The Personalist Project

I’m reading Kristin Lavransdatter again. The first time I read it as a young wife—a very young and very clueless wife, as it seems to me now. A couple of decades later, as a mother of five daughters, what strikes me is the perspective of Kristin’s parents, but especially her father, Lavrans.

Here I guess I have no choice but to attempt a synopsis of the first book, along with a spoiler alert. So, here goes—but please do read the trilogy, if you haven’t already, and read it again if you have.

Raised in medieval Norway by loving and pious parents and betrothed to Simon, an affectionate and conscientious man, Kristin falls in love with Erland Nikulausson. Before meeting her, Erland had stolen another man’s wife and lived with her for ten years; they have two children together but have now (more or less) broken things off. Kristen is pretty much willingly seduced by Erland. Her father is at first set against the match but then, very reluctantly, changes his mind, unwilling to see her so miserable. Kristin then gets pregnant, and she hides it successfully, but by her wedding day her conscience tortures her not only for the illicitness of their union but for the way she and Erland betrayed her beloved father, tricking him into throwing an elaborate, honorable, religious celebration to give his daughter to a man who had already taken her.

Kristin is no passive victim, and Erland is much more thoughtless than malicious, but he leaves behind him a trail of chaos, unhappiness, and lost opportunity. His friends and relatives scramble hard to try to cover up, or undo, or fix, or make up for it all.

But what I really noticed this time, more than the whole Krisitn-Erland narrative, is her father’s unswerving love for her--and how little she deserves it, having freely chosen all kinds of things that she knows will multiply his sorrows. She sees his future grief clearly---to her credit, all her attempts to deceive herself fall flat—and she’s genuinely pained when she pictures his pain—but she chooses to do it all anyway. Her loyalty to the man who has dishonored her eclipses everything else. She gets pregnant not only before marriage but after her long, pitiless, successful campaign to gain her father’s consent—adding insult to injury to her family, who labor for months preparing the celebration, and who will be the butt of jokes once the baby's born and the betrayal comes to light.

So here's my favorite part. She’s confessing everything to Brother Edvin, a wise and kindhearted monk who has known her since she was little, and she says:

We have done so much wrong before we came so far. And what gnaws at my heart most is that I have brought my father so much sorrow. He has no joy in this wedding either. And even so he knows not [about their fornication] did he know all, I trow he would take his kindness quite from me. 

And here's the answer:

“Kristin,” said Brother Edvin gently, “See you not, child, that …‘tis therefore you must give him no more cause of sorrow—because he never will call on you to pay the penalty. Nothing you could do could turn your father’s heart from you.”

                                                   *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

It’s true. Lavrans is like the Father in the Prodigal Son. In fact, I submit that the whole story is also about God the Father

Sure enough, once Lavrans finds out about his grandson, his love and mercy are as steadfast as everyone but Kristin would have predicted. He even "goes out to meet them," just like the Prodigal's father, making a three-day ski trip he doesn't have time for in the dead of winter to visit them at their home.  Lavrans' mercy and lovingkindness is a more fundamental element of the story, a stronger driver of the plot, than I realized on my first reading.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a work of literature, not a simple fable or a piece of moralistic propaganda. But ithe Year of Mercy is coming up, and if Sigrid Undset is showing us something about mercy through Lavrans, what is it, exactly? What does it have to say about unconditional love? The answer, I think, is this:

 Nothing you could do could turn your father’s heart from you.

The evil we do will sadden Him, and it can separate us from Him, but He will never turn his heart from us.

Once He forgives us, and we accept His forgiveness and try to mend our ways, will things run smoothly?

No, not according to Undset. The whole rest of the trilogy is littered with the trouble and sorrow that comes of two well-intentioned but fallen people disobeying God’s law and trampling people underfoot to do it. Kristin still laments her father's grief and hates herself for having treated him unfeelingly. Their many children are wounded whenever she and Erland can’t bring themselves to act like grownups and parents so much as lovers out of their minds with bitterness, passion, or both. Other innocent bystanders, like the jilted Simon, have their own suffering to bear, and the ripple effect of evil moves outward despite everybody's genuine contrition.

But if you wanted to prepare for this Year of Mercy, you could do worse than read Kristin Lavransdatter.


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