The Protagonist’s Journey to Self-Acceptance in Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

“Deep down even the most hardened criminal is starving for the same thing that motivates the innocent baby: Love and acceptance.” — Lily Fairchilde

It after reading this statement, that I was fully immersed into perceiving Australian author, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, through the lens of humankind’s universal need for acceptance. Published in 2013 and set in 1820s Iceland, Kent’s novel tracks the journey of her protagonist Agnes Magnúsdóttir, from rejection to finding acceptance from others and ultimately herself. Presented through literary devices such as symbolism and analogy, the Icelandic culture and movement through the landscape mimics Agnes’ journey to redemption. Set in a faraway time and place, Burial Rites is surprisingly relatable in that it “draws close to the bones and sinews of human experience” (McGirr). As a young person living in a modern world, it is interesting to focus on such a concept, where we as a modern society are still searching for acceptance ourselves. Kent’s protagonist is exposed to social rejection from early childhood, derived from her mother’s status and identity, Agnes eventually becoming ultimately rejected by those she loves the most, and the climax of the lowest point in her life. Through the family at Kornsá, Agnes is slowly exposed to acceptance, leading to the final point in her journey, self-acceptance. Kent’s novel resonates with me due to its ideology that in order for society to accept someone for who they are, one must fully accept themselves. It is through this concept that Kent presents the bridges between 1820s Iceland and our 21st century modern society. Kent’s novel conveys the basic human necessity of cooperative grouping and the need to belong and be accepted into said groupings; such as a society. Agnes’ rejection by the Icelandic society is based on Agnes’ class, gender and sexuality, causing me to contemplate whether my own society holds similar cruxes regarding acceptance.

When considering statements such as; “she’s a landless workmaid raised on a porridge of moss and poverty” (52) and “remember your place Agnes!” (263), it is clear that Agnes’ position in society is biased from her birth. A clear example of this stigma is Margrét’s use of the powerful and condemning analogy, “no doves come from ravens eggs” (117). This “social rejection consequently, thwarts the fundamental need for positive and lasting relationships, which strikes at the core of well-being” (DeWall & Bushman, 256). Agnes’ rejection from society is prominent since birth and is clearly reflected through her movement throughout the landscape at a young age. Her family is forced to travel constantly, and her mother Ingveldur is accustomed to “let[ting] a farmer up under [her] skirts” (178) in search of work and shelter. The Icelandic society see the former sexual activity and homelessness of Ingveldur as a self-driven choice rather than a need for survival. Their lack of established housing and position separates them from society’s expectation of domestic women and children, relegating them to the fringe of society – literally and figuratively. The belief that one’s identity and values are determined by their status and material wealth is one that I continue to observe in my own society. No matter the objective, greater acceptance is given to those, not necessarily with better values and notions but those of wealth and arbitrary concepts such as birth rights. It is Kent’s address to this belief of defining acceptance that allowed me to associate myself with the struggles of Agnes’ journey to acceptance.

Agnes’ desperation to flee from the abhors and unaccepting eye of society leads her to impetuously take the first opportunity to isolate herself; Natan, who “would haul [her] out of the valley, out of the husk of [her] miserable, loveless life…and give her the springtime” (222). Natan’s characterisation as an immediately accepting fellow rejected member of society, provides the base for Kent to construct Agnes’ final step towards complete physical separation. Kent depicts this mental isolation once again by Agnes’ location. Situating Natan’s farm in Illugastadir, on the remote coastline of north-western Iceland as opposed to her former, more central placements in Búrfell and Geitaskard. In the “claustrophobic puritanical society” (Singh) that dominated Iceland in the eighteen twenties, one who did not engage in Christianity was polarised. Natan’s lack of religious involvement, and Agnes’ involvement with Natan, results in not only an amplification in her social separation, but also a reputation as evil and suspicious of sorcery; a perspective common to traditional texts regarding Agnes and the murders such as; Enginn Má Undan Líta (No may be Lithe) by Guðlaugur Guðmundsson and Dauða Natans Ketilssonar (Death of Natan Kettilsson) by Gunnar S. Þorleifsson. When considering leaving Illugastadir after seeing Natan “draw back the covers of Sigga’s bed” (264), Natan’s rejection of Agnes in preference of Sigga, allows her to realise that she has trapped herself in her own isolation. Kent’s implication of imagery depicts the toxicity of her relationship with Natan through the unknown “outlying tongues of rock” that “[scar] the perfect kiss of sea and sky” (265).

The personification of landscape, depicts the impossible navigation and hostility of Natan, suggesting that Agnes’ own isolation has worked against her; “there [is] no one and nothing else. There [is] nowhere else to go” (265). Kent applies dialogue to form the lowest point in Agnes’ journey. Natan calls Agnes “a nag” (287) and asks her “do you think I love you?… You’re a cheap sort of woman” (288), forcing her to “get out!” (288). For Agnes to be outcast by an outcast himself, presented me with one of humankind’s most detrimental and damaging moments. Agnes ultimate rejection prompted me to consider those on the fringe of my society and the reasons behind their circumstances. Whether it is faith, financial status or family name, it is society’s conventional belief that forces those who do not conform to languish in unacceptance.

Kent gradually forms acceptance between her protagonist and the women at Kornsá through their surrounding environment to depict Agnes’ rise to acceptance.

Established through Agnes’ symbolic movement from the periphery of the north-western region of Iceland to centrally situated Kornsá – where she is held until her execution. Similarly to how Agnes’ physical location denotes her rejection, Kent depicts the controlling landscape by constructing her characters “at the whim of nature and it rears itself up as majestic, cruel and at times anthropomorphised” (Laui). Employing zoomorphism, especially in Agnes, in order to do so; “[her] arms are tethered in front of [her]…tied like a lamb for slaughter” (35-36), she is led “like a cow” (36) and she wonders if they will “cellar her…like smoked meat” (36). Kent employs figurative language to depict setting and “communicate a deeper meaning for the audience to decipher” (Singh). Such as the harsh weather of winter to ultimately create an isolated environment that forces the characters together. Consequently, each character bonds over unexpected similarities that the family have with Agnes. Although initially reluctant, both Margrét and Agnes find mutual respect in each other’s hardships and strong work ethic. They find common ground and ironically, comfort in that they are “two dying women” (269). It is this process of finding similarity that binds humanity together, a psychological manifestation that is still a predominant factor in the structure of society. When contemplating her approach towards Agnes, Margrét refers to the sagas, realising that “the only murderesses Margrét had known were the women in the sagas, and even then, it was with words that they had killed men; orders given to servants to slay lovers or avenge the death of kin…But these times are not saga times…this woman was not a saga woman” (52). Margrét’s confirmation that Agnes is “not a saga woman” (52) suggests that although the narratives are prominent in Icelandic culture, one’s life is not a story written from one perspective, recognising that she has judged Agnes before knowing her individual context motives and situations. Allowing Margrét to sympathise and demonstrate acceptance towards Agnes, establishes trust and instigates the revelation of the true events of the murders. Kent’s establishment of the bond between Steina and Agnes occurs before they meet. She is the first to hear and deliver the news of Agnes’ lodging and is the only one who remembers meeting Agnes on the road, recalling when she “plaited [her] sister’s hair and gave [them] an egg each” (77). After recollecting their meeting, the wind picks up and dissolves the grey ash on Agnes’ dress.

Agnes sees this as a sign and wonders if it is “happiness, this feeling against [her] chest” (78). Kent applies her strong sense of symbolism and constructs the landscape to “dissolve” the “grey flakes” (78); referring to her sorrow and allowing Steina to reorient Agnes with a notion of acceptance and happiness. She almost immediately warms to Agnes, and feels a connection towards her, as she feels separate and misunderstood for her alternative way of perceiving situations. Steina is assumed to “making up stories” and Margrét worries as “she smiles at Agnes” (117). Subsequently, Steina’s relationship with the protagonist becomes pivotal in Agnes’ rise from her social rejection. Furthermore, Kent’s construction of Steina’s name is significant, translating from Nordic as ‘a small piece of stone’. Iceland has a tradition of creating stacks of stones, or cairns, that act as route-markers or beacons. Cairns were also used to mark burial mounts and were an emblem of good luck upon one’s journey. Steina represents a beacon or marker on Agnes’ road to acceptance. Nearing her execution, Margrét “passes [Agnes’] hands on to Steina, as though [she] is a token, or a piece of bread and they are all taking communion of [her]” (324). A key point of acceptance is symbolised here; “communion” referring to the family’s personal acceptance of Agnes and the significance of their acceptance through the reference of their religion. The author’s development of the family’s gradual acceptance, influenced my contemplation of whether the community of Kornsá has already subconsciously accepted Agnes. Common ground, significant connections, and consequently, a non-judgemental stance towards Agnes, and ultimately anyone, is fundamental to bringing acceptance to any society.

With partial acceptance found through the women at Kornsá, Kent presents the final step in her protagonist’s journey – self-acceptance. When “self-accepting, [one is] able to embrace all facets of [themselves] – not just the positive… [and] can recognize [one’s] weaknesses or limitations (F. Seltzer). Kent symbolises this notion through Agnes’ need to accept that fact that, no matter the intention, she did murder Natan. This final act of self-acceptance is verbalised by Agnes when she states that “they’re going to kill me” (324). Kent implements imagery to expose Agnes’ fear; “[Tóti] reached across to put his hand on [Agnes’] leg. As he did, he smelt the hot stench of urine.

Agnes looks at him eyes wide. Her mouth was chattering uncontrollably” (325). The stark difference between Agnes’ uncovered fear compared to her usual collected manner, influence me to relate to the physical and mental impact that fear can have. Thus, to be able to accept one’s own fears and present them is key to self-acceptance. Agnes’ completion of her journey to acceptance was also aided by her self-empowerment, presented through the stone spitting scene. The stone holds strong significance for Agnes and symbolises not only her strong physical and spiritual connection to her environment but also her relationship with her mother. previously, Agnes recalls arriving at Kornsá, her mother “press[ing] a stone into [her] mitten and [leaving] with Jóas on her back” (122). The stone never worked, and although it holds such traumatic memories, Agnes keeps the stone until it is taken away from her at her arrest. The stone’s lack of utility presented me with a perspective of Ingveldur through the lens of an older Agnes. That is; a mother who failed at raising her daughter. Agnes’ choice to keep the stone symbolises the value she places on family, acceptance and forgiveness. On the way to her execution Agnes is “crying and [her] mouth is open and filled with something, it is choking [her] and [she] spit[s] it out. On the ground is a stone, and [she] look[s] back at Margrét, and see[s] that she did not notice. “The stone was in my mouth,” [she] say[s]” (324). Kent’s successful use of symbolism allowed myself to interpret this as Agnes’ completion of using the stone as an aid to accept herself, concluding her journey to true acceptance. Living in a society where one is thought to be defined by a number of ‘likes’ and ‘follows’, I can associate myself with the lack of attention placed on self-acceptance. It is this importance of accepting one’s own actions and repercussions, that allows Kent to present the conclusion of Agnes’ journey to true acceptance.

Hannah Kent’s 2013 historical fiction novel, Burial Rites presents the value of an underrepresented primary human need such as acceptance. Set in a completely different world to my own, Kent’s symbolic construction of her historical fiction novel, Burial Rites, presents the cruxes and values surrounding the ideology of acceptance that are still existent. Her application of elements of the natural Icelandic culture and landscape, and a posthumous perspective, allows her to present Agnes’ peregrination to complete acceptance. Through the construction of character relationships and movement through the landscape, Agnes’ journey, consist of four stages, beginning with her immediate consistent exposure to immense societal and parental rejection and ending with the building of Agnes’ own self-forgiveness. When observing through the lens of acceptance, I was influenced to relate to factors of the novel’s societal structure, subsequently contemplating the value of acceptance in my own.

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