For several years, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter was one of those books that I knew I probably should read, but thought I never could.
There were many reasons to take on this twentieth-century trilogy about a fictional woman in fourteenth-century Norway. For one, it’s a literary classic: Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.” I had received several enthusiastic recommendations to read it from a wide range of people, from college professors to experienced mothers to young professionals.
Still, it took me a long time to dive in, probably because I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of Undset’s thousand-plus-page masterwork. The giant paperback with a black background and floral design sat on the bookshelf, elegant yet untouched.
In March 2020, something prompted me to take it down from the shelf. I was recently married, expecting my first baby, and clustered with family in a house under quarantine. I’m not sure exactly why this felt like an opportune moment, but Kristin became my companion that year. She accompanied me through cold winter days curled up indoors, warm sunny afternoons of family vacation, and quiet autumn evenings when my newborn slept.
Some parts were thrilling, others were slow. Some chapters expressed joy and beauty, while others projected sorrow and disillusionment. But overall, the book gave me a lot to think about regarding love, marriage, family, and forgiveness.
Taking on Kristin Lavransdatter, either on your own or with a book club, is no small task. However, with a little strategy, it can be a fascinating, even contemplative, experience. Below are some reflections to help anyone—even a busy mom like me!—undertake a project of reading Undset’s classic.
Setting the table
Before you begin reading, it’s worth taking a few moments to get organized. I like to think of these steps as setting the table before you invite Kristin and her companions to dinner and hear their long, complex story.
First, make a reading plan. Although a reading schedule with deadlines might make you feel like you’re back in school, in this case, it can help keep the story alive and fresh. The story’s structure lends itself well to a yearlong reading plan. Three books, each with three parts, means that you can allot four months per book and a little more than a month per part (it’s always good to have some wiggle room to account for those busier weeks!).
Once you’ve outlined your plan, hold yourself accountable. A book club is a great way to do this, since you’ll have others to remind you of your plan and motivate you to complete it so that you can be prepared for discussion at each meeting. You can also record your reading goals in your calendar or journal, or mark the page you’re aiming to get to next with a bookmark or paper clip. These habits break the book into bite-sized pieces. Rather than thinking about how long it’ll take you to finish the entire book, you can focus on accomplishing a few chapters at a time—and enjoying them more!
Second, keep a character list. Even after working Kristin into your steady reading diet, keeping track of all the characters can be difficult. To avoid the exasperating exercise of repeatedly asking yourself, “Wait, have I met this character before?” and flipping back dozens of pages to find out, have a list of their names that you can refer to easily (perhaps taped to the inside cover of your book or on your phone). You can use this list or this family tree to remember the relationships, or you can build your own as you read. Either way, having a system for keeping track will not only ease your journey through the tale but will also sharpen your ability to analyze and discuss each character.
Third, get some context. In order to understand Kristin’s life, it is important to have a sense of the cultural and historical dynamics at play in her world. For instance, learning the customs surrounding property and inheritance helps us understand the reasoning behind arranged marriages. A brief overview of the political tensions in 14th-century Scandinavia clarifies the significance of characters’ actions throughout the story. And knowing that many behaviors that were considered moral offenses were also legal ones explains the dire consequences characters face for committing them.
Tiina Nunnally’s award-winning translation, which I chose to read, contains footnotes that provide such context. But you can also find some of this information with a brief browse. In a break from reading, maybe peruse a few sources; they will help you enter the world of the story and appreciate its richness.
One of the most difficult things about reading a long book can be keeping track of the main story lines. With that in mind, I’m providing a short version of the narratives of all three books below, plus a few discussion questions for yourself or your book group. Like an opera booklet that details the major plot points, this might help you enjoy the story even more. But if you’re trying to avoid spoilers, stop reading here and pick up your book!
Journeying with Kristin
The title of the first book, “The Wreath,” refers to the wreath that, according to Norwegian custom, is bestowed upon virgin brides in noble families. For Kristin, this adornment points not only to an important moment in her life but also to her position in society and her family, and how she chooses to play that part.
We meet Kristin as a young girl who enjoys a comfortable life on her family estate and the affection of her father, the respected nobleman Lavrans. As is customary in her society, each child’s surname reflects the name of his or her father. Thus, Kristin Lavransdatter means “Kristin, daughter of Lavrans.”
But childhood doesn’t last long for Kristin. Like most of her fellow young women, her marriage has been arranged for her. But when the lively and handsome Erlend Nikulausson sweeps her off her feet, Kristin faces a dilemma: marry the upright yet unromantic betrothed to honor her father’s wishes, or rebel by pursuing a passionate affair?
This first portion of Kristin’s life offers an insightful portrayal of fatherhood and marriage through the lens of childhood innocence—and how lost innocence changes that perspective. At first, Lavrans is Kristin’s whole world, and marriage seems like a faraway dream. Meeting Erlend changes all of that, so much so that Kristin is willing to exchange her father’s love for Erlend’s. How much of that results from her own desire versus Erlend’s influence upon her is an open question. Regardless, her decision will have major consequences for the rest of her life.
In the second book, “The Wife,” Kristin arrives newly-married at the estate of Husaby. Suddenly, she is no longer a pampered child but a household mistress laden with responsibility. As the years unfold, we see how married life and parenthood affect Kristin, her husband, and their relationship.
One of the signature components of Undset’s work is its realism. No character is a complete villain, and no one is a total hero. While Erlend’s passion for Kristin is sincere, he also leads an extravagant lifestyle and frequently overlooks his own responsibilities. While Kristin is devoted to her children and strives to run her household smoothly, she harbors bitterness toward Erlend when he fails to meet her expectations. These chapters invite us to consider what makes a happy (or unhappy) marriage, both in good times and in bad.
Because of all the details she gives us of both humdrum days and dramatic incidents, Undset gives the impression that the crises Kristin faces—temptation, betrayal, and ruin—are not so much isolated incidents as they are the result of many small decisions built up over time.
Could Kristin have avoided any of the tragedies that strike her? And do her reactions help alleviate them? Reflecting on these questions lets us analyze our heroine and also examine how we ourselves wish to respond to the challenges life presents.
The final book in the trilogy, “The Cross,” opens with another shift in circumstances. Stripped of property and prosperity, Kristin and her family return to the farm where she grew up. As life moves on, we see how Kristin and Erlend’s choices as lovers, spouses, and parents have impacted their children. Seeing them grapple with those consequences encourages us to contemplate the repercussions our own actions might have.
Moreover, the increased tension between Kristin and Erlend illustrates the difficulties that can arise in marriage even after many years. While some scenes indicate that the passion that consumed their budding relationship persists, others reveal the anger and resentment threatening that passion.
How can we overcome those moments of disillusionment in our own lives? And how do we find healing and forgiveness after a string of regrets? This concluding portion of Kristin’s life offers an excellent background for that discussion.
By the time you reach the end, you and your friends might disagree about whether Kristin Lavransdatter is more of a sinner or a saint. Either way, she is intensely human. Although in a different age and different society, Kristin Lavransdatter illustrates a life in its entirety, from childhood to old age, replete with ups and downs, turmoil and tranquility.
This is what has made it resonate with so many readers over the years, and this is what makes the journey with Kristin worthwhile. If you, like me, have meant to pick up this classic for a long time, make this the moment you embark on a new adventure!