Monday, April 16, 2012


I have written here on several occasions over the years about Sigrid Undset's epic saga of 14th-centuey Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter. Not so long ago I mentioned it as my favorite novel.

Faithful commentator Paul told us the other day that he has now read the whole 1144-page trilogy and offered this appraisal:
It certainly is a compelling portrait of 14th century Norway, well written/translated, sensitively drawn in terms of human aspirations/conflicts, as well as in terms of the natural world.

BUT the moral framework is almost entirely structured in the 'narrow' terms of Catholic dogma and its dreary world view with its god-drenched preoccupation with sin, guilt, need for redemption, its suppression of natural human impulses. It's a great story/saga but it's seen through such a narrow Catholic lens that I would not call it one of the greatest novels.

What is it then that for me does make say Crime and Punishment a truly great novel? Raskolnikov's crime and his redemption explore moral themes that are universal and 'philosophical' in nature -- themes explored in such a way that they are not confined to the trappings of any one tradition. Raskolnikov's sense of guilt and his resignation to his punishment stem much more from his natural conscience than from the dictates of any law of man or dreary Catholic God. Again his redemption and moral regeneration begin, not by offering himself up to the 'will' of some jealous God, but under faithful (flesh and blood) Sonya's loving influence.
My first response is, yes, of course, Undset's story is told through a Catholic lens. She is, after all, writing about 14th-century Norway. Anything else would be an anachronism. People in that time and place lived in fear of elf maidens and vengeful gods, including that new fearsome and demanding Christian God from the south who spied out every sin and promised terrible retribution

But Paul's comments raise a larger question.

The human drama is inevitably reflected through a cultural lens, be it that of 14th-century Norway or 19th-century Russia. Cultures vary -- Kristin's understanding of Christianity is certainly different than Raskolnikov's -- but human nature is pretty much constant, at least over intervals of mere hundreds of years; let's call it, as Paul does, "natural conscience." Feelings of guilt and longing for redemption may be as much a part of our biological DNA as bilateral symmetry. We can be sure, however, that Kristin would be troubled enough of conscience -- her adulterous affair, her defiance of parent, her complicity in the death of her lover's wife -- with or without the assumed existence of her "dreary Catholic God." And who's to say that Raskolnikov's nagging remorse is not stoked at least in part by the Christian culture of which he is a rebellious part? A jealous divinity, family shame, class consciousness, intellectual hubris: These are cultural contexts. The great dramas of men and women making their way in the world are universal. In God's presumed presence or absence, Kristin and Raskolnikov wrestle with their respective passions. And Kristin's Simon and Raskolnikov's Sonya proffer redemption through the gift of unearned love.

Kristin's story touched me more deeply than Raskolnikov's no doubt because I share more of her cultural premises, not because Undset's book is somehow objectively greater than Dostoevsky's. I can understand how another person might prefer the latter.