Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross


Well, color me confused.

After making my way through the 1100+ pages of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, not only am I puzzled about the decision to award this author the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, but I am also completely mystified about what seems to be its enduring popular appeal. Because in case you hadn't noticed (and I can understand how you wouldn't, if you were basing your opinion off the responses of our particular readalong participants), this book is BELOVED by many people. It seems to be, for some, not just a good book but one of "those" books: those special, intense journeys that one revisits over the years and by which one is nourished. Check out the Kristin page on GoodReads, for instance: glowing five-star review after glowing five-star review, featuring the warmest of accolades:

  • Brilliant and beautiful!
  • I only intended to read the first book in this trilogy, and was so "hooked" by that time that I read straight through the entire series.
  • This is the best book I've read in a couple of years! It takes place in Norway in the 1300s; the story is compelling and the characters are extremely well developed.
  • I would actually give this hefty tome eight stars if the system would let me.
  • Fantastic read- truly a classic! I was a bit nervous about how religious it was going to be from the description (I didn't want a lot of preaching) but really it was silly to be worried...
  • If you are moved at all by the idea of human nature struggling with both a physical and spiritual identity, or interested by a setting in medieval Norway, I highly recommend it.
  • Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter is one of the best books I have ever read.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Good character development, psychological insight, not too religious...I wonder what I just read.

Maybe the most frustrating thing about Kristin Lavransdatter, to me, was that hidden within this behemoth are several novels that I would actually quite like. Whenever life settled down for a moment and the narrative focused less on melodrama and more on everyday medieval Norwegian life, it had a richness and quiet rhythm that I was often just starting to enjoy...when along came Kristin to throw another temper tantrum or angst weepily about what a sinner she was. If the nonstop, over-the-top melodrama of the plot had been muted, and Undset had focused instead on the quiet lives unfolding in the valley, Kristin Lavransdatter could have been a compelling, realistic portrait of rural medieval life.

Or, on the other hand, if the melodramatic plot points had remained but the narrative had been less interior - in other words, if we hadn't been subjected to ENDLESS resentment and self-flagellation on the part of Kristin but instead observed the characters from without, deducing their emotions and motivations from their actions - the story would have resembled a latter-day Icelandic saga. A bit of subtlety in the characterization could only have been a plus, and without the constant need to agonize about sins of the past, the thing would have moved along much more smoothly and perhaps become a taut tale in the adventure/romance vein.

In other words, and I don't say this often, I found Kristin Lavransdatter to be just too damn long. I love a meaty book, but in this case much of the length was comprised of material I felt to be repetitive and/or uncompelling. Do we really need another description of Kristin's tortured weeping? Does it add anything to the whole that Kristin and Erlend are embroiled in yet another pointless battle of the wills? For me, the answer is no: I picked up on the tension between willfulness and religiosity in the first book, and by the end of the third felt like my head was being bludgeoned with it.

There were parts of the novel I did find beautiful and compelling. The last fifty pages, in which the black death arrives in Norway, fascinated me. (Some of you may already know about my weakness for plague narratives, and this was no exception, despite it being a vehicle for a final bout of melodrama.) For once, the upheaval is spread wide across the countryside, rather than festering silently in Kristin's heart, and I thought Undset did a good job imagining the effects of such a catastrophe on the rural medieval Norwegians.

Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time. No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone's memory - the way the coastline sinks away when a ship heads out to sea on a rushing wind. It was as if no living soul dared hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish.

Kristin is good in a crisis but bad - very bad - without one. She's what we moderns call a "drama queen": if there's no emergency, she'll create one. So it's understandable that Undset ends her protagonist's life in the midst of a genuine catastrophe. As Kristin herself lies dying, she even has a much looked-for (by me, at least) epiphany that she has loved her life, despite all her trials, and that she has not alienated herself from God after all:

It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her - and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy. She had been a servant of God - a stubborn, defiant maid, most often an eye-servant in her payers and unfaithful in her heart, indolent and neglectful, impatient toward admonishments, inconstant in her deeds. And yet He had held her firmly in His service, and under the glittering gold ring a mark had been secretly impressed upon her, showing that she was His servant, owned by the Lord and King who would now come, borne on the consecrated hands ot he priest, to give her release and salvation.

Despite my own agnosticism, I find this passage quite beautiful. It actually reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, although Woolf was obviously a much more secular, not to mention restrained and subtle, writer. I think a lot of its power comes from listing; I have trouble resisting a good rhetorical list.

But all in all, these last fifty pages were too little, too late. I am too far out of sympathy with Undset's apparent glorification of religious guilt to value slogging through hundreds upon hundreds of pages with a character as selfish and unlikeable as Kristin, particularly when any mitigating rewards - stimulating prose, original characterization, clever plot twists, HUMOR - are so conspicuously absent. I am bemused that a book which seemed to me so tiresome is, for other folks, so transformative...but that's the beauty of literature, isn't it? To each their own.

Check out others' final posts, and join us for Virginia Woolf in January and February! Much thanks to my reluctant co-host Richard for sticking by this lackluster choice of mine, and to all you other lovely readers who chimed in and made this a fun exercise.

  • Richard takes Undset to task for her lazy storytelling habits.

  • Amy found the repetition in the books annoying, but thought The Cross improved a bit after Erlend's death. She also writes movingly about her personal history with the trilogy.

  • Claire is equally unimpressed with The Cross as with the first two books, and is relieved to cross Undset off her list of Nobel winners to be read.

  • Gavin, despite having struggled with all the weeping in The Wife, gives the trilogy overall a fairly positive review, citing one of my own favorite passages from the plague section.

  • Jill theorizes about why the 1928 Nobel Committee might have awarded the prize to Undset, and concludes that it may have been the easiest choice politically.

  • Sarah likens getting to know Kristin to one of those sort-of-fun but totally out-to-lunch friends that you remember later with a rueful shake of your head.

  • Softdrink laments the totally unnecessary LENGTH of the trilogy, along with the angst and weeping.

  • Valerie sees both good and bad in Undset's trilogy, but thinks its epic length did nothing to improve its quality.

  • Wendy gives the trilogy as a whole a positive review, citing Undset's descriptions of the land, and the wealth of detail evoking 14th-century Norwegian life. (Also, because we were a bit out-of-step and I failed to post Wendy's first reviews, here are her thoughts on The Wreath and The Wife. Sorry about that, Wendy!)


  • Although I perfectly agree with much of what you say in this post, Emily, perhaps what I most agree with is that so much of the material in Kristin Lavransdatter seemed so "repetitive and/or uncompelling" to me as well. Given the big gap between what I saw as largely inept storytelling on Undset's part and what others have seen as a transformative reading experience, I'm really looking forward to seeing what other bloggers like Wendy actually liked about this work. Might be interesting! P.S. Undset's use of the plague as a backdrop for retro melodrama at the end of her trilogy, while not handled poorly in terms of the descriptive passages you cite, still seemed like kind of a cheap stunt to me. It's period-appropriate, sure, but it struck me as sort of like the equivalent of a 25th century writer writing about a 20th century tale and making the title character a suffering hero/heroine at Auschwitz or something. A little over the top in my opinion.

  • I am running my post tomorrow, and in it I discuss my theories about the Nobel Prize!

  • Richard: I can see that outlook on the plague section. For me, the inclusion of the plague as subject matter was one of the big reasons I picked up the book in the first place, so I've been looking forward to it for 1100 pages. So when it finally arrived I tended to be relieved. I wouldn't say it was the MOST interesting plague depiction I've read, but it's another one for the annals. :-)

    Rhapsody: I'll be interested to read your Nobel theories (and the rest of your post)!

  • I agree that there were stories within the story that I was really eager to invest myself in, but alas, Undset wasn't. Good review, thanks - really! - for suggesting the book. The lively conversation has been awesome. Not to rush to the next thing, but what would you recommend as a jumping off point to this Icelandic literature that you keep mentioning? Maybe something...short?! :)

  • Emily, I also liked the end/plague section a lot more than the rest of the book. I think that because of it I have forgiven Undset for being so repetitive and conventional, although not enough for me to love her, lol! I completely agree with you that if this had been a shorter work (probably a half or even a third of its size) that it would've been more remarkable. As it is, her constant pounding on us of the same things over and over was just awful. It was really fun reading everyone's thoughts, though, and I'm sure we'll all look back on this laughing, even maybe affectionately, just for the good times during the read-along. I'm exciiited to begin Woolf (heart pounding)!

  • My final thoughts go up tomorrow, and I also ranted about the unnecessary length of the novel. I can't believe people want to reread it! The thought is almost too much to bear. :-D

  • Undset finally broke me, I swear. I couldn't take it anymore. I haven't even finished The Wife.

  • Sarah: Indeed, Undset's priorities were not my own. As far as Icelandic sagas, my only exposure is The Sagas of Icelanders, which is a compendium edited by Jane Smiley. It is...not short. :-) But it's made up of lots of different sagas, and each individual one is a much more manageable size. I read it quite a while ago, but I remember really enjoying it.

    Claire: Yay, Woolf! :-) Yes, I think I would have felt even harsher toward Undset if it hadn't been for the plague section. As it is, I'm happy enough to put her aside and move on to other things!

  • Softdrink: I KNOW, RIGHT? One person said that if she hadn't lent out her copy to a friend, she would have started re-reading immediately. The mind reels.

    EL Fay: Totally understandable! I think The Wife is the direst row to hoe, anyway.

  • Well, I'm sorry to hear you didn't like it, and I am very curious about what my own response would be. I'd kind of like to read this book eventually, although I don't feel rushed about it. My husband has a copy I may borrow at some point. But will I find it transforming or frustrating -- I need to find out!

  • Congratulations on finishing the book! I made it to about 150 pages, but then lost interest. I still want to pick it up again at some point, but it is good to know that I'm not alone in finding this book nothing special.

  • Despite all the negative comments about this book, I have to say I'm very intrigued and will probably read it. I love historical fiction. And now I'm incredibly curious to see if I'm a like it or hate it reader.

  • Thanks for the recommendation Emily! That sounds manageable. It's going on the TBR list. :)

  • Well, now I'm sure I'll never read Kristin Lavransdatter! Your inclusion of the paragraph about Kristin's relationship to God, however, suggests an explanation for why my college professor and so many others have been enthralled with the trilogy. The theme is very moving, as you point out; for a person of faith it would probably provide that all important experience of "yes, that's me."

    I'm looking forward to Mrs. Dalloway, too!

  • I am glad that I read it although, as you know, I really hated it. The dullness, the piling on of seemingly irrelevant detail, the crying, the self-loathing ... Never been so glad to see someone succumb to the plague. Had the same feeling reading it that I did when reading The Pillars of the Earth - that I could edit this down by hundreds of pages. But like that book, as you most fairly point out, many people love Kristin. Now I need to find someone who would potentially love this book and give them mine. :)

  • I can't disagree with a thing you said. For me, the book improved after Erlend's death, and Kristin finally started to grow up a bit. From that point on, the book turned around for me. But I came to the reading with a bit of baggage, which I finally 'fessed up to in my post.

  • Rhapsody: Got it up! Thanks so much for reading along; I've really enjoyed reading your posts. :-)

    Dorothy: I would be SUPER curious to know what you thought. You read a lot of 18th and 19th century novels, and that era gave birth to the type of plot point that Richard and I both found so gratingly contrived in Undset. On the other hand, I wouldn't bat an eye if I found some of the same kinds of plot devices in Dickens or Fielding, just because I know ahead of time that's what I'm likely to find. On the other hand, the constant self-pity isn't something I'd ever be likely to forgive. Anyway, I have a hard time predicting how you'd like it, but I'd be curious to find out if you ever feel like braving the 1200 pages.

  • Jackie: You're definitely not alone. I think if the first 150 pages didn't do it for you, I wouldn't recommend soldiering on with the remaining 1000+. :-)

    Rebecca: I'd be really curious about your opinion. If you're predisposed to like historical fiction you might be inclined to give Undset a little more leeway than I was. And the polarized responses are intriguing, aren't they?

  • Sarah: I hope you enjoy the Icelanders, if/when you get around to them! Smiley also writes an interesting introduction, as I recall.

    Julia: Yes, I think if a person related to the portrayal of life as a constant struggle with religious guilt, and/or if they felt that religious guilt is ultimately a positive force in human lives, they would be MUCH more sympathetic to this novel than I was. I imagine that would be kind of a tipping point. I'm really glad you brought up your gung-ho college professor - that added an interesting element to the discussion.

  • Frances: Thanks for sticking it out despite your hatred of the book, lady! You and Richard were really good sports. I totally agree with the urge to attack the thing with a red pencil - where was the editor? Out to lunch? Anyway, at least now it's over! :-)

    Amy: Wow, your past with this trilogy must have made the re-read so poignant for you. I agree that the last 200 or so pages were definitely my favorite part (that, and the first 200 or so before Kristin meets Erlend). Thanks so much for reading along!

  • Emily, yeah, I was kind of sad. But I'm glad I did re-read it, and thanks for providing the impetus.

  • My post on book three (and general thoughts) went up this morning. Like you and many others, I felt there were good parts of the trilogy -- but that it really could have been shorter. I didn't pay attention to how much time in between original publication of the novels, but I wonder if the repetitiveness is more noticeable to us because we read it all within three months. Undset herself might not have realized that she was re-hashing things again and again!

  • Valerie: Amen, sister! I don't think anyone would have complained if Kristin had been shorter. And whether it was a time-between-publication issue or some other kind of obliviousness, Undset definitely needed a decent editor to take her firmly in hand. :-) Thanks for reading along, anyway!

  • Too bad about the book but thanks for saving me the trouble. : )

    I agree on the power of a list. Nice point.

    I've enjoyed catching up on all your posts, Emily. Thanks.

  • I had got a desire to make my firm, nevertheless I didn't have got enough amount of cash to do that. Thank heaven my fellow suggested to take the personal loans. Thus I took the short term loan and realized my old dream.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography