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.
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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. […]