Love and Trespasses in Kristin Lavransdatter

For years my parents have had a standing order with their local second-hand bookseller to set aside Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter whenever a copy comes in. They give it to friends, students, acquaintances — anyone who might read it. My father was introduced to Kristin just before his conversion by a Catholic friend, who summed it up this way: “Well, I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I will say that ever since I read it, it has never left me for a moment.”
It’s not a light or cheerful read. Critics, especially secular ones, have complained of Undset’s “insistently massive gloominess of spirit” and “sheer brutally consistent accumulation of tragic detail,” blaming her Christianity — she converted to Catholicism shortly after publication. There’s some truth to this. One of my father’s students called every day while reading to beg my mother, “Can I come by for dinner tonight? I just have to talk about Kristin. I can’t believe what she’s doing.” The real trouble was that he could believe it all too well. Undset sees sin everywhere and makes us see it, too.
The novel begins with Kristin’s childhood in medieval Norway. Her father, Lavrans, is so loving and lovable that we are drawn deeply into Kristin’s world. When she betrays him, the pain is unbearable, and yet her betrayal is too convincing to question. As a schoolgirl, Kristin becomes the lover of the dashing and irresponsible Erlend Nikulaussøn, breaks off her betrothal to dull but reliable Simon Darre, and then insists on marrying Erlend. She deliberately hardens her heart against Lavrans, using his love against him to force him to agree. Engrossed in Kristin’s life, the reader only realizes what horrible things she is doing when Kristin herself realizes it. I remember thinking when I first read this as a teenager: ” That’s how sin looks from inside.” The same horrified understanding continues through the book, as Kristin keeps destroying everything dear to her.
Undset knows the dark side of love. One of Kristin’s greatest virtues is also her besetting sin: She is a fiercely devoted mother who, as her father puts it, “carries her children under a loving heart.” However, as her sons grow up, their increasing independence distresses her. She resented Erlend’s detachment during their infancy, but she resents it more when he begins to take notice of them as young men. Erlend is puzzled: “Back then you would talk of nothing else but those little imps, and now that they’ve grown up to be both sensible and manly, you walk among them as if you were deaf and dumb, hardly even answering when they speak to you.” He puts his finger on the problem: “God help me, but it’s as if you love them less now that you no longer have to worry for their sake.” Kristin wants to own her children and was happiest being their whole world.
Generally, Kristin insists on being the center of her world. Many deeds she thinks are loving are actually done to maintain this position. When her nephew, the only son of Simon and Kristin’s sister Ramborg, lies dying of a fever, Kristin uses pagan witchcraft to save him. She tells Simon her intentions beforehand, and although horrified, he can’t bring himself to stop her. Afterwards she tells herself she did it for love, but she is more truthful on her way to the graveyard to perform the sacrilege. She admits then that what she really wants is to say to him, “You too, Simon Darre, acquiesced when the dearest thing you possessed on earth was at stake; you agreed to more than anyone can accept with full honor.” She resents his unfailing generosity to her and must regain the upper hand.
Kristin can’t resist hurting those she loves. At one point Lavrans tells her, “You can be cruel to those you love too dearly.” His words are true, and not only for Kristin. Love twists easily into bitterness, as all Undset’s characters illustrate. It’s not only Kristin’s marriage that is undermined by her inability to forget or forgive; her parents’ outwardly harmonious marriage is also marred by hidden remorse and resentment. The love between spouses, between siblings and in-laws, between parents and children, all are corroded by secret grudges and bitterness.
The root problem is the characters’ immersion in earthly loves to escape God’s love. Fra Gunnulf tells Kristin:
Dear sister — all other love is merely a reflection of the heavens in the puddle of a muddy road. You will become sullied too if you allow yourself to sink into it. But if you always remember that it’s a reflection of the light from that other home, then you will rejoice at its beauty and take good care that you do not destroy it by churning up the mire at the bottom.
Substituting human love for divine love breeds bitterness: If I put another human being in the place of God, I will never be able to forgive his failings.
Because Kristin makes Erlend her all, she cannot live at peace with him. As Erlend puts it: “I know you’re more pious than I can ever be. And yet, Kristin, I have difficulty accepting that this is the proper interpretation of God’s words: that you should go about storing everything away and never forgetting.” But Kristin can’t stop. Finally she drives Erlend away for good by saying he has failed their sons and is unworthy to hold her father’s place on their estate. She knows her words are fatal but cannot take them back.
When her newborn infant becomes seriously ill, Kristin decides God is punishing her: If she forgave Erlend, the child would live. Kristin meditates on the Lord’s Prayer: “As we forgive those who have sinned against us. . . . What you scream in your heart does not become a prayer until you have said your Pater Noster without deceit. Forgive us our sins. . . . Do you remember how many times your sins were forgiven?” Even to save her child, she cannot forgive Erlend: “She could not, because she would not. She held on to her bowl of love, refusing to let it go, even though it now contained only these last, bitter dregs. The moment when she left Erlend behind, no longer thinking of him even with this corrosive bitterness, then everything that had been between them would be over.” Forgiving Erlend would mean giving up the love they had.{mospagebreak}
Replacing divine love with human love also leads to an inability to forgive oneself, as Simon Darre illustrates. Simon is outwardly generous to Erlend and Kristin in spite of past wrongs, but in the end he discovers he is not so magnanimous. During Erlend’s ill-fated attempt at revolution, Simon briefly believes that Erlend has betrayed him; upon discovering Erlend’s innocence, he is so ashamed of his unjust suspicion that he soon hates Erlend for it. He tells Erlend he could forgive him for stealing his betrothed, but not for being in the right: “I’m not as noble-minded as you are. I. . . I do bear a grudge toward the man whom I have wronged.” Like Kristin, Simon meditates on the Lord’s Prayer, wondering why we should pray only “Et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris,“and not also “sicut et nos dimittimus creditoribus nostris,” since “he had always been able to forgive his debtors. It seemed much harder to forgive anyone who had bound a debt around his neck.”
Most of Undset’s characters find forgiveness nearly impossible, including the book’s most devout Christians. Must all human relationships fail, because we cannot help demanding a perfect love from each other that is found only in God? Many attribute this view to Undset, citing her own unhappy marriage as evidence, but this seems incorrect or at least incomplete.
The story’s first sign of hope is the reconciliation of Kristin’s parents after a lifetime of misunderstanding. Ragnfrid is tormented by guilt over a secret premarital affair she has regretted bitterly ever since marrying Lavrans, whom she loves desperately. When she finally tells him about it, her confession makes Lavrans realize his own failings as a husband. Married very young, he was frightened and repulsed by Ragnfrid’s desire for him. Unable to return it in kind, he sought to be a model husband in other ways. “Yes, I thought we lived well together,” he tells her. “I thought you were grieving for our children. And I thought you had a melancholy heart. I never thought that it might be because I wasn’t a good husband to you.” The discovery of Ragnfrid’s sin makes him acknowledge his own, that “he had simply wanted to live with her without her always trying to seize what was in his heart — and what he refused to reveal.”
Lavrans and Ragnfrid’s problems don’t end here, but a better understanding between them begins. On Lavrans’s deathbed he finally tells his wife that, despite his closeness to Kristin, it is Ragnfrid he is sorriest to leave behind. He gives her his mother’s ring in what both see as a new wedding night. When Ragnfrid asks how he could forgive her, he blushes and replies, “I thought about all the times I had betrayed Christ.” For Undset, these words are the key to all forgiveness: Divine forgiveness makes human forgiveness possible.
For all her faults, Kristin knows this, too. She flees God but never doubts Him. Her confidence in God is born of her confidence in her father — one reason Undset begins Kristin’s story with her earliest childhood. Lavrans’s love was boundlessly forgiving, and Kristin has always presumed the same fatherly love in God: “She had thought that God was like her own father. . . . All along she had expected, deep in her heart, that whenever the punishment became more than she could bear, then she would encounter not righteousness but mercy.”
Kristin is right to trust her father’s love. As Brother Edvin tells her when she agonizes about having hurt Lavrans, “He would never demand penance from you. Nothing you do could ever change your father’s heart toward you.” When Kristin confesses her worst shame, Lavrans tells her not to grieve, but to remember to be forgiving with her own children.
Kristin is right about God, too; He is a father who always forgives. Her priest, Sira Eiliv, tells her that God has answered even her half-hearted prayers:
You loved God the way you loved your father: not as much as you loved your own will, but still enough that you always grieved when you had to part from him. And then you were blessed with having good grow from the bad which you had to reap from the seed of your stubborn will.
But the reader may still feel dissatisfied: Can Christians love and forgive only through detachment, as Undset sometimes implies? Brother Edvin tells the young Kristin: “No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love. . . . [I]t’s because our hearts are divided between love for God and fear of the Devil, and love for this world and this flesh, that we are miserable in life and death.” Brother Edvin’s suggestion that Kristin should have been a nun haunts her until she leaves her estate to live at a convent. It seems that only by abandoning earthly love could Kristin escape her bitterness of spirit.
Lavrans and Ragnfrid’s reconciliation has the same otherworldly flavor. On their second wedding night, Lavrans reminds Ragnfrid what “faithful friends” they have been and hopes they may remain so in heaven. No wonder Ragnfrid’s happiness is bittersweet: “Her heart felt as if it were breaking in her breast, bleeding and bleeding, young and fierce. From grief over the warm and ardent love which she had lost and still secretly mourned; from anguished joy over the pale, luminous love which drew her to the farthest boundaries of life on this earth.” Is such calm Christian friendship the only possibility for peace in marriage?
But this isn’t Undset’s final word. We’d be wrong to think Kristin and Erlend’s marriage was a mistake. Their stormy marriage has a goodness that her parents’ more seemly and decent marriage lacks, as both Lavrans and Ragnfrid perceive. “It almost seems to me,” says Lavrans once, “that we might have been happier if we had had more to regret.”
Kristin’s death makes this clearer. The sins of Kristin’s marriage — her possessiveness and stubbornness and anger — work for good at the end, making her heroic death possible. If she has become a saint, she is a saintly housewife, not a saintly nun. God does not erase Kristin’s life, but turns it to his purpose.
As Kristin lies dying, she sees God’s plan confirmed. After giving her wedding ring away to pay for a beggar woman’s burial, she ponders the life the ring symbolized:
She had loved it so, rejoicing over it, with both the bad and the good, so that there was not a single day she would have given back to God without lament or a single sorrow she would have relinquished without regret.
Later, in delirium, Kristin checks if the ring is really gone. A tan-line remains, with traces of the “M” engraved on the ring for the Virgin Mary. She sees her service of God and her human love as a wife and mother united in the one mark “secretly impressed upon her” by the ring:
The last clear thought that took shape in her mind was that she was going to die before the mark had time to fade, and it made her happy. It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her — and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy.
Because God’s forgiveness and power to bring good from evil are so great, even flawed and sinful love is of worth. Whatever evil it contains, God preserves the good.
This is the final truth of Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset has one of the book’s priests restate it at the very end. After Kristin’s death, Ulf Haldorssøn tells Sira Eiliv he almost regrets his patience with her. The priest replies that Ulf cannot regret this, and indeed that no good deed can be regretted, “because no one is good without God. And we can do nothing good without Him.” Any good our love has done, however imperfect our intentions, God claims as His own, so that we cannot undo or erase it: “For the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand.”

By

Anna Mathie is a lecturer in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

  • A University Student

    You certainly have appointed yourself a daunting task, summarizing Undset’s intricately woven masterwork in such little space, but the view you offer into the book’s many themes is certainly illuminating. Every since I discovered this vast treasure some time ago, I can scarcely refrain from praying for these characters, whose faults are so real and whose redemptions are so inspiring.

    To anyone who enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter, I highly recommend Undset’s tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, which often even surpasses Kristin Lavransdatter, to whatever extent that is possible.

  • Deal Hudson

    Anna, many thanks for raising the torch of Sigrid Undset, who wrote, in my opinion, the greatest of all “Catholic novels,” Kristin Lavransdatter. I’ve read it three times and your article makes me look forward to reading it again.

  • Marjorie Campbell

    I find most intriguing in many conversations of this trilogy the theme that, somehow, Kristin’s spiritual path is uniquely miserable and largely avoidable. How can this be when the exercise of finding and choosing God’s love, and living our earthly loves within it’s reflection, requires steady examination, adjustment and purpose? Only the very saintly begin their spiritual journey within the embrace of divine love – the rest of us sin and suffer and stumble our way much like Kristin, her parents and spiritual advisor, too. I like your summary, Anna, because you invite us to see how we are all Kristin, groping like spiritual Helen Keller’s desparate to connect with divine love.

  • Jen

    Thanks for this essay, Anna. I started the book several years ago and felt increasingly weighed down by it, so I stopped somewhere in the second volume without seeing what it was that everyone else loved about it!

    I would still maintain that it could require a certain amount of heroic fortitude in a reader to look at life this squarely in the face, presented with this much unflinching honesty and compressed together into three volumes! From your description, though, it seems like the conclusion Undset draws is as hopeful and beautiful as it should be.

    When I feel a little more heroic myself, I’ll pick the book up again!

  • Agnes

    Excellent piece. You’re right, this novel is not an easy read, but it’s one that won’t leave you. I always thought of Undset as the female version of Dostoevsky. Both have raw and powerful human insight.

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    What a great summary of the Kristen trilogy! Makes me want to pick it up again soon.

  • Rosemary Marshall

    How fascinating to read this review of a book I read about 58 years ago and never saw anything since about it! Your insights brought it all back to me and reminded me of the reason I still have it with me on my bookshelf about 2 feet away.

    Thank you!

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