Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife


Thanks for dropping by the second installment of the Kristin Lavransdatter readalong, hosted by myself and, however reluctantly, Richard. :-) We'll be collecting everyone's responses to The Wife, Book Two in Sigrid Undset's 1920-22 trilogy.

Personally, The Wife was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The first 150 pages continued some of my least favorite aspects of The Wreath: guilt-ridden Christian moralizing, overwrought dramatic shenanigans from main characters, and seemingly ENDLESS weeping on the part of Kristin herself. Indeed, there's hardly a scene after Kristin's childhood in which she doesn't break down in tears for one reason or another. If she can't have what she wants, she cries. If she gets what she wanted, she feels guilty and cries. If nobody is paying attention to her, she cries some more. If she's the center of attention, she takes the opportunity to...cry. No wonder the woman loses weight throughout the book; between the tears and the alcohol consumption, she is probably severely dehydrated. After several hundred pages of listening to her whiny, guilt-stricken interior voice, my sympathy was wearing very thin. Like Lavrans, watching her weep at his bedside, I was continually asking "What is it now, Kristin?"

Kristin's inability to find peace for the sins of her early life is intensely annoying, but not unbelievable. I have to admit that I can relate to the experience of banging up against the same mental/emotional wall for years and years, making little headway, and even being alienatingly self-involved in the process. And a third of the book still remains for Kristin to come to terms with her demons. But what interests me about her spiritual block is how it reflects Undset's relationship to the church.


During the early scene when Kristin is walking twenty miles barefoot in sackcloth in order to be granted absolution by the Archbishop at Nidaros Cathedral (shown above, image courtesy of Flickr user Lisa Day), I thought to myself that, even if this kind of mentality seems harsh to me, belief in a Church hierarchy does at least provide a way out for believers who fall victim to sin. Kristin has to do this intense, painful penance, but after she's done it and the Church higher-ups tell her she's forgiven, she should feel at peace, right? That's one benefit of belonging to something like the medieval Catholic Church: someone else can theoretically decide for you when your sins have been purged, and then you get to start over with a clean slate.

But Kristin? Does not regain peace when the Church fathers have told her she's forgiven. She even weeps herself into two religious visions, and neither of them make much of a dent in her seemingly endless supply of self-recrimination. In some other book (James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, in which Stephen Dedalus is hounded into complete abandon by his religious guilt), I might read this as a judgment of the Church - about how it's unrealistic to attempt to externalize shame, guilt, and forgiveness, or that any other human could know whether or not God has cleansed us of our sins. But it doesn't seem to me that Undset is taking this view. After all, she herself converted from skeptical agnosticism to Catholicism just 2-3 short years after this book was published, so she must have found some value in the structure and ritual it provided, even if, in her novel, it seems to act more as a crutch to prolong Kristin's self-flagellation, than as a comfort to mitigate it.

Most of the time I feel Undset is trying her best simply to present the medieval Norwegian Church: there are earnest, pious priests like Brother Edvin and Gunnulf Nikulaussøn, and there are also people who abuse their position in the hierarchy. Among the lay people, there are those who are victimized by the Church (men and women accused of witchcraft), and those who derive comfort and strength from it. But I continue to wonder about Undset's choice of protagonist - why focus on a character who seems, however pious, to be immune from the comforts offered by the Church - who seems actually to be made a WORSE person by her religiosity? Is Undset working out her own crisis of faith, just prior to conversion? Or is she merely making the point that spiritual journeys can be long and torturous? And why does Kristin have a more difficult time reconciling herself to her past mistakes than certain other characters do - her husband, for example? This is a question I often have about protagonists eaten up by religious guilt. Nobody around Stephen Dedalus seems to think they're going to Hell for a passing crush on a woman glimpsed on the streetcar, but he, for whatever reason, does. The priests have all told Kristin she has made amends for having sex before marriage, but she can't accept it. In both cases, the all-consuming guilt these characters feel erodes their ability to live their lives in a generous and responsible way.

What singles out these super-sensitive, selfish, all-or-nothing believers? A number of Stephen's behaviors (in particular his childhood bedtime ritual, which must be completed properly on pain of eternal damnation) align neatly with a modern diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder; Kristin, though, just seems depressed. One interesting parallel Stephen and Kristin DO share is an extremely close connection with their opposite-sex parent; Stephen spends Ulysses hallucinating his dead mother, and Kristin's relationship with Lavrans is a little too close for comfort. Is an overdeveloped religious fixation tied to some kind of Oedipus/Electra complex? Portrait and Kristin came out within four years of each other, around the time that Freud's theories were beginning to gain currency.

In any case, Kristin and her religious guilt do get to be a bit much. Yet around the 450-page mark (of the omnibus edition), I found myself enjoying the novel more than I had previously. Undset's narrative branches out, and we spend extended periods either outside Kristin's head completely, or observing through her eyes with minimal commentary. Whenever this happened, as in the narratives of Kristin's ex-fiancé Simon or Erlend's brother Gunnulf, I found myself relaxing into the storyline and enjoying the exploration of different corners of the medieval world, whether it be the hostels of Rome or the unconverted wilds of Finland. Occasionally, too, I started noticing moments when Undset made surprisingly poignant use of her plain, unadorned prose. This exchange between Lavrans and Ragnfrid, for example, struck me as lovely:

"Perhaps you may think, wife, that you've had more sorrow than joy with me; things did go wrong for us in some ways. And yet I think we have been faithful friends. And this is what I have thought: that afterwards we will meet again in such a manner that all the wrongs will no longer separate us; and the friendship that we had, God will build even stronger."

Something about the quietness of that "I think we have been faithful friends" is very touching to me, although it's marred by Ragnfrid's wish a few pages later that he had just hit her once in a while. Likewise, Kristin's slow realization of the depths of her parents' relationship, although it seemed a little, um, delayed (what is she here? in her mid-twenties?), struck a chord as well:

While she lived at Jørundgaard, she had never thought otherwise than that her parents' whole life and everything they did was for the sake of her and her sisters. Now she seemed to realize that great currents of both sorrow and joy had flowed between these two people, who had been given to each other in their youth by their fathers, without being asked. And she knew nothing of this except that they had departed from her life together. Now she understood that the lives of these two people had contained much more than love for their children. And yet that love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep..."

By the end of The Wife I felt that the second book is stronger than the first, although still not a knockout. Despite an annoying protagonist, it widens its scope and develops a diversity of characters, and relies less on clichés of gothic and romantic literature than The Wreath. When she's not obsessing on her own sinfulness, Kristin can make an insightful observer, as when she contrasts the feasting styles of her husband and father, and notes that Erlend tends not to get as drunk or boisterous as Lavrans, since he's not as constrained while sober. I'm sure that the Black Death will give Kristin lots of opportunities to wail and sob, but I'm also somewhat hopeful for more non-Kristin time in Undset's third volume.

Visit others' posts:

  • Amy enjoyed The Wife much less than The Wreath, due mostly to Kristin's unremitting sobs.

  • Claire loved the setting but disliked the narrative voice, with which she never really connected. She also has qualms about the lack of forgiveness displayed by Kristin and the other characters.

  • E.L. Fay continues her thoughtful exploration of the "anachronistic feminist," and argues that Kristin is convincingly embedded in her time - for better or worse.

  • Gavin writes that she enjoyed the second book more than the first, particularly the setting and political intrigue, but that Kristin's weeping and religious guilt continues to bother her.

  • Jill compares The Wife to Gone with the Wind, and notes that Kristin becomes less sympathetic while Erlend and Simon both become more so.

  • Lena remarks that, while it was satisfying to see Kristin become a slightly more competent adult, her tears and vengefulness toward Erlend were less compelling. She remarks that the only character she ends up feeling close to is Simon.

  • Richard finds Undset's narration style and content totally generic and uninteresting.

  • Sarah, like so many of us, found Kristin's crying and nagging to be very unpleasant, and coins the phrase "epic nonsense."

  • Softdrink wrote a pithy and amusing post highlighting Kristin's out-of-control fertility and her shrewish domestic stylings.

  • Valerie enjoyed The Wife less than The Wreath, and continues in her opinion that Kristin Lavransdatter is male-centric. (For another interesting conversation about the novel's gender politics, check out the comments on Sarah's post!)


  • I'm almost done with Book 2. I actually think it's okay. It's gotten me thinking more about the genre of historical fiction.

  • Although I'm not enjoying this trilogy much at all, Emily, I am enjoying the readalong itself and seeing how everyone responds to different aspects of the work. I also liked the Lavrans and Ragnfrid characters enough to be sorry that they're now out of the main picture. Apart from that, though, Undset's insistence on mentioning how beautiful Kristin is every two pages or so strikes me as totally indicative of her careless style as a narrator: why develop complex characters when you can just decribe them superficially ad nauseam? P.S. Great find on that photo of Nidaros Cathedral!

  • You wrote:

    Is Undset working out her own crisis of faith, just prior to conversion? Or is she merely making the point that spiritual journeys can be long and torturous? And why does Kristin have a more difficult time reconciling herself to her past mistakes than certain other characters do - her husband, for example?

    I think the key is when she is speaking to Gunnulf, and insisting how terrible she is, and Gunnulf says: "'Kristin,' the priest said sternly. 'Are you so arrogant that you think ourself capable of sinning so badly that God's mercy is not great enough?..."

    Um, yes....

  • I wish I would have heard about this read along sooner, as now I feel it's too late to join. However, I can't wait to join you in further readings (with Virginia Woolf!), and everyone's thoughts on this particular series has quite provoked my interest.

  • EL Fay: That's great; I'll be really interested to read your thoughts (as always). I've been thinking a lot about historical fiction as I read Undset, as well...and realizing more and more that my kneejerk reaction of "Oh, I don't usually read it" is totally false.

    Richard: The power of Flickr search! :-) I'm glad you're still enjoying the collective reading experience, as am I. I agree that the Lavrans/Ragnfrid death scenes were by FAR the most affecting parts of The Wife.

  • Rhapsody: Yes, I definitely agree with you and Gunnulf that Kristin is arrogant (and depressed). I'm still curious, though, about Undset's motivation for focusing on a main character for whom that's true, rather than someone who's able to benefit by or even fully engage with Church teachings (I mean, since Undset was religious herself - not that religion needs to be a positive force for all characters). But yeah, she is full of herself, for sure.

    Bellezza: Haha, I'm sure neither Richard nor I would have expected the Undset portion of the proceedings to be the one that sucked you in, but I'm glad you're planning on joining us for Woolf! :-) And if you ever get around to Kristin, I'd be curious about your perspective there, as well.

  • Emily:

    Anyone who goes through conversion is someone who is searching and, I believe, full of self-doubt and worries about salvation. So my personal guess is that Undset doesn't see Kristin as we do; that Kristin is her alter ego; and that she is trying to make her way through her own doubts and misgivings. In the end, when Kristin finally finds some peace by living a life of total sacrifice (read: sinlessness) this too, I think, is Undset's ideal resolution to the problem.

  • I too found the story much more interesting when it followed Simon or anyone else other than Kristin - even being in Erland's head was preferable. That quote that Jill mentioned was one of the focal points of this section for me, when Kristin's pride is called into question. I also think it's interesting that while internally she is conflicted and unconvinced of her own salvation, on the outside she manages to present an image of purity and charity that is convincing to her servants and neighbors, at least - Erland of course sees yet another side of her. It is not surprising that she has to resort to a nunnery in order to bring better balance to her religious struggle.

  • I think overall you liked it better than I did. Kristin's constant sobbing wore me down to the point where once the book finally picked up pace, as you note, I couldn't let go of the tears. Or my grudge against the tears. :-)

  • "So my personal guess is that Undset doesn't see Kristin as we do; that Kristin is her alter ego; and that she is trying to make her way through her own doubts and misgivings."


    You mean Kristin could potentially be . . . a MARY SUE???

  • "Undset's insistence on mentioning how beautiful Kristin is every two pages or so strikes me as totally indicative of her careless style as a narrator"

    Hee. So Undset is using Stephanie Meyer's approach of description? If I remember correctly, isn't Kristin even described as sparkling at one point? Just like Edward in the sunlight!

  • Actually, that wasn't Kristin. It was a character in a story her father was telling her.

    I'm more inclined to think Kristin is definitely an author surrogate - albeit one who certainly borders on Suedom.

  • What a thoughtful post, Emily. You've actually given me a little more reason to appreciate this novel. When you say that the author is trying her best to portray the medieval Norwegian church, I have to agree with you and at least give some props to Undset for the effort.

  • Rhapsody: I think you're probably right. My brain gets into something of a feedback loop when I think about it, because it's hard for me to imagine anyone finding Kristin sympathetic, which makes her an odd author-surrogate. But I suppose if you're filled with self-loathing, your surrogate won't be very much fun. On the other hand, there seems to be such wish-fulfillment going on with other peoples' reactions to Kristin - all the "she's so beautiful," "she's such a model wife" stuff. It's a conundrum.

    Sarah: Yeah, I think the book would have been a lot more effective if we could have shared the neighbors'/outsiders' views of Kristin 90% of the time and only seen inside her head 10% of the time, rather than having those percentages reversed. Then it would have been like "Oh interesting, even the seemingly perfect wife has issues," rather than "ENOUGH ALREADY OF KRISTIN'S ISSUES."

  • Amy: Ooooh, bringing up Twilight! The gauntlet has truly been thrown. ;-) I don't blame you at all for not being able to get beyond the tears. I could only get beyond them very partially. And I mean, they never really go away, do they? Argh.

    EL Fay: A very WHINY Mary Sue, though. Maybe the whiniest I've ever come across. I think I prefer the "whips out her esoteric knowledge to solve any problem" model, unbelievable as she is. :-)

  • Claire: Oh good, I'm really glad you enjoyed my post! Maybe it'll make up a little bit for Undset herself. :-)

  • I felt nothing but relief when The Wife ended. I'd much rather have had more Norwegian scenery and less sobbing. The Wreath was, hands down, my favorite of the three books.

  • Emily, I just discovered your blog a few days ago-- and will be coming back for many more visits!

    51 years ago, it's hard to believe, my freshman comp professor, a spinster lady in our Catholic college, recommended we read Kristin Lavransdatter. I never have, but your post throws light on her great enthusiasm for the novel. She had borne a child out of wedlock and raised him as her little brother. I can imagine that the daily reminder of her sin, even though she had probably told it in confession, produced a good bit of continuing anguish.

    The exchange of comments here makes your coming Virginia Woolf readalong look like a lot of fun. Do I read Mrs. Dalloway before the opening date or start on that day?

  • I have finally put up my Part II post (today). I definitely didn't enjoy Part II as much. Although I didn't mention him in my post, in this book I liked Simon a lot more than Kristin and Erlend and am hoping to see more of him in Part III.

    I'm looking forward to going around the other blogs to see what everyone else will take a couple days to do that, I think!

  • Softdrink: Ooh, that doesn't bode well for The Cross! I can definitely understand liking the first book better than the second. I am apparently more bothered by Romantic stereotypes than by endless crying, but it's a close thing, I have to say.

    Valerie: You're not alone! :-) I liked Simon more than either Kristin or Erlend, too, although I'm sure his presence will be yet another source of angst going into Book 3.

  • Julia: Oh, interesting. So she probably actually identified with Kristin in a way none of us are doing. I wonder if she was recommending it to you as a cautionary measure ("read this to see how awful you'll feel if you have premarital sex"), or just as a good/relatable book?

    And re: the Woolf readalong, yay! I'm glad you think it sounds interesting. The dates given will be when everyone posts their reviews of the respective books, so the reading will take place before that.

    • Yes, I think she did identify with Kristin, which is why I was so taken with your post. Rather than recommending it as a cautionary measure, I think she was trying to share her feeling: "this is life!"

      The comment by rhapsodyinbooks and your reply touches on something else. Catholics sometimes struggle with knowing they should forgive themselves after they've confessed a sin but not being able to let go of the guilt. Undset might have been trying to work out this conflict in her fiction.

  • I never saw this book so much as about religious guilt, I felt is was more a case of "you made your bed now lie in it". Sort of a deconstruction of marrying the bad boy. Erlend is the Bad-Boy, Simon is the Good-Boy. Kristin got her own way, but living with somebody as careless and unstable as Erlend will NOT be a "happy ever after". It will be a "happy sometimes, but lots of problems, too".

    It's very true that before marriage, negative qualities are reframed as cute or winsome, but after marriage it becomes a lot less cute. It was exciting and daring for Kristin to sleep with Erlend when it was the two of them against the world. Now she realizes that the qualities that would lead Erlend to disregard hers and her father's honor make for a poor husband and provider.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography