How does one write a brief reflection on such a large work? Kristin Lavransdatter is the 1100-page, three-volume masterpiece of Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), a Norwegian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. This novel follows the life of a girl growing up in 14th century Norway. Without giving away nearly anything of the plot, I want to highlight a few of the elements that make this novel excellent.
The interior life of a woman. A friend of mine once said, “If you want to understand women, you need to read this book!” I have consequently been told by female readers of the book that this is an overstatement, and yet they also back up the authenticity of Undset’s portrayal of Kristin. I myself found that this book sheds light on the mystery of the feminine interior life, without necessarily making sense of it. The narrator is not Kristin, and yet is so close to her thoughts and feelings that the reader is able to say “Ah, I see why she’s doing that”, while at the same time seeing all the irrationality and inconsistency which torments other characters who are not so close. You see the conflicts of love and jealousy, pride and tenderness, a willingness to suffer and a longing to be loved. Memory also plays a role throughout, unifying a narrative that takes place over decades.
Person, household, nation. In addition to giving so careful a portrayal of the interior life, Undset takes great care to develop the communities in which Kristin lives. First of all, there is the context of her family—both the family she comes from and the one she establishes. And not just the family, but the household, as the reader becomes aware of the servants, the land, the crops and cattle, family meals and visitors. The household is immediate context of the actions in the book and forms the concerns that arise—and there are stark differences from household to household. The less immediate context, but just as important as the book goes on, is the nation of Norway itself. Early on, one hears references to the king or invaders, but as the book continues, the reader discovers how the good of the characters and families are tied up with the much wider good of the nation, and how dramatically in can have an impact on how things turn out.
A Christian world, indeed, a Catholic world. The world of Kristin Lavransdatter is one where Christ is king. This does not mean everyone is perfect, but there is a shared awareness that Heaven is goal of every man, that every sin requires penance, that saints intercede for us, that sacraments are efficacious, and that God will come again to judge the living and the dead. The time of year is marked by liturgical seasons and the feasts of saints, and the laws of the Church are known by all—even if they are not always followed. The book does not fail to represent the failures that exist among Christians and clergy, but at the same time shows how faith and the practice of it serve to unite a society and elevate it above merely individual preoccupations.
Sin and its effects. I won’t go into detail here, but there is much in this book that is not pretty. Perhaps Undset’s greatest achievement in the book is showing that sin has consequences. It is a common maxim that “You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” This novel shows the foolishness of that thought. There is a not a single action without effects and how, even after making amends, the soul and the world continue to bear the marks of those who live in them.
If you’re not quite feeling up for a work of this size, I highly recommend Gunnar’s Daughter, a much shorter work (160 pages) by the same author which is set a few centuries earlier and covers many of the same themes. Another excellent book by Sigrid Undset, albeit non-fiction, is her biography of Saint Catherine of Siena, perhaps the best ever written.