In its second volume, The Wife, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy takes an unexpected turn—to politics, of all things. Readers are caught up in Kristin’s husband’s involvement in a plot to depose a king, while being introduced to historical figures most will never hear about elsewhere, like Norway’s regent Erling Vidkunsson. I’ll admit that for a long time, this was my least favorite part of the trilogy. Though like everything Sigrid Undset writes, it’s so richly imagined (and well-researched) that it won me over in time.
I think Undset chooses politics as a theme very pointedly, as The Wife and the following volume, The Cross, depict the peak of Kristin’s life in the world. But on the flipside of these political intrigues, the volumes trace another worldly struggle—Kristin’s marriage and motherhood. After Erlend is arrested for his political plotting, Kristin is forced to reckon with the bitterness she’s harbored toward the husband she fought so hard to win. And it must be said that Kristin’s anger at Erlend is often justified. Erlend sins grievously against Kristin on multiple occasions, and he is simply hard to live with. Yet it’s the small, accumulated resentments Kristin hangs onto, more than the grand recklessness that lands him in desperate straits and leads to the family’s downfall. Reflecting on the choices she’s made in her marriage, Kristin pictures her life against the Norwegian landscape:
During these years at Husaby [Erlend’s ancestral estate], life had expanded outward, becoming wide and spacious like a lake, mirroring everything around her. […] Now she knew that her love for Erlend had rushed like a turbulent and dangerous current through her life […] carrying her outward—she didn’t know where.
Undset loves to use images of nature to reflect her characters’ souls; I think she favors water because it fits life’s journey so well, at times forceful and headlong, other times meandering and timid. The image of the expanding lake suggests that Kristin inhabits the world confidently during these years, her influence encompassing both Husaby and her father’s estate, Jörundgaard, which she inherits after Lavrans’s death. But with that expansion, her inner turmoil increases, too. Beneath the deceptively peaceful, respectable surface, her love for Erlend threatens to pull her out beyond safe depths and unsettle her place in the world as she knows it.
Gradually, the things Kristin clings to in the world are wrested away from her in one way or another. After Erlend is released from prison and forced to forfeit much wealth, the family goes to live on Kristin’s inherited estate, but she finds no peace there, either. Erlend is restless, the once-proud estate falters, and her eight beloved sons, it turns out, have minds of their own—she can’t keep them stowed safely under her wings. The relentless sound of water echoes her sense of being trapped by the world:
The monotonous drone of the waterfalls […] kept reminding her of something, of a time that was an eternity ago; even back then she realized that she would not have the strength to bear the fate she had chosen for herself. […] She had given herself up to the world in her youth, and the more she squirmed and struggled against the bonds of the world, the more fiercely she felt herself imprisoned and fettered by them.
She also reflects that motherhood, her most heartfelt connection to the world, has proven to be a kind of death:
[Her sons] would take with them bloody threads from the roots of her heart when they flew off, and they wouldn’t even know it. She would be left behind alone, and all the heartstrings, which had once bound her to this old home of hers, she had already sundered.
In her youth, Kristin had considered becoming a nun, a way of dying to the world. But since she chose the world instead, she has to watch everything that ties her to the world leave her for dead. After Erlend dies, Kristin realizes she “had not been able to cut her life away from that of her sons; now death would soon separate them, for without Erlend she had no strength to live.” (989) Even the good and godly calling of motherhood, which felt like a refuge to Kristin through all the rocky years of marriage, has ended up entangling her in grief.
As Kristin makes her way to the convent she never plans to leave, a rushing mountain stream seems to mirror her own life back to her:
The river seemed to be showing her a picture of her own life: She too had restlessly rushed through the wilderness of her earthly days, rising up with an agitated roar at every rock she had to pass over.
But at the same time, she realizes something else:
Faint and scattered and pale was the only way the eternal light had been mirrored in her life. But it dimly occurred to the mother that in her anguish and sorrow and love, each time the fruit of sin had ripened to sorrow, that was when her earthbound and willful soul managed to capture a trace of the heavenly light.
Even in the rebel “wilderness” of her life, God’s light has never been absent, even if it was just a fitful scattering over those rushing waters.
By the time Kristin approaches the convent, she realizes there’s no longer any point in going by her family name, since it won’t be familiar to strangers here, and the fortunes of her father’s house are no longer what they used to be. The name associated with her husband or their former riches is just so much baggage to her now: she begins to go by “the widow Kristin.” Similarly, she dreams about traveling with her old spiritual mentor, Father Edvin, and begging for their bread. She realizes that she, a once-respected noblewoman, has no largesse to give; now she can only receive. In the waning years of her life, she increasingly comes to identify with the poor and sinners instead of those with any status in the world.
Protestant readers may object to the distinction between worldly and “religious” vocations that Kristin’s movement from world to convent implies. But even though Kristin’s adulthood is framed by cloistered life, the novel does suggest that dying to the world is more complicated than walling oneself off from it. After all, we’re called to keep ourselves “unstained by the world” (James 1:27), but if we think we can achieve that by simply avoiding outward worldliness, we play a trick on ourselves. With Kristin, we end up discovering that the battle never ends: we have to die to ourselves daily as we grow in the knowledge of our union with Christ. And like Kristin, we’ll find that only death can finally free us from this struggle. But there’s such encouragement in remembering that even the world’s beauties, like the Norwegian wilds Undset writes about, are only a faint picture of the eternal beauty we’ll someday enjoy. And in the meantime, Jesus tells us that we should take heart, because He has overcome this sorrow-filled world (John 16:33).
One of the best passages in Kristin is tucked near the end, when it becomes clear that God has been guiding Kristin’s fitful path through this world all along. Kristin’s last lucid thought is that she has been loved and kept—nothing she’s done could sever her from that love:
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.
That same love is working on our souls’ rock-strewn surface and bringing forth eternal fruit.
Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.