The Snake Pit is one part of a multivolume novel. The characters in The Snake Pit are descendants of the fierce pagan Norsemen whose rough lives and deeds of valor form the substance of medieval sagas throughout the Scandinavian peninsula. The men and women in the novel can barely contain their emotions, and their lives are filled with hatreds and cravings for revenge and with unendurable remorse. Their family ties are as complicated as they are vital to their mode of existence. The work is filled with portrayals of superstitions, inarticulate fears, and blind religious convictions. Though Sigrid Undset is clearly intent on displaying the superiority of Christianity, especially Catholicism, over the pagan religious practices of her forebears, the people of Hestviken are still caught up in a form of worship that is inextricably tied to ancient terrors and dark legends. The author makes clear that her characters’ lives are circumscribed by folk sayings and traditions that are ignored only at great risk, and that their hearts and minds bear a burden of ancient guilt.
The Snake Pit is both a historical picture of a grim age and a human testament of humankind’s ability to survive. Undset’s story centers on the tragedy of the trapped human lives of the men and women in thirteenth century Norway. While readers may be swept away by the action-filled saga, the novelist carefully crafts her story so that the moral dimensions are subtly reinforced by a series of symbols and allusions that transform the historically bound tale into one of more universal and timeless significance. The snake pit that gives the work its title is a symbol of considerable flexibility. It seems to Olav Audunsson to illustrate his own predicament, to readers it shows a further aspect of his situation, one that ultimately proves fatal to the protagonist’s efforts to achieve salvation. When Olav first comes home to Hestviken, where he has not lived...
(The entire section is 799 words.)