Review of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
As a weary law student thirsting for the opportunity to read books about something other than constitutional theory or the rules of evidence, I devoted my winter break to finally reading one of the great pieces of Catholic literature of the early 20th century—Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. After crawling through the book for several years, now I could finally devote the time it deserved in order to soak in every word and incredible historical detail that Undset, and the translator, Tiina Nunnally, set forth in the trilogy.
Undset’s tale of life in medieval Norway chronicles the life of Kristin Lavransdatter, from her struggles in youth with love and lust, through her years of motherhood and difficult dealings with her husband and family, finally to her death from the black plague during her later life as a lay religious. Undset presents many different themes of family, religion, motherhood, and relationship throughout the trilogy, and her account of Kristin’s faith particularly strikes in the heart of any person striving towards holiness.
Kristin’s difficult life is one of struggle and sin. She is a very pious woman and prays fervently throughout her life, celebrates each feast day and holy season, and constantly reflects upon her relationship with Jesus and His mother, Mary. However, Kristin struggles greatly with her sins. In her youth, she succumbs to sexual sin with Erlend, a man who is not her betrothed. She conceives a child with Erlend before they are eventually wed. Kristin bears this sin and others with her throughout her whole life, and this struggle with sin resonates on the heart of every human being—the tension between our human desires and inclinations and our journey towards heaven through a true remorse for our sins.
Reading the novel, I was deeply moved by Kristin’s struggle, and especially in her attachment to her own will. Don’t we all have great desires and dreams for our own life that we grow attached to? How often do we stop to use prayer and discernment to decide if those desires are exactly what God is willing for our lives? Kristin reflects on this dilemma towards the end of her life, saying, “All my life, I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path.” Although she longs to travel the “right” road, Kristin’s attachment to her will—her earthly love for Erlend and desire to be with him—ultimately leads her to a painful and discontented marriage. Undset seems to be showing us the fruit that is born of our own sin when we succumb to desires that diverge from God’s will for us. Undset thus describes a deep theological and human mystery—the never-ending struggle to abandon our own will into the hands of God.
Kristin’s story is dark and painful to read, but Undset communicates through deeply faithful characters in the story that God never abandons His faithful, no matter how they respond to His love. The priest Sira Eiliv counsels Kristin, “Haven’t you realized yet, sister, that God has helped you each time you prayed, even when you prayed with half a heart or with little faith, and He gave you much more than you asked for.” Kristin’s father, a very pious and faithful man, also illustrates the possibility of a joyous relationship with God through “his own constant searching of his own heart before God,” and the ways he “crush[es] it in repentance over his own failings.” Kristin’s father, through an example of Christ-like love, accepts suffering as a way to journey towards holiness.
The story reaches the heart of every person because it conveys a universal truth, and often painful reality, of the human condition. Because we have been granted free will to choose God’s love, we will struggle to recognize our failings and repent from our sins. Kristin shows us that it takes a lifetime to realize God’s love for us, and to understand how to live our lives in service of Him.
Undset repeats the maxim of “Pactum Serva”—“keep the faith”—throughout her trilogy, encapsulating both our duty and deepest joy as Christians. As I repeated those words to myself, I was reminded how difficult it can be to stay on course in my daily life, but, like God’s own faithfulness, the gift of my faith never leaves me. Kristin constantly reminded herself that although it felt like the shutters of a window had closed her off inside, she knew that the light outside did exist. Through all darkness of suffering, pain, and sin, it is clear that the light of Christ does not leave us at any moment, and this alone should give us cause for great joy. There is a light at the end of the arduous journey—the light of eternal life.
Margo Borders graduated from Boston College in 2016 and is in her third year of law school at the University of Notre Dame. Margo is a current recipient of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s Polking Fellowship for J.D. candidates who have a demonstrated passion for the Catholic mission of the Law School and who share Notre Dame’s commitment to the inalienable dignity of every human life from conception to natural death. You can contact her at Margo.A.Borders.firstname.lastname@example.org.