In the first chapters of Kristin’s married life at Husaby, I was struck by how rapidly she undergoes maturation into womanhood, not only through the journey of her pregnancy and shift in identity from girl to mother, but rather by a transformation in the scope of her perspective. Almost at once her perceptions widen from beyond her own yearnings and shame to the concerns and cares of a lady of a large estate, not to mention wife and step-mother as well. One of the primary sensations she experiences is an overwhelming homesickness for her father’s house and a melancholy at finding herself abruptly isolated from the way of life she had known, a way of life in which she had always been cared for unconditionally.
There’s a deeper truth interwoven in Kristin’s nostalgia: a recognition that her father’s beliefs weren’t just something he proclaimed, but something he lived by, reflected in the welfare of his farm, his servants, even his livestock. Erlend’s slavery to himself, his whims and wants, have devastating effects on his own estate: it’s clear that the moral standards of these two men are not just differences of opinion or belief; the development (or lack thereof) of their respective consciences manifest in tangible outcomes for everyone around them.
I witnessed this phenomenon myself in my own childhood; the happy evidence of my religious upbringing a fact I came back to again and again in my young adulthood. In my eras of unbelief, or of anger at my Church, I couldn’t deny the solidity and joy of my childhood, how that had stemmed from the values and virtues of the Catholic creed my family professed. Broken as their own families of origin were, my parents set out to create a family based on something more solid than mere mutual attraction and affection. Despite their own traumatic, abusive childhoods, they succeeded in building a healthy family structure with little but their faith to inform them. Harmony and familial love were goals to be reached using Christian values of kindness, forgiveness, generosity…in retrospect, it stands out how preoccupied they were with us children speaking kindly to each other; we weren’t allowed to consume particular forms of media, not out of puritanical fear of the subject matter, but because of the cruel manner of speech commonly found in sitcom family structures under the guise of teasing. I was reminded of this in Kristin’s observation that she had never seen family members speak with such vitriol to each other until Erlend, Munan, and Gunnulf argue at dinner at Husaby.
Lavrans and Ragnfrid are far from perfect, and God knows neither are my own parents, inventing as they were from scratch what it meant to be good parents. I could give a laundry list of complaints, things I’ve analyzed and hope to do differently with my children. But all of their children have remained close to each other and to them, and what’s more, persisted in practicing Catholicism. I credit this in part to the fact of our shared experience: the peace and order, emotional health and enjoyment of our childhoods, contrasted to the disorder and anguish of the world revealing itself once we left home. How often do we not appreciate what is good until we experience the lack of that good elsewhere! Kristin doesn’t see it until she’s ensconced at Husaby, and I didn’t see it either until I myself set off into young adulthood, until I firsthand encountered the wounds and sorrows of a broken world.
Those same ideals have been vehicles for emotional and religious abuse in many families; they’ve been twisted into heresies such as purity culture and prosperity gospel, but this is a deeper truth from which those distorted concepts sprang: how many beauties may come from a life lived by faith and a well-developed conscience. What they don’t do is guarantee wealth or prevent pain. I’ve found that one of the rewards of following the Catechism of a Church thousands of years old is the thousands of years of accumulated experience: all those men and women, sinning over and over again and compiling a compendium of what choices bring one’s soul closer or farther from order and peace. And yet in our hubris, we all have to try some sins out for ourselves, and so does Kristin.
The word sin has been so abused to make any use almost cringe-worthy, but when taken for its literal meaning, as an act creating separation from God, it’s not difficult to see why some behaviors warrant the label. Undset emphasizes again and again that Erlend and Kristin’s tryst wasn’t only harmful to themselves; in following the siren song of their own desires, they suffered their relations and friends to many pains and a myriad of consequences. This theme reasserts itself through the state of things at Husaby: Erlend’s selfish pursuits have created disorder and discord for almost all in his life, most notably his children. Undset also makes it clear that Kristin’s pilgrimage and great atonement isn’t necessary because of a mere transgression like sex out of marriage, but because of her part in Eline’s death. And yet…and yet, redemption is within her reach, and Erlend’s as well.
There was a man in college who said he loved me, wanted to marry me, have lots of children, but he had no faith, and had never had one. It wasn’t the fact of his disbelief that disquieted me, besieged as I was by my own doubts and angers at the time, but a suspicion that without some kind of foundation of moral education, we would be on unsure footing for the rest of our lives. Growing up, I knew my father would never stray, never abandon his children, not because he loved us so much, but because of his own conscience, his own moral code. What trust and confidence that gave me as a child! And in what disparity to that young man, eager and full of love for me as he was. I wondered what would happen as the decades passed, if he was bored, if things were hard, if the situation was right…it was apparent he had nothing to fall back on. Despite his general good will and nature, I had no confidence in that goodness, floating in the ether, following the lead of his own desires and interests. Moral codes exist without the shape of religion, of course, but they’re much easier to change to and adjust to personal desire when there’s nothing empirical to hold them.
And this is the core difference between Erlend and Lavrans. Lavrans has his own code, strong convictions that affects the livelihood of everyone around him. Erlend has his own code as well, primarily to follow his longings at the cost of all else. His religious practices smack of mere performance for appearance’s sake, no true conviction as an undercurrent to his life. Erlend’s children can have no trust and confidence in him, fair-weather father as he is. Erlend makes promises to Kristin for no other reason but her beauty, and Kristin, in her naivete, doesn’t bother to wonder what foundation that makes for a marriage. Her eyes are opened when she comes to Husaby to find her husband’s neglect for everything else in his life. Kristin takes up the mental load of caring for the welfare of his estate and his child alongside the concerns of looming labor, birth, and new motherhood. Her loss of innocence was not in the hay bales and secret rooms, but here, when she must suddenly take on the mantle of responsibility for so much more than she anticipated. Her own moral foundation asserts itself, giving her the tools to create a better life for those around her, to create the family life she wants for her own children.
C.K. Dawson is a writer for Verily Magazine with her MFA in Poetry from Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Poetry International, Breakwater Review, Relief Journal, St. Katherine’s Review, and Ruminate Magazine. She lives with her husband and daughter in the hills just outside Los Angeles.