Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

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...

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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 since he was a boy, he sees the ancient doorpost carved with the legendary figure of Gunnar in the snake pit. He applies it in his mind to the Hestvik people’s historical propensity to disaster, often brought on by poor alliances or deliberate transgression of God’s will. Later, seeing a parallel in his own situation, he congratulates himself for upholding the Hestvik tradition of dogged endurance under misfortune. Throughout his struggles, the heinous crime he committed—the murder of his wife’s lover Teit—seems to him to be a serpent at the heart of his life with Ingunn.

In reality, however, the serpent in his bosom is pride. In that pride, he takes to himself all the guilt and suffering occasioned by Ingunn’s fall. His intention in bringing her to Hestviken is to protect and to cherish her. At no time does he refer to his wife’s liaison with Teit as a sin, or acknowledge her need for expiation, or show concern for the state of her soul. It is almost as though he does not consider her salvation of any importance; of course, he does not understand the nature of salvation, or the price one must pay to achieve it. That self-knowledge will come to him only after considerable struggle, which must include an acknowledgment of his insignificance in the face of God, whose plan transcends any individual’s efforts to direct his own life. At this point, however, when Olav is most ready to confess his own sin, he is thrown into confusion by the revelation that Ingunn, too, suffered, not for his sin but for her own. He realizes further that were he to confess his own guilt, he would bring shame on his wife and set her suffering at naught. Even her death does not free him from the need to maintain silence about their mutual transgressions, since he cannot bring himself to shame Ingunn before her children. At the close of the novel, Olav finds himself once more contemplating the carvings on the ancient lintel, perceiving himself a lost soul. At the midpoint of his life, and the midpoint of the saga, Undset’s hero reaches the moral nadir on his quest for self-knowledge. His salvation is portrayed in the two volumes which follow, In the Wilderness and The Son Avenger, which reveal his acceptance of Christian principles of dependence on God and acceptance of his sinful nature.

Throughout this novel, Undset shows how blind human beings can be to the inner state of those nearest them and how selfish their apparent sacrifices are. Although set in the thirteenth century, The Snake Pit deals with the darker side of human passions of any age. The greatness of the work lies in the breadth of its vision and in the depth of its penetration of human nature.

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