bibliographical essay.

Hudson, Deal W., ed. Sigrid Undset on Saints and Sinners—New Translations and Studies: Papers Presented at a Conference Sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute, New York City, April 24, 1993. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993. Contains essays titled “A Life of Sigrid Undset,” “Sigrid Undset: Holiness and Culture,” and “In the Blood: The Transmission of Sin in The Master of Hestviken.”

Lytle, Andrew. Kristin: A Reading. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Lytle’s reading aims to recover an appreciation for what he deems a neglected twentieth century classic. Lytle, a novelist and critic, provides an especially sensitive, indeed a model, reading of a complex literary work.

Solbakken, Elisabeth. Redefining Integrity: The Portrayal of Women in the Contemporary Novels of Sigrid Undset. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Examines Undset’s feminism and treatment of woman characters in the long fiction.

Undset, Sigrid. The Unknown Sigrid Undset: Jenny, and Other Works. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, edited by Tim Page. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001. A translation of the long-out-of-print Jenny and two other short stories, plus some letters by Undset. Includes a valuable introduction.

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Critical Essays