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Kristin Lavransdatter Goes to Purgatory: Sigrid Undset and Dante on Embodied Penance

Midway through the journey of my teenage years, I stumbled upon The Cross (the first in Sigrid Undset’s classic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter). Sigrid Undset, winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, set this trilogy in 14th century Norway. Her books trace the life of Kristin Lavransdatter from childhood through adulthood and probe the religious, cultural, and political climate of medieval Norway. When I first read The Cross, I was a proud and rigid moralist who was appalled by a heroine who sinned and sinned and sinned, and was neither punished nor repentant by the novel’s end. I closed the book with disgust and refused to finish the trilogy. A few years later, however, Undset’s trilogy called to me again, and I reacquainted myself with Kristin Lavransdatter. While reading the second book, The Wife, I read also Dante’s Purgatorio, and it was in this juxtaposition of texts that I observed an overlapping insight: just as we sin as embodied beings, so also our purification through penance must be embodied.

Kristin Lavransdatter is newly wedded and less newly pregnant at the beginning of the second book. In traditional terms, the first book ends in comedy; that is, the first book ends with a wedding. Kristin secures for herself – against her father’s will – marriage to the man to whom she had given her virginity, and thus she thinks herself happy. But Kristin is not happy; Undset sets the tone early for the second book; at the first mention of Kristin, she is described as a “deathly pale and miserable young wife,” led along the dock by her husband, Erlend.[1] The rest of the novel is devoted to the excruciating outworkings of death and misery that are the result of Kristin’s sin. However, the most serious of Kristin’s sins is not fornication but pride. In order to understand the interplay of lust and pride which plagues Kristin, we turn now to Dante.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the mountain the souls must climb is the inverse of hell. Whereas the lustful inhabit the first circle of hell (not very deep below the surface), the lustful in purgatory are found at the very top of the mountain, closest to entering paradise. This strategic positioning is because lust, though a sin, is not the greatest of sins. Lust is merely a failure of the incontinent will to restrain the passions; it is immoderate animal desire. We are higher beings than the animals, and we should behave in accordance with our rationality, not just our appetites. Thus the lustful tell Dante that, as penance, they must declare to each to their own shame “the shameful name of her who bestialized herself in beast-shaped wood.”[2]In this punishment, they remind one another of a famous mythical example of sexual sin, thus compounding the shame they feel at the memory of their own sexual sin.

Dante exhibits a stunning understanding of our human condition by linking sexual sin and shame in this manner. All sin intrinsically leads to shame. But sexual sin is, in contrast to other sins, explicitly against the body. Thus it is not surprising that sexuality run amok leads to a deeply acute sense of shame. It is perhaps surprising at first blush that Dante would picture these souls as purified through a process that would seem to add to their shame. Yet this is the very heart of sacramental confession, wherein we confess to our shame and find that our shame may be subsumed and transformed by God’s grace. As a group, these souls find that they are not alone in their sin, and in confession they find that the shame, which wounded their souls as a result of their sins, is not stronger than the grace that heals them.

Dante is aware that confession requires humility, which is why he places the prideful souls at the very bottom of purgatory’s mountain, in order for them to acquire the humility needed for the rest of their purification. It is this humility that Kristin Lavransdatter lacks; thus she is unable to be freed of the shame and despair her lust caused. Right before she gives birth for the first time, Kristin tells her brother-in-law, a priest, “I didn’t dare speak of shame to my father, with all my sins unatoned for; I didn’t even dare confess fully to my parish priest.”[3] So great was her pride, therefore, that she was unwilling to be fully reconciled to God through the sacrament of confession.

It was not fear of wrath that kept Kristin from confession, but rather the fear that her momentary illicit pleasure might come to an end prematurely. In this regard, Kristin exhibits the sin of pride in that she is presuming that she will live long enough to prolong the enjoyment of illicit pleasure before repenting and suffering the consequences of her sin. This becomes clear in the very same passage quoted above: Kristin bemoans her pregnancy (which she describes as her “growing more hideous for each day that passed”) has reduced her sex appeal to her husband saying, “Then I was even more frightened, for Erlend did not act toward me as he had before. I thought about those days when he would come to me in my chamber at Skog in the evenings…”[4] Those days which Kristin speaks of were days of illicit sexual union and it is striking that Kristin would despise her current marital standing by pining for the days when her union with Erlend was sinful.

Kristin is not just bothered by the bodily aspect of her pregnancy. The pregnancy is also a very real, continual, embodied reminder to her and her husband of their sin. The baby that Kristin carries in her womb at the start of the novel is a baby conceived in sin, a baby that reminds Kristin of her sin, a baby that Kristin does not want. And so Kristin says to the priest, the priest, “Oh, if only I might die and this child would never be born,” and “Oh, if only I had drunk the potion that Eline offered me — that might have been atonement for all the sins we’ve committed, Erlend and I. Then this child would never have been conceived.”[5] Thus the unborn child, a result of her sin, is for Kristin an undesirable weight that bogs her body down and reminds her of her sin.

Like the imagery of weight as reminder in The Wife, Dante’s Purgatorio contains elements of the gravity of pregnancy and the weight of pride. Dante sees the souls of the proud slowly trudging their way up the mountain, their bodies, bearing large slabs of stone, bent toward the ground with the weight of their pride. Each soul bears weight proportional to the degree of their sin.[6] On the ground are carvings that illustrate the sin of pride and its consequences: first and foremost among these examples is Lucifer plunging from the heights of Heaven. These souls, by very nature of the weights bending them toward the ground, are thus confronted with depictions of their own sin.

For these pilgrims, sin is inescapable and inseparable from their bodies. Sin is on them, it is in them, it is under them. This understanding of soul and body is underscored later in Canto XXV: Dante the pilgrim asks how it is that the shades appear embodied (purgatory comes before the resurrection of the body for these souls), and is told that the body and soul are so entwined that the actions of the body on earth give shape to the souls.

If the sin is thus embodied for Undset and Dante, so also is the penance. For Kristin, childbearing becomes a source of healing. In this book, some five-and-a-half pages are devoted to the first of Kristin’s labor pains in giving birth to her first son. As expected, these pages emphasize the bodily aspects of this experience: “Kristin lay there biting her lips to shreds and crushing the corners of the blanket in her sweaty hands . . .[7] She looked up with wild, frightened eyes, her cracked brown lips gasping. All trace of youth and beauty had vanished from the swollen, flushed red face. Even her hair was matted together with bits of straw and wool from the fur of a filthy hide.”[8]

When Kristin finally does give birth, we are reminded of mortality and death. Undset describes the baby as a “raw and dark red shape [that] looked like nothing more than the entrail from a slaughtered beast.”[9] It is also fitting that the priest is present at this birth, encouraging Kristin to praise God for this child, helping her to see this as a moment of grace and healing. “When Kristin awoke from a long faint, she was lying in bed. Someone had removed the dreadful, sweat-soaked garments, and a feeling of warmth and healing was blessedly streaming through her body.”[10] It is here that we see the fruit of this labor, the way in which the beginning of embodied penance leads to the start of embodied healing.

While both Dante and Sigrid Undset consider embodied penance as an individual action, in both works of literature, human lives are shown to be communal. Our sin wounds others as well as ourselves, and our healing, too, is found in relationship. There is no Divine Comedy without Dante’s guides Virgil and Beatrice, and there is no successful pilgrimage for Dante the pilgrim without the various souls that he encounters who teach him about virtue and vice. Virgil says that “there was no other way to save [Dante’s] soul / than by my guiding him along this road,” which is why Virgil desires to “show him now the souls of those / who purge themselves of guilt.”[11] Beatrice later reaffirms this understanding of the communal nature of this pilgrimage when she declares, “To such depths did [Dante] sink that, finally / there was no other way to save his soul / except to have him see the Damned in Hell.”[12] Even the damned in Hell are able to show Dante something about the nature of sin and suffering.

In light of the above comment on community, it is striking that after the birth of her son, Kristin journeys with her son on a holy pilgrimage to Christ Church as part of her ongoing penance. She wears a gray robe over a sackcloth tunic. When she finally arrives at the church, she is exhausted. What follows is one of the most stunning and beautiful passages in the book: “Overcome and sobbing, the young woman sank down before the cross at the side of the road, where thousands of pilgrims had lain and thanked God because helping hands were extended to them on their journey through the perilous and beautiful world.”[13] It is important to note that her pilgrimage is made possible by those helping hands; we are likewise made to understand that the saints have been of help to Kristen.

When she reaches the church, the pinnacle of her pilgrimage, Kristin is overcome with an understanding of God’s grace. In her humility she is able to see that the grace of God works even through sin, taking what was evil and turning it into good:

And here knelt Kristin with the fruit of her sin in her arms. She hugged the child tight – he was as fresh as an apple, pink and white like a rose. He was awake now, and he lay there looking up at her with his clear, sweet eyes…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.”

It is here, in this moment, that embodied penance is most clearly depicted. Penance is not, as Kristin had thought before, an atonement for sin. No, penance is the means by which the soul is humbled and shown both the ugliness of sin and the beauty of grace. It is at this moment that Kristin’s child ceases to be an embodied reminder of her sin, and instead becomes an embodied reminder of God’s grace.

Finally, as in Dante’s purgatory the souls must begin their journey in learning humility, so also Kristin must exhibit humility in this powerful and important moment of her life. Inside the church, there is a crippled boy with his mother and another woman. Kristin watches him: “he began moving across the floor by setting his knuckles on the flagstones and hopping along like a fledgling crow. He had tiny legs, bent crooked under his belly.”[15] Kristin responds to this in the greatest humility imaginable: “when they were out of sight, Kristin threw herself down and kissed the floor where they had walked past her.”[16] In kissing the ground where the cripple walked, Kristin is seeing grace in that child, like she sees in her own child – even in pain. This recognition of grace, this bowing of the soul in humility, promises hope for Kristin’s redemption.

Kristin Lavransdatter, welcome to purgatorio.

[1] Undset The Wife; trans. Nunnally (Penguin Books, 1999); pg. 1
[2] Dante The Divine Comedy: Purgatory; Canto XXVI, lines 83-87
[3] Undset, pg. 67
[4] ibid
[5] Undset, pg. 65
[6] Purgatory, Canto X
[7] ibid
[8] Unset, pg. 71
[9] Undset, pg. 75
[10] ibid
[11] Purgatory, Canto 1, lines 61-63
[12] Purgatory, Canto XXXI, lines 136-138
[13] Undset, pg. 106
[14] Unset, pg. 107
[15] Undset, pg. 112
[16] Undset, pg. 112
Alighieri, Dante, and Mark Musa. The Divine Comedy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Eng.:
Penguin Books, 1984.
Undset, Sigrid. The Wife. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books,