Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Agnes Magnusdottir’s Final Months

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

The inclusion of Agnes’ first person narration positions us to feel more sympathy for her.’ To what extent do you agree?

Hannah Kent’s speculative biography ‘Burial Rites’, tells the tragic story behind Agnes Magnusdottir’s final months of life. Throughout her novel, Kent presents a critical analysis of the patriarchal society of the 19th century Iceland which harshly judges and condemns those who are on the margins of life. As Kent masterfully entwines first and third person narratives, she portrays the ambiguous crime of one on the margins and asks readers to understand its ambivalence, in particular the objective truth behind the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonson.

Agnes’ yearning for love and acceptance, stemming from a life of abandonment and loss, fully exposes her to manipulation. Born an illegitimate child into a frigid world of cruel poverty, Agnes never truly experienced what love was. This made her highly susceptible to the false belief that any form of slight kindness would lead to an everlasting bond, hence the ambivalent and emotionally damaging relationship with Natan. Naked and cast out, Agnes becomes a victim of Natan’s paranoia. She is also a victim of the rivalry between Natan, Sigga and Fridrick. Naïve and unprepared, Agnes is completely disempowered and is unable to escape her extreme degradation. We are told that Natan is drawn to her because of her friendliness in the world. “He liked the fact that I was a bastard, a pauper, a servant”. He believes that she has become more resilient, having to fight for everything, but at the same time she becomes more vulnerable and easier to manipulate. Through Agnes’ narration, readers are exposed her first-hand experience, bringing us to the realisation that Natan “toys” with people, garnering a feeling of disgust and shame towards his character. Kent skilfully presents to us how Agnes’ lack of nurturing easily leads to her being duped into Natan’s psychological trap.

Agnes’ status as a woman in the patriarchal society of the 19th century Iceland strips her of her power and freedom, making her a victim of double standards and abuse. Kent highlights to readers that in this time period, men held absolute authority while women were confined to low-grade work and raising children. The patriarchal society condemns female promiscuity, labelling Agnes as a “whore” with “loose skirts”. Moreover, Agnes is subjected to additional oppression as her ambition and thirst for knowledge is considered “vulgar for a girl”. Her society did not look favourable upon women who deviated from their conventional roles as an obedient wife or daughter, leading to the commonly held belief that Agnes was a “bastard pauper with a conniving spirit” Kent censures the harsh judgemental view of women as the difference which stands at the core of the text. She invites us to sympathise with Agnes and see complexity rather than simplicity; to see hardship and to understand the reasons for her exclusion. She invites us also to censure the officials, the Commissioner, undermining their integrity by the suggestion that they are corrupt and biased towards Sigga.

Through Toti and Margret’s penetration of Agnes’ personal barriers, readers are exposed to a more distinct side of the story as Agnes herself unfolds the events of the murder. Kent’s use of first person narration highlights Agnes’ tragic past and the various struggles she has had to overcome, thereby encouraging readers to reject the view of her as a criminal and a murderess as inaccurate. That is, the poignant descriptions of Agnes’ constant contest with the harshness of her society make readers more susceptible to Kent’s portrayal of the murders at Illugastadir from Agnes’ point of view, as it encourages them to feel sympathetic towards her. Kent’s “stream of consciousness” style writing embodies her use of emotive and striking imagery to emphasise Agnes as being “run through and through with disaster”. When Agnes tells Toti and Margret her story, it feels like as if she is also speaking to the readers, and as a result, the rushed and panicked style of Kent’s writing is to invoke empathy in the readers, thereby making them more likely to feel as though the death sentence was an unfair punishment, considering what is revealed through Agnes’ recollections of the events at Illugastadir. She admits at the end to Margret that she does, in fact, cast the final blow in Natan’s murder, but only to prevent him from further suffering. Furthermore, readers are encouraged to believe this version of the events rather than the officials’ retelling as the first-person narration gives readers a sense that they are receiving a more accurate account of the events, given that Agnes personally experienced them. As a result, they are prompted to question the commonly held belief that Agnes is a witch and murderer, as it may not be an accurate portrayal of who she is.

Contrastingly, Kent’s use of third-person narrative exposes readers the omniscient point of view rather than just from Agnes’ perspective. It is never made clear whether or not Agnes is telling the absolute truth, but readers can only be made to assume that her story is more complex and subjective than that of the stereotypical belief. The author presents the opinion that the State and government officials’ demonising of Agnes based upon her status as a woman is biased and unfair, and suggests that this approach leads to unreasonable judgement of individuals. She exemplifies this through the intransigence of District Commissioner Blondal. His letters which outline his position on the Illugastadir are presented with the intentions “to execute the Illugastadir murderes” ,highlighting that Agnes was doomed to execution from the start. The officials were highly unlikely to change their position to take into consideration the mercy aspect of the crime. There is never a single side to the story, which the multiple narration all adds to the ambiguous elements to the novel, and hence may cause divided opinions and feelings about Agnes.

Kent, through her personalised portrayal of the life of Agnes Magnusdottir, demonstrates to her readers that there is more to the story than the eye can see. Therefore, the use of Agnes’ first-person narration heavily impacted upon the reader interpretation, drawing sympathetic views on the more deep emotional level of the crime.


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