Sigrid Undset and the Hard Case of Ida Elisabeth

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One of the most painful things in art is realism. Grotesquerie, exaggeration, wish fulfillment, romance: all of these allow a generalization of human behavior that may portray some truth, but they don’t cut to the bone in the same way that a stark portrayal of real, honest, human behavior does.

And that’s why reading Sigrid Undset hurts. Somehow, she has that rare ability to capture the essence of humanity on paper. Turning the pages of her books flenses away the protective layers of the psyche as the behavior of her characters holds up a mirror to our own faults, fears, hopes, and dreams. Reading her magnum opus Kristin Lavransdatter may leave the reader feeling as if he or she needs to stop every few pages just to calm one’s nerves.

Ida ElisabethIda Elizabeth is no different. Emotions will be triggered and tears may flow: from sadness during tragedy, from frustration in witnessing the destructive power of stubborn pride, and in watching the evaporation of ephemeral dreams that can never be.

Unlike many of Undset’s other works, Ida Elisabeth is set in the modern day: 1930s Norway. And it is because of this modern setting that Undset is able to give glimpses into distinctly modern views on marriage, society, death and life.

Much what the Church teaches on marriage today is not so much under attack as it is ignored and untaught. I can remember when my wife and I went through pre-Cana, the mandatory teaching session required by the Catholic Church before marriage, it was clear that perhaps two other couples in the group of twenty had a grasp on what marriage really is. And much of the presentation on marriage at the session tended to show Church teaching on marriage filtered through pop psychology: Catholic couples tend to be happier! According to this study, married couples who practice their religion have better sex lives! Have you heard of Natural Family Planning? It will improve your intimacy and communication, and make your marriage stronger!

What this approach tends to sidestep is that the modern understanding of marriage—that it is the formalization of a romantic commitment, nothing more and nothing less—has come into being via a steady erosion of ideals, made possible by focusing on hard cases. What about a marriage that is desperately unhappy? What about a case where the husband is unfaithful? What do we say about marriage then? It’s then that the pop psychology turns up empty and mercy seems far out of reach…. CONTINUE READING

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