Carrie Frederick Frost is on a mission to convince as many people as possible to read Sigrid Undset’s epic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter—and does a pretty good job of it in our second On the Square essay today. While there may be thousand reasons to read this thousand page book, Frost focuses on Undset’s portrayal of motherhood in the novel:
Undset compellingly presents the material challenges of motherhood amid accurate and well-rendered historical detail: the difficulty of concealing a pregnancy as Kristin struggles with first trimester nausea while feeding leftover mash from ale-brewing to the pigs, the relief of breastfeeding her infant from engorged breasts after a twenty-mile barefoot pilgrimage to St Olav’s Cathedral, and the joy of cuddling with small children in a freshly-made, hay-stuffed bed in the manor.
The portrayal of motherhood in Kristin Lavransdatter, however, is not confined to mundane matters. Kristin’s is the reflective mind of a devoutly Christian mother, who regularly contemplates the spiritual significance of her maternity. Gazing at her firstborn son, Naakve, who was conceived before she and Erlend were married, Kristin contemplates: “Conceived in sin. Carried under her hard, evil heart. Pulled out of her sin-tainted body, so pure, so healthy, so inexpressibly lovely and fresh and innocent. This undeserved beneficence broke her heart in two; crushed with remorse, she lay there with tears welling up out of her soul like blood from a mortal wound.” Kristin is struck by the contrast between the sweet purity of her child and the darkness of her own adult heart; this contrast allows her to recognize and appreciate the “undeserved beneficence” that is one’s child.