The Question of Control: Burial Rites, and the Themes of Gender and Society   

Hannah Kent’s award winning Australian novel Burial Rites illustrates the remaining days of the last woman executed in Iceland; Agnes Magnúsdóttir. In an interview conducted by the Guardian, Kent stated that she first learnt of Agnes’ story through a university exchange program to Iceland. “I first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir when I was an exchange student in the north of Iceland.” (Kent). Throughout the interview, there is a distinct emphasis on the sense of boredom and loneliness she felt during her trip which, Kent claims, spurred her interest in the woman’s story. Through the creation of a speculative biography which carefully weaves historical events with emotion, Burial Rites presents an ambiguous perspective of Agnes’ life and resolves the feeling of seclusion illustrated in the historic depiction of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. There are, however, blatant similarities, in my opinion, between these prominent female influences in their character, age, gender and environment. Kent’s chosen manner of portrayal, such as: the inclusion of interior monologues and formation of a heightened or supplemented reality in which Agnes is central, has given context and a voice to her characters. A lack of control is, however, exhibited through Kent’s characters in their interactions with Icelandic social mores and the restrictions placed upon them by their gender, social stature, relationships, and even emotions.

The classification of female and male often strays from simply biological features but includes gender as well. Australian sociologist, Dr Zuleyka Zevallos, defines gender as “a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities.”- (Zevallos). Through many of her academic publications, Zevallos describes the ways which cultural bias, stereotypes and historical influencers have created the ‘idealistic’ woman and a world which worships societal correctness and isolates those who do not conform to it. Women, therefore, lack control over their behaviour or actions in that they are forced to demonstrate specific attitudes because of their fear of being unaccepted. For example: Sigga was freed because she conformed to the traditional Icelandic archetype of a woman. She was rather feeble, quiet, submissive even appeasing, characteristics which are not apparent in other female characters such as Agnes (who was condemned and executed). In the novel, the differences in these women are alluded to in the quote, “A lot of people Vatnsnes way hope Sigga will receive a pardon from the King. Too young and sweet to die.” The man pulled a face. “Not like this one. She has a right temper when she fancies.”- page 41.

Burial Rites explores the influence and bearing of status in the functionality of society. Characters such as the District Commissioner; Björn Blöndal exercise a robust sense of authority because of a high social ranking and income. It is evident that Iceland in the 1800’s, similarly to the modern world, favoured wealth and prestige over wisdom or kindness such as that presented by the family of Kornsá. Blöndal’s sovereignty (coming as it does from the King of Denmark, as, demonstrated through the letters between them which discuss Agnes’ execution and Blöndal’s use of the phrase, “I am, Your Excellency, your most humble and obedient servant.’-page 86) is shown throughout the first chapter, particularly when he visits Jón’s small croft and meets Steina and Lauga; Jon’s daughters. His attitudes, behaviour and mannerisms are all suggestive of his superiority. This is demonstrated through instances such as Blöndal’s refusal to accept food from Steina, perhaps, due to the dirt on her clothes, face and hands. ‘He sniffed the skyr appraisingly, then looked up at the two sisters.’-page 15. As well as his gravely condescending and taunting response when he perceives that Steina address him in a considerably insolent manner when explained his decision to inflict Agnes with in their home. His response, shown on page 17, exemplifies the true sense of societal disparity between these characters, “I have no choice,” he said, his voice suddenly low and dangerous. “Your father’s title comes with responsibility. I’m sure he would not question me.”- page 17. Steina, Lauga and furthermore the family of Kornsá, therefore, lack the same form of control as Blöndal in their inability to prevent the imposition of Agnes Magnúsdóttir upon their household.

The rigid ethical restrictions of 18th century Iceland prevented Agnes from attaining social acceptance. Her inability to conform to the Icelandic epitome of the ‘perfect’ woman, created a sense of exclusion. It, however, gave Agnes an opportunity to emancipate herself from societal expectation, as, she did not allow the Icelandic stereotypes to restrain or dictate the woman she was. This form of freedom forced her to sacrifice the respect of others as shown through Natan’s insinuation on page 219, “Agnes. You pretend you don’t understand me, but you do. We’re the same kind.” He suggests that there are many similarities in their character, despite, the common conception that he was rebellious in terms of his unprincipled behaviour toward women and disregard of Christianity, as shown on page 219, “It’s a lie. Man has created God out of fear of dying.” The respective households of Natan, Jón and Margrét exhibit a domestic hierarchy in which there is a distinct order within the household. Initially this could deem to be an injustice to Agnes, in that she was spending her final days serving others, however, it ultimately gave her an opportunity to form an understanding and trusting relationship with Margrét. This type of association is not only shown through Agnes’ confession on pages 268 onwards, but, the delivery of Roslin’s baby and the description of the Kornsá women, including Agnes, cooking and preparing the lamb. The description of both these events, specifically the narrative on page 204, emphasises the care, precision, experience and knowledge Agnes possesses. “When Lauga has finished strained the blood I stir in the rest of the suet and the rye flour, and I suggest we stir in some lichen as well, as we used to do as Geitaskard.”-page 204.

The ultimate deaths of Margrét and Natan illustrate the little influence which the characters in this novel have over the direction of their fate. The deaths of these characters and eventually all the characters with in the novel, exemplifies the constraints and pressure which time prompts because as it passes it draws each one closer to their deaths. In the first chapter Margrét speaks briefly of her desire to own more cattle and the ways which it could improve her family’s welfare, “Another cow would be nice though. The extra butter. We could afford another hand for harvest.”-page 20. Jón, her husband, suggests that with time and patience they would acquire everything they yearned for, however, his wife’s retort, “In good time I’ll be dead.”-page 20, shows her bitterness and acknowledgement towards her illness and its bearing on the duration her life. The described recollections to the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson by Agnes from pages 238 onwards, depict Natan as an extremely private person who, though primarily prioritising his independence, also precedents the protection of his wealth and property.

Natan was, therefore, an extremely possessive person who enjoyed exerting dominance over feeble characters, from a social aspect, such as Sigga or Fridrik. In instances such as: his refusal to allow the two to marry and his gravely discordant sexual relationship with Sigga. This is shown in the quote, ‘He said that he had known Sigga had been carrying on with Fridrik behind his back, but he did not think it would lead to this.’- page 277. Natan was, however, unable to determine who would have possession of what he owned because this responsibility had been allocated to the District Commissioner, who held an extremely unemotional viewpoint of the debacle. This is exhibited through the public notice on page 3, which suggests that an auction would be held to sell the items which ‘the farmer Natan Ketilsson has left behind’ – page 3. Natan’s ill-treatment and disrespect toward Agnes is unable to end the infatuation and love which she has for him; she is unable to control her feelings. Their argument prior to Natan’s death described on pages 287 onwards, truly alluded to the differences in their commitment to their relationship, predominantly through the quote, “And do you think I love you?” Natan shook his head. “You Agnes?” He narrowed his eyes and stood up, his breath hot in my face. “You’re a cheap sort of woman. I was wrong about you.”-page 288. Agnes’ overwhelming feelings of seclusion (which stemmed from her adolescence) perhaps, caused her manic obsession to latch on to the last form of security she knew; Natan. Her love for him was so great that it became unbearable to accompany him the night of his death and she was forced to stab his stomach. Kent regards Agnes’ fixation on Natan through an interior monologue on page 81, “A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”. She suggests that, regardless, of his actions and criticism Agnes would continue to seek Natan’s acceptance or forgiveness and only blame herself. ‘I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude-he regarded me clearly. It seemed like forgiveness.’-page 303.

Agnes’ misconceptions of Natan’s behaviour and affections provoked the formation of arbitrary expectations of him. PsyBlog’s article titled, ‘How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us’ describes the ways which expectations change people. Agnes and Natan’s failure to understand each other’s character caused the development of irrational expectations which initiated and influenced a difference in their behaviour and interactions with other characters and one another. ‘The effect may be subtle, but it’s a powerful realisation that other people’s behaviour is partly derived from how we view them, just as our behaviour is partly derived from how others view us.’- (“How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us – Psyblog”). For example: when introduced to Poet Rósa, Natan’s former partner, he introduces Agnes as his mere servant through the quote, “Rósa, Agnes is my servant.”- page 250. Though the reader is not informed of any sadness or irritation which Agnes had felt through this introduction, she seemingly expects Natan to inform people of their relationship, as, shown through the quote, “What have you told her about us?” I whispered to Natan. “I haven’t told Rósa anything.”-page 251. Agnes had also anticipated that she would have the position of housekeeper in Natan’s household in Illugastadir because of Natan request that she live with him whilst fulfilling this role. She, hence, formed to expectation to receive this role upon her arrival, yet, she did not consider that Natan had lied or manipulated her into moving closer to him because she intrigued and sexually appeased him. “I thought that perhaps Natan has asked her [Sigga] to be his housemistress until I arrived, or perhaps she was a liar. I didn’t think that Natan would lie to me.”- page 228. Kent’s portrayal of Agnes’ Magnúsdóttir’s life is indicative of an unintentionally formed emotional and empathetic connection to the Agnes portrayed within the historical documents.

Kent felt an obligation to suggest a contrary perspective of Agnes’s life, however, she chose to do so in a manner that gave liberty to her characters and did not dictate their lives in a mostly predictable way. This was shown through the prominence of the theme female oppression, the social hypocrisy stemming from Kent’s portrayal of the King of Denmark’s role, the deaths of characters such as Natan who enjoyed exerting influence over more feeble and soft hearted characters as well as the expectations and relationship between Natan and Agnes. Kent’s novel truly exhibits the ways which we lack control in our lives and how we embrace delusional concepts which supposedly exhibit control such as: independence, power, wealth or knowledge. Her pursuit to provide a contrary portrayal and challenge the previous assumptions of Agnes’ character and life has allowed Kent to remind the modern world of the lie which is control. That, through death, each of us, are forced to surrender all forms of it.

References “Face the Facts: Gender Equality | Australian Human Rights Commission”. Humanrights.gov.au. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. Hajra, Wardah. “Top 10 Reasons Why Women Are Better Than Men”. WondersList. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. “How Other People’s Unspoken Expectations Control Us – Psyblog”. PsyBlog. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. McGirr, Reviewed. “Burial Rites Review | Prejudice Melts Away in A Frigid Landscape”. The Sydney Morning Herald. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. Moss, Sarah. “Burial Rites by Hannah Kent – Review”. the Guardian. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. Report, Gulf. “Women in UAE Rise Above Gender Bias”. GulfNews. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. “Sociology of Gender”. The Other Sociologist. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

Setting, Character, and Turmoil in Burial Rites

Hannah Kent’s novel Burial Rites explores how the turbulent setting of 19th century Iceland in turn reflects the turmoil experienced by key characters in the narrative to a large extent. Kent’s juxtaposition of brutal, frosty winters with bountiful, brilliant summers and springs alongside foreboding, dubious autumns represents the dynamic and ever-changing agitation and tumult that characters such as Reverend Toti and Margret undergo through their interaction with Agnes Magnusdottir, a criminal convicted of murder. Agnes’ inner turmoil too is reflected in setting. The rustic yet callous Icelandic environment deeply mirrors Reverend Toti’s confusion and uncertainty as he matures from a young, naïve boy into a true man of honour.

Initially, when Toti sets out to meet Agnes at Kornsa, he feels confident and is determined to save Agnes. The setting around him is pleasant, as “the clouds began to clear” and the “soft red light of the late Jun sun flooded the pass.” Kent’s lyrical description of the weather emulates Toti’s buoyant emotional state, which is one of courage and certainty. In contrast, when he leaves Kornsa, discourages from and disappointed with his meeting with Agnes, “rain began to fall and the gale grew stronger”, with the light “fast disappearing”. The fierce gale, coupled with the disappearance of light, seems to mock Toti’s earlier confidence of meeting Agnes. The second stage of Toti’s transformation against setting is his meeting with District Commissioner Blondal. At this point, Toti has created a meaningful connection with Agnes and is slowly maturing, a connection of amity. As Toti is exposed to a portrayal of Agnes full of malice and rancour from Blondal, Toti is momentarily disarmed. As he leaves Blondal’s office and steps outside, the landscape has grown “cloudy and dim”, like Toti’s perception of Agnes. Toti confirms that the landscape too is “sympathetic to his confusion”. Kent here reiterates Toti’s disturbance at a different display of Agnes and his disorientation as to whether to continue to support Agnes. Towards the end of Agnes’ life, Toti’s metamorphosis is completed on a bitterly cold January day.

Toti, ill with fever, receives word that Agnes will die in six days’ time. Determined, he dresses himself and refutes his father’s pleas for sanity, as it is “snowing outside”. Reverend Jon urges his son not to kill himself for “the sake of this murderess”, as the “cold will kill you”. Toti, however, stands up to his father, as Kent shows the final transformation of Toti into a young man, who knows his duty and need to be with Agnes. Agnes’ turmoil is echoed through the strong superstition she carries against the backdrop of the forceful Lutheran Church. Agnes’ search for love and warmth in her otherwise bleak life often results in her turning away from the Church. This is because of her illegitimacy, which is deemed sinful, wrong and consequently attracts stigma. Agnes’ life is rooted in superstition, stemming from her early abandonment as a child, seen in Agnes’ startling reverence for ravens, “Cruel birds, ravens, but wise.” Agnes shuns religion in favour of superstition and sagas, “I prefer a story to a prayer”, since it provides comfort and contentment that religion could never give her and believes she doesn’t deserve.

However, Agnes’ reclusion from religion and society serves to decrease her reputation in the North Icelandic community. To combat this, Agnes goes to church with her fellow farmhands and work maids. However, this is only done for Agnes’ need to be “part of something” and churchgoing causes her to feel “pure”. Margret, mistress of Kornsa, also experiences uncertainty through her relationship with Agnes. When Agnes first arrives at Kornsa, Margret is angry and sceptical towards Agnes and her upcoming stay. The “bare” environment seen at Kornsa mirrors Margret’s attitude to Agnes, bare and lacking warmth and welcome. However, on the day of Agnes’ execution, Margret transforms fully. Kent paints a scene buoyant with grief and loss at Agnes’ approaching death with clouds that “hang like dead bodies”. Against this setting, Margret weeps with emotion and agitation at Agnes’ departure and repeats the words, “my girl. My girl”, cementing the connection between them, that of mother and daughter. This scene also represents Margret’s journey from narrow-minded darkness into understanding and ultimately true love for Agnes.

The brutal 19th century Icelandic setting and context is utilised by Kent in order to best reflect the uncertainty, confusion and disturbance felt by key characters. Reverend Toti’s and Margret’s disturbance and uncertainty is imitated in the dynamic Icelandic weather, while Agnes’ incompatibility with society is emulated in the intrinsic superstition rooted in Icelandic culture parallel to the Lutheran Church.