Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565
Hestviken. Home of Olav Audunsson’s family, that is the primary setting of the novel. The estate is near an icy fjord, where ocean waves throw up spray against sheer cliffs and rock promontories, which, with fog, block the view in many directions. Physical features of Hestviken symbolize the moods of Olav and his wife, Ingunn. When they begin their life together there, both are optimistic, their feelings buoyed by the beautiful sights and smells of the summer farm. The fragrance of lime trees reminds Olav of his childhood. Ingunn feels healthy and beautiful as she surveys the pleasant scene. However, she soon notices other things that reinforce her downward spiral into depression, such as the monotonous booming of the ocean’s waves in the fjord and the seemingly endless rains.
Manor house. Ancestral dwelling at Hestviken that has replaced an earlier and finer house that burned down. The rustic replacement is dark and sparsely furnished. Undset uses her extensive knowledge of medieval home furnishings to give a historically accurate depiction of the home layout and contents. In the dark rooms of the house, the lonely Ingunn torments herself over having borne an illegitimate child, leaving the child with strangers, and failing to be a strong helpmate for the morose Olav. Her plight reflects the difficult lives led by most women in the Middle Ages, lives made up of endless toil with few diversions, frequent pregnancies, and total dependence upon men.
A powerful symbol of Olav’s struggles is an old plank that has been carved to depict a snake pit. A relic from the former manor house, it forms the doorpost of the rebuilt home’s bedchamber. Its carving shows a man surrounded by serpents, one of which is biting his heart. Like the figure entangled in snakes, Olav is entangled in many problems, including feelings of guilt, Ingunn’s illness, and his disappointment with his stepson, Eirik.
Outbuildings. In addition to its manor house, Hestviken has turf-roofed sheds, storehouses, and stables. Hestviken’s mundane structures are the settings for many scenes in which characters experience important personal revelations. For example, an old longboat shed is the location of Olav’s discovery that Eirik cannot distinguish truth from falsehood. A cow barn under construction is the locale for cavorting workers and Ingunn’s jealous reaction to Una, the servant girl.
Church. Unfinished church between Oslo and Hestviken at which Olav, on the night before Ingunn’s death, stops to rest. Inside the cold, desolate place, he studies a piece of artwork depicting Christ’s Crucifixion, a sight that makes him realize that he himself should seek forgiveness.
Foster home. Home of a poor family in which Ingunn’s five-year-old son has been placed. In the cluttered, dark environment, Eirik spends his formative years in the company of a disorderly pack of ragged children. This bleak setting highlights the dreary lives of the common people of the time and helps explain Eirik’s arrested intellectual development.
Galley ship. A break in the story’s dark mood comes during a summer that Olav spends captaining a galley ship under Duke Haakon. At sea, the horizons in view in every direction provide a great contrast to Olav’s enclosed life along the fjord, and his time at sea liberates him from the circumscribed life in his troubled household.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245
Bayerschmidt, Carl. Sigrid Undset. New York: Twayne, 1970. For general readers, reviewing Undset’s life and major works. A chapter devoted to Undset’s novels of the Middle Ages provides commentary on The Snake Pit, focusing on the moral development of the hero.
Brunsdale, Mitzi. Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. Summarizes Undset’s achievement in the chronicle of which The Snake Pit is the second part. Comments on the significance of the symbol of the snake; discusses the hero’s relationship with his demanding wife, and his efforts to overcome his pride.
Gustafson, Alrik. Six Scandinavian Novelists. Minneapolis: Published for the American-Scandinavian Foundation by the University of Minnesota Press, 1966. Discussion of the four novels that make up The Master of Hestviken tetralogy. Describes Undset’s concern with the moral development of her hero, and highlights her technique of using historical events to illuminate human concerns.
Whitehouse, J. C. “Sigrid Undset.” In Vertical Man: The Human Being in the Catholic Novels of Graham Greene, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos. New York: Garland, 1990. Examines Undset’s view of human nature as it emerges in her fiction. Commentary on scenes and characters from The Snake Pit are interwoven into a discussion that highlights the novelist’s generally optimistic vision of humanity.
Winsnes, A. H. Sigrid Undset: A Study in Christian Realism. Translated by P. G. Foote. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1953. A biography of the novelist focusing on the development of Christian themes in her novels.