I finished book one, The Wreath, of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy last week. I've just barely begun the next book, The Wife. This and the final book will be a tad bit longer than the first--both have about 400 pages. While the first book described Kristin's youth, the next looks like it is going to be about her early married life. The publisher's blurb reads:
"In The Wife, Undset paints a vivid portrait of a marriage buffeted not only by private passions and recriminations, but by the forces of history. Kristin is determined to create a household and a family life that will mitigate the shame she brought upon herself and her parents. As Undset chronicles Kristin's days as the mistress of Erlend's ancestral estate and the mother of seven sons, she renders the details of everyday life with astounding precision—the eating and sleeping arrangements in both manor houses and humble peasant homes; the risks of childbirth and of raising children; and the social and religious activities that punctuate each week. Erlend's involvement in a plot against an unpopular king brings to life the political intrigues percolating in Scandinavia during the period and captures the strong sense of justice and personal freedom that set Norway apart from most other medieval cultures. The inner lives of the characters are illuminated with the same care—from the painful secrets Kristin's parents harbor to the destructive consequences of Kristin's pride and resentment and of Erlend's petulant refusal to accept his responsibilities."
Now that I am finished with the first book, I have been thinking about the questions that I posted a couple of weeks ago from the Penguin reading guide. Some have been easier to answer than others. I'm very curious about what others think of the last question, in particular "Does Undset's depiction of the consequences of adultery reflect the moral conventions of the time or does it represent a more universal truth?" I can't quite decide what I think about this one. It seems that adultery at least from the point of view of Kristin's actions aren't uncommon now and I'm not sure that people would condemn her. However, when you throw in the mix Erlend and his situation, some things probably don't really change. Things got rather messy at the end of the first book. It seems as though Kristin is paying the price for them in the second book--the first section of the book is called "The Fruit of Sin"--if that says anything. What began as a passionate sort of love is turning into something altogether different.
I wish I would have thought more about the questions as I was reading, so I will go ahead and post the next set of questions here for book two now:
- In talking about her heroine, Sigrid Undset said that Kristin's greatest sin was not indulging in sex before marriage, but the sin of pride, which fueled her defiance of the rules she had learned as a child. Does her marriage temper Kristin's tendency to insist on having her own way? Is Erlend, too, guilty of the sin of pride? What do their reactions to Kristin's out-of-wedlock pregnancy indicate about their individual personalities and the likely course of their marriage?
- What function does Gunnulf serve in the novel? Compare his relationship with Kristin to the ones she forms with Brother Edvin and with her parish priests, Sira Eirik and Sira Eiliv. Are Gunnulf's criticisms of Erlend based only on his religious beliefs or are they colored by childhood memories and his own inner conflicts? What do Undset's various portraits of the clergy reveal about religion and spirituality during the Middle Ages?
- Why does Erlend become involved in the plot to remove King Magnus and secure the throne for Prince Haakon? How does his nostalgia for Viking times, when social mobility was linked to the test of battle, affect his judgment and his actions? What does he hope to gain as an individual? In addition to clarifying the political climate in Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe, does this fictional conspiracy and the political maneuvering it involves provide insights into other aspects of medieval culture and the ideas that shaped it? What light does it shed on the relations between the Church and the state and on the role of each in the lives of ordinary people? Does Undset's description of Norway during the Middle Ages differ from what you know about the period from other readings or history courses? If so, in what ways?
- How do Kristin and Erlend's feelings about one another change in the course of the book? Which partner do you think is more responsible for the deterioration of the marriage and why? What impact does the birth of their children have on each of them and their relationship as husband and wife? Do Kristin's faith—and her search for redemption—help or hinder her as a wife and mother? Is Lavrans' analysis of their marriage [p.236-7] valid or is it colored by his own experiences and beliefs?
- Discuss Kristin's self-recriminations [p. 334-6] after Erlend is arrested in light of your impressions of their marriage. Why does Simon come to Erlend's aid? Are his motivations purely unselfish? What do their conversations at the prison [p.381-2] and after Erlend's release [p.402] reveal about each man? Do you think that Erlend has gained a deeper understanding of himself by the end of the novel?
Pride seems to be a major theme that runs through this book. It seems to have an impact on so many characters and in so many ways. Lavrans pride--keeping Kristin from marrying Erlend at first, Kristin's pride--not telling Erlend her condition before marrying, and then Erland's pride--what he does when he finds out.
How is everyone else doing? It looks as though Lazy Cow is enjoying the earlier Archer translation of the book. I suspect that Heather has other things on her mind at the moment than KL! It will probably take a bit longer for me to get through the second book than the first, though I still would like to finish everything before the end of October, or at the least before Thanksgiving. I'd love to hear everyone else's thoughts and experiences.