Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

For those new to this book, Kristin Lavransdatter is a three book cycle by Sigrid Undset, a Norweigian Nobel Prize Winner from the first half of the 20th century. Set in Medieval Norway, the book follow the life of its eponymous heroine - in the first book of the series, following her childhood, adolescence, courting, and eventual marriage. The book ends with her marriage night. There is a wonderful readalong for this book right now, which I found out about through Ms Emily of Evening All Afternoon - this month is the Wreath, the other two books will be in November and December, respectively.

(Spoiler alert for however many words are left in this review)

But that's not what I want to talk about, I want to talk about Kristin's big turning point - when she falls in love with the man she eventually marries. In particular I want to talk about the way he treats her - and the way she allows herself to be treated.

So, here we go. I warn you that the rest of my thoughts are not the most attractive thoughts in the world, and they're not totally formed, either. So please, take my words with a grain of salt.

Kristin and her gentleman meet by accident, when he saves her from some random ruffians. Yes, that's right. She's a damsel in distress, and he is (actually fairly literally) her knight in shining armor. This relationship is, in fact, presented without a sneer, er even really a tut-tut. It is, quite simply, what it is. The love is quick, sudden, and fierce. They go to a dance together, and Kristin kisses him letting her feel her up along the way, then sleeps in his lap for a while in the garden. Eventually, the two are caught in a storm and he takes her to a barn to hide from the rain.

Here's the thing. The guy is not some wide-eyed innocent. He has just gotten out of trouble for having an affair with a married women, with whom he fathered two children. Shortly after this point of the story, it is revealed that she is living at his manor, in fact. And, frankly, the encounter sounds about two steps short of a rape. At very best, it's a 30 y/o man taking advantage of a teenage girl in the bloom of her first love. And here's the thing - she likes it. In fact, she seems totally okay with him taking her in a barn on a rainy day, even sort of subconsciously complicit with the whole affair. And, I could deal with that. She's 17. She has never been in love, she is doing something stupid, and that's not totally unrealistic. He is seducing her. This happens. It's ugly, but it happens.

But, here's the thing about that - as Ms Emily mentioned in her review, the title Kristin Lavransdatter is terribly appropriate, because this is, in many ways about Kristin, the daughter of Lavrans. The father (Lavrans - Scandinavian names were traditionally patronymic, hence Lavransdatter) and daughter relationship is the guiding spectre of the first half of the book. The second half is a conflict between that and Kristin's desire to be with her new lover. And that's the thing. Everything in Kristin is pretty much the reflection of a man in her life. Kristin is a daughter, a lover, a wife later on, she is a student of a monk who plays a large role, she is a subject of a very male God, and the citizen of a very patriarchal kingdom. Daughter, Lover, Wife, Student, Subject, Citizen. But never just a woman. Never Kristin.

I don't say that to belittle relationships in our lives. I know they are important. But, in a relationship, a healthy relationship, both members should be people. It should be the relationship between two independent people, not the sublimation of one person into another.

And that's just it - Kristin's relationships are never, ever healthy. She is never a person, she is never a soul. And this is a haunting way to read a book.

I do not mean to say that this is a problem with the book. Indeed, depending on the way the other two books are written, this may become an integral, important element of the story. Nor does it feel unrealistic. Honestly, that was the design of society for a large piece of human history - a great machine meant to produce subservient woman to serve their husbands, subservient peasants to serve their fief lords (or slavemasters, or factory owners, or gentlemen squires, or whatever), subservient fief lords to serve their king, and a subservient people to serve their God. The world was designed to sublimate identity into a power to fuel society. So, in the end, Kristin in the book does not know how to rebel. She never learns to choose. I never felt like she chose to love her husband, simply he was there and compellingly worded enough that love happened on it's own. She did not choose not to love her arranged husband - indeed when he was the only partner presented, she did begin to love him. In the end, she ceases to love him because he presents the question to her - do you love me or not? Because he asks, she can answer, because she is in a place where she has no choice but to choose, she chooses what her lover has taught her to choose. And in the end, you feel that she loves against her will, that in the end, she chooses to be married even though she is miserable with the whole prospect. Whenever she meets her lover, the feeling is not one of passionate ardor, but of wild abandon - that is an abandonment of the self, into a comfortable and comforting nothingness, where she is simply the palette her lover paints his love across.
But it's painful, very painful, and for me, this is what was the biggest success of Ms Undset - that she creates a woman who is essentially a doormat for all the men in her life, while at the same time, ever so gently and ever so subtly whispering out little flashes of something that, if not so effectively quashed, could have been a personality. Little edges of selfdom, that make us wish she could have been the queen she had within her, instead of the empty shell she has begun to devolve to by the end of the Wreath. The 'wreath' itself, is a crown, presented in different ways at different times, each wreath a symbol of a powerful woman Kristin could have been: The wreath of the Elf-queen at the beginning, symbolic of the wild, Dianic power of the primeval countryside, the wreath of the nunnery, symbolic of piety (and piety, independent piety, was a really powerful thing for a woman in Medieval times), the wreath of the virgin, symbolic of maidenhood. The wreath is transformative, like a coronation, it is the acceptance of a proferred power. And in the end? The wreath she takes is the tattered flower wreath of self abandoning love. In the whole book (aside from the end scene with her mother and father), the moment that most haunted me, speaks to this idea, and is the words I felt, at the end of the book:

"I have often prayed that you might have yearning for the convent life," said Brother Edvin, "but not since you told me what you know. I wish that you could have come to God with your wreath, Kristin."

Which God, hardly matters, the God of Christ, the Goddess of the Elfin Fields, the God of Love, even the Dark Lady Death. But I wish she could have come to her God with her wreath.


Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your take on Kristin's lack of self. I also felt that she had so much more potential in the beginning of the book - she wanted respect and knowledge. Toward the end, it didn't feel like anything was worth it anymore. She had no cause.

Unknown said...

Ms Ophelia - That was my feelings exactly - I honestly felt sort of... apprehensive about the next two books. I mean, she sort of shambles around like a soulless shell at the end. Where's the spark to keep her up for two books? And, the monk dying, that was sad... I guess we'll see this month!

Emily said...

Great, GREAT entry, Jason! I agree with everything you say, but hadn't articulated it to myself in quite this way. The topic of "renunciation/loss of self" is also interesting vis-a-vis the Church: will renouncing the self to men be portrayed as a "bad" thing but renouncing the self to the Church be portrayed as "good"? Or are good and bad not really the point? I'll be interested to keep these points in mind going forward...

Thanks again for a thought-provoking essay.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I actually feel relieved, since I recognized something really wrong (sad) about Kristin's personality, but I couldn't put my finger on it. You've made it clear here. I have a feeling that Emily is right about the path Kristin will eventually take - giving herself to God in a last desperate act to do something "right", which will just be another betrayal of herself.

Unknown said...

Ms Emily - It will be interesting to see how it turns out. Whether she stays in hermarriage, becomes a nun, whatever, is really less relevant htan if she find s a soul again, you know?

Ms Tuuelnhaiven - Glad I coudl help - I was kind of fumbling at the idea until I sat down and tried to sort my ideas out. I'd guess the same, that she will probably turn to something else, to try to redeem herself (and god is certainly a good guess). What I DON'T know is if it will be the same sort of empty, soulless marriage she's in now...

Frances said...

"Kristin's relationships are never, ever healthy. She is never a person, she is never a soul. And this is a haunting way to read a book." Absolutely. And I hope you are correct when you speculate that this seeming fault will in fact inform the second and third portion of the work in a more expansive manner than in the first section.

As to lack of fully defined self, is it her age? Her gender? Her faith as Emily suggests?

Great post. Will look forward to your thoughts on the next section.

Gavin said...

Wonderful post, Jason. Kristin did show great potential in the beginning and I am hoping that she regains that strength in the next section of the novel.
I want to learn more about Sigrid Undset to gain a better understanding of what she was trying to accomplish with Kristin Lavransdatter.

Unknown said...

Ms Frances - I think that one of the tragedies of a patriarchal culture is that it DOES encourage women to have no self - a self gets in the way of duty (this same could be applied to a class-ful culture, for instance). But, at the same time, the author shows several women (I think on purpose) who DO have distinct selves: the abbess, for instance, lives life on her own terms, even talking business with men.

Ms Gavin - I agree, it will be interesting to read a little about the author - though actually, I'm purposely avoiding it at the minute. I'm not sure I want to know what she thought, just yet.

Valerie said...

Interesting and thought-provoking post. When I was reading part one, I got the feeling that Kristin was trying to "find herself", but that it is through reflection of other men -- who can she most "be herself" with? Is the only way to be herself to remain unmarried? Obviously, of course, she doesn't, so I hope she is able to develop into a stronger sense of self in the rest of the trilogy.

As for Gavin's wondering about Sigrid Undset's life, from what I've read, I think part of it does reflect Kristin's. I won't say any more here, as you say you want to wait until later to know more about Undset.

Looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy with all of you!

Richard said...

I enjoyed reading your post, Mr. Jason, but I differ with you on at least one key point that I'll bring up here for the sake of discussion. You say that Kristin's relationship with Erlend is unhealthy because it's not your ideal of a "relationship between two independent people, not the sublimation of one person into another." Whether Kristin's relationship is unhealthy or not (I agree that it's not but for slightly different reasons), isn't your position something of a value judgement? Many people in life and in literature, for example, seem to desire just this sort of sublimation into another that you--and maybe I--would reject, and saying Kristin's relationship is unhealthy for not adhering to your own stated preference seems to overlook the character's choice in the matter. Her agency in choosing a mate against her father's wishes could actually be looked on as a positive from a different (perhaps even "feminist")perspective, and whether she chooses to be somebody else's doormat is immaterial in this regard! Although I'd be interested in hearing your response to this difference of opinion of ours, I'm mainly here to tell you that I'm glad you're reading along with us and that I look forward to your posts on the upcoming chapters (I didn't care much for The Wreath myself, finding its overwrought plot a little too heavyhanded for my tastes in these matters). Cheers!

Leslie @ This is the Refrain said...

Excellent view! I think you eloquently put into words what I had trouble figuring out for myself about why I was so troubled by Erlend and Kristin. I realized after just finishing my write-up that I mostly focused on the first 75 pages or so, when Kristin was a child. I didn't even know what to say about the rest. I am hoping that I am pleasantly surprised by the rest of the novel and find that Kristin really lives up to her title as a strong heroine.