Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

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“To Geraldine Brooks, for your sage observations and mentorship – thank you so much.”

The “boundary stone” that confines and liberates,  by Dr Jennifer Minter

“Geraldine Brooks agreed to mentor me, and thanks to her sound and generous advice I was able to continue modifying and polishing a few more drafts until I was ready for others to read it”.

Indeed, a comparison between Geraldine Brook’s Year of Wonders and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is instructive and informative.

Their respective heroines, Agnes Magnusdottir and Anna Frith, struggle against a patriarchal system that seeks to imprison them.

Anna Frith’s (YW) view of the world is metaphorically represented by the “boundary stone” as a marker of the limits of her social and physical environment. She had never crossed the stone. The boundary stone symbolises her introverted, restricted and confined life and view of the world which is limited to her status as an inexperienced, illiterate, and dependent servant. Her whole world was restricted to a “wide green prison”.

Likewise, Agnes has very little power and is subjected to patriarchal double standards, manipulation and abuse. Clearly, men hold ultimate authority, and their authority is unparalleled and unquestioned:  “Men might do as they please… naming everything under the Sun”. Women were virtually reduced to objects for men to claim and “name”, and were confined to menial chores and child rearing, scaling the social hierarchy only through marriage.

The theme of male sexual dominance is frequently revisited throughout the novel from the multiple times Agnes is raped and harassed by men, to the way in which the community abhors female promiscuity, branding Agnes a “whore” with “loose skirts” and ostracizing her mother. Meanwhile, the sexual transgressions of Natan are dismissed; though he is known to be a womanizer, he is merely described as “indiscreet”.

Natan’s slap, reminding Agnes to “remember your place” is a literal and metaphorical reflection of patriarchal power. Angered by her attempt to question his control and dominance, Natan reminds Agnes that  “no one is out to get you … You’re not as important as that”. (263)

The patriarchal and intransigent view of the murderess is clear in the bookended letters from the District Commissioner for Hunavatn (Bjorn Blondal) . The “Illugastadir murders, committed last year, have in their heinousness emblematised the corruption and ungodliness of this county … “I cannot abide societal waywardness and, after the anticipated authorisation from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, I intend to execute the Illugastadir murderers”.

Though this treatment extends to all female members of society within those times, Agnes suffers additional oppression because of her illegitimate status. Agnes’ outstanding ambition and thirst for knowledge were considered “vulgar for a girl”, and did not bide well with others. Her foster father “[whipped] the learning] out of her.  Dagga peddles the commonly held belief that Agnes is selfish; she “never cared about anyone but herself. She was always fixed on bettering herself. Wanted to get above her station… Bastard pauper with a conniving spirit”.

Society as a whole did not look favourably upon women who were “too clever”, who deviated from their conventional roles as an obedient wife or daughter. The general view on women is encapsulated in the phrase “if you aren’t an angel, then you must be a demon.”

Although Blondal can be seen as a pragmatic and efficient administrator by those of higher titles in Denmark, his character ultimately represents the lack of compassion and enforcement of true justice because of his political agenda.

This notion is perfectly demonstrated in a comparison of the treatment of Agnes and Sigga, the latter embodying the values of the ideal woman of the time. Whilst the suspicion people direct towards “bloody, knowing Agnes” results in them eagerly framing her as an “inhumane witch”, orchestrating a “coldblooded murder” on “defenceless men”, they are equally quick to grant an appeal for “dumb, pretty” Sigga, too young and sweet to die.

Ultimately, it is Agnes’ apparent cleverness and shrewdness that leads to her brutal punishment and death sentence, whereas Sigga’s perceived “simple-mindedness” saves her from the same fate.  Agnes knows that Sigga is the “curse” that turns me into a “monster” (128) The mention of Sigga’s appeal angers Agnes; she is temporarily chained (133).  Agnes is compared with Sigga, whom people think is too sweet to die and so has been granted a pardon from the King (41).   Blondal approves. “They say she reminds him of his wife.”

The villagers also censure her crime and officials “change” her words, hurling them at her like an “insult”, an “accusation” (98).

The whore: Agnes, who is the victim of sexual objectification, as well as abuse. It is revealed that Agnes had to “let a farmer up her skirts” in order to retain her position as a work maid in the household. However, as a result she is disadvantaged and given the “shit-work”. Caught between two conflicting consequences, Agnes represents the oppressed population of women in the 19th century Icelandic patriarchy. Agnes is portrayed as a victim of circumstance, and through it the reader is positioned to pity her and simultaneously condemn the system of society which enables such oppression. However, perhaps most significant of all, Agnes is rendered helpless by Natan, who takes her as his “mistress”. Isolated in Illugastadir and prohibited from attending church, Agnes is socially and spiritually hindered which may have bolstered her suffering at Illugastadir. Indeed, the inherent chauvinism of a patriarchal society is

A hostile world

According to Kent,  “there is no doubt that Agnes struggles against the limitations and expectations forced on her by society – some of which are due to her gender, others that are a consequence of her position as a landless servant.” Indeed, after the death of both mother and step-mother, and her step-brother in her arms, Agnes is vulnerable and alone. Natan is draw to her because of her friendlessness. “He liked the fact that I was a bastard, a pauper, a servant”.

Six days prior to her execution, Agnes reflects upon the hostile world which has constantly abandoned her. She feels herself underwater and the author’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing reflects her thoughts as she tries to make sense of the hostile and often brutal world in which she lives.

“Only the wind speaks and it will not talk sense” (321) “There is no home, there is only this cold island and your dark self spread thinly upon it until you take up the wind’s howl and mimic its loneliness you are not going home you are gone silence will claim you.” (321, 319)

The landscape is physically harsh but also emotionally brutal – for Agnes, there is no sense of home.

The natural imagery pervades her consciousness. Typically, Kent personifies the landscape to reveal the cycle of life, the imminent death and Agnes’s fate. She is surrounded by images of death (317) “dragged to their deaths, nest of rocks, I am the dead fish drying in the cold air”.  The black waters will claim her just as they swept along the bleak and rugged shores of Illugastadir. (321)

Agnes’ yearning for love and acceptance, stemming from a life of abandonment and loss, fully exposes her to manipulation. Born an illegitimate bastard into a frigid world of cruel poverty, she is beleaguered from childhood, “bundled along from farm to farm”, and “left to the mercy of paupers, whether they had any or no”. She formed limited emotional connections, and the very few she had were severed, until she “didn’t have a friend left in the world”. This grief and loneliness ultimately manifests in a feeling of worthlessness, and a paralysing fear of the loneliness that “threatens to bite at every turn”. Thus when Natan finally brings a “diversion” to the “silence” of “the chasm”, and made her “feel as though [she] was enough”, she latches onto his warmth and refuses to let go; she was “so happy to be desired”. In the midst of her infatuation, compounded by her sensitivity to romance, she is blind to the fact that she had made friends with “the raven that preys on lambs”, and perhaps does not notice the precariousness of her situation, how her absolute dependence on this erratic man had rendered her completely vulnerable and open to exploitation. In reality, she has no one to turn to and “nowhere else to go”, but only recognises the full implications of this fact when Natan finally throws her naked into the snow.

The desperation that overwhelms Agnes is no more clearly evident than her abandonment to the cowshed after Natan threatens that he will get Petur to “slit your throat”.  “It stank of shit, and the floor was alive with lice” (297).  She is too cold to sleep. “I crouched down next to the cow and pressed my bare skin against her warm bulk, and pulled down a saddlecloth to cover myself with. I pushed my freezing toes into a cowpat so they would not suffer” (289) . (Petur, 213) – a sheep-killer.

The witch outsider

Fridrik warns Angnes, “if I am hanged”, you “will be burnt alive”. (303).

The symbolism and references to the “witch” reflect the stereotypical and superstitious view of Agnes’s evil heart. When she comes to Kornas, Agnes has stopped bleeding, personifying the dispossession of her femininity. “I am no longer a woman” (42),.

In Kornas, the wild and harsh surroundings reflect Margret’s attitude towards the murderess and even to her daughters. She is fearful and sceptical of Agnes from the start and Kent reminds readers that she is desperate for the money that the bondage brings. After Agnes looks at the sister’s brooch, ostensibly betraying orders not to touch, Margret grabs her sleeve: “You can prove your penitence by working like a dog” (74).

Margret and Steina fear Agnes because of the witchlike connotations associated with her fate.  As Margret and Agnes sit in front of the fire, listening to the final saga, Margret says her mother did not let the hearth die in her home. “She believed that as long as a light burned in the house, the Devil couldn’t get in. Not even during the witching hour.” (271)

The outsider : the witch

Agnes reminds readers of  Anys Gowdie in Year of Wonders, who is victimised by difference and typecast as a witch. She, too, defies the narrow-minded obsession with purity and faith in Eyam and becomes symbolic of an enlightened mind trying to resist the puritanical totalitarianism of the middle ages.  Her heroic nature is captured by the image of the burning female at the stake. As a female living on the fringes of society, she is depicted as an independent and enlightened person and has the courage to pursue her own personal interest in herb lore and spices as natural remedies. An allegory of the dawn of modern medicine, she does not abide by the traditional religious, puritanical beliefs in the village and is eventually burned.

Anys had “a kind of courage to care so little for what people whisper” appears to rise above the villagers with her unconventional beliefs and traditions to stand independently. While “long habit still constrained the choices” of many, Anys is able to surpass this by her individual choices and indifferent attitude, a source of admiration to the modern reader who is able to understand Any’s ability to resist conformity through the only means available to her.

Similarly, Agnes deliberately cultivates a certain inscrutability and impenetrability, aware of how others distort the truth.  In a simple but profound way, these traits give her a great deal of strength. Readers gradually learn that she withdraws from the world around her because of the injustice she suffers.  Natan was drawn to Agnes “because he could not read me” (194)    Margret realises it is “easier to squeeze blood from a stone, I should think” (82) She remains “stony-faced” during her first meeting with Toti (81), in response to his rehearsed and affected, pretentious speech (81)  (“I will take it as my responsibility to supply you with spiritual comfort and hope.” (81)

According to Agnes, her withdrawal becomes a shield from the injustice of a world that judges her defensively because of her ‘excellent intellect’, her ‘sharp eyes’ and her keen powers of perception.

Agnes’s love of the Icelandic sagas is suppressed since one of her foster fathers threw her out because she ‘knew the sagas better than him’. She has learnt to be silent and impassive no matter the circumstance as she expects the worst from everyone. Kent suggests that the ‘real’ Agnes lies buried within. In reality, she is an intelligent woman who has become inscrutable because of the injustice she has suffered.

Metaphorically, the sky becomes complicit in Agnes’ withdrawal: the ‘sky will cover me with her rough, grey hand’ and help conceal her true feelings and thoughts from others.

Agnes vows to keep her “past locked up within me” because she realises just how vicious the malevolent pecking birds can be. Metaphorically, they are “dressed in red with breasts of silver buttons … looking for guilt like berries on a  bush”. Selectively, they twist and manipulate her testimony to forge a guilty verdict. The priest also reinforces the official version of sin. (100)  At the execution scene, the forty men, all dressed in black, look like “birds of prey surrounding their kill” as the hostile animals swoop to claim Agnes’s death (327)

In her interior stream-of-consciousness monologue, Agnes reveals the depth of her personal pain and humiliation arising from her illegitimate status. She criticises the hand “that refuses to love me”. She is angry at those who “will not speak to me”. Her only connection is with the hostile wind that “will not talk sense”. She also addresses herself in the impersonal “you” pronoun and criticises her life’s “thwarted” journey that does not offer a way “home”: “for there is no home” on this dark and desperate island whose loneliness and desperation reflect her own anguish. She fears oblivion, just as she fears her inevitable fate: “If no one will say your name you are forgotten”.

Striking back: Agnes: an outsider  — clever, sharp and inscrutable

Brooks notes that Anna reminds her of many women she met, as a journalist  in the Middle East, who endured periods of turmoil. “These women would suddenly find themselves having to step out of their old roles and assume vastly challenging responsibilities”.

During the plague year, Anna Frith develops her talent and skills such as the ability to give birth, and provide comfort and support to the suffering citizens. A turning point occurs when she summons the courage to help Merry Wickford extract minerals by using the “fire-setting technique” that formerly led to her husband’s death.

Drawing upon her maternal and berthing skills, her “mother hands”, Anna helps Mary Daniels give birth to her baby.  Elinor assures her that this is Mary’s only chance of survival.  She encourages Anna and tells her “ you will know what to do, and I will assist you as best I can.”

If Anna Frith is , as Elinor tells her, wiser than she knows and more capable… Agnes also has an “excellent intellect and strong knowledge and understanding of Christianity.” (95)

Agnes later helps Roslin (who is still superstitious  of the murderess) during child-birth.  It was a breach birth and Agnes takes control; fetch the wild angelica in a tray of sand in the pantry (200) Agnes does not want to hold the baby, for fear it would die in her arms.

They both learn natural skills that enable them to survive.  Like Anys and the herbs, Agnes gives Margret the jelly of lichen from the boiled chopped moss that stops from bleeding. It is a sign of trust that Margret is willing to try it (256) She, like Anna, also maintains a certain scepticism about patriarchal values.

However, within the community of women in Iceland, Agnes is considered to be empowered by her skills and intelligence – paradoxically contradicted by how she is then condemned by the patriarchy for being a woman and intelligent. It is through Agnes’ involvement in Roslin’s childbirth that Agnes is portrayed as being empowered by her skills. The birthing scene could be interpreted as Agnes’ ‘trial by fire’, after which she “seemed part of the family.” Following the novel’s prominent circular narrative, Agnes was unable to save the mother nor the child during childbirth; however Agnes undergoes a vindication – perhaps even an absolution – in that she saves Roslin and the baby. And it is this metamorphosis that starkly reveals how through years of experience and learning, Agnes has gained a certain status within the community of women in Iceland. Among the men, however, it is Agnes’s self-same “excellent intellect” which condemns her as being “too clever” in the eyes of the patriarchal authority. Blöndal, being a man of authority, represents the conservative view of men in the Icelandic community at the time, who were united in their belief that intelligent women and “older servant women” were “practised in deception”. In describing Agnes as “reticent, secretive and guilty”, Blöndal contributes to the biased portrayal of Agnes borne from chauvinistic prejudice and ignorance, which ultimately decides her fate to be executed. Consequently, Agnes’ power of speech is eliminated and she is no longer able to justify her motives for the murder of Natan. In having free-speech – a most

Whilst the conservative masses of a deeply religious and conservative Iceland blindly believe in hate, the witch and the murderess, they shield themselves conveniently from the complexity of Agnes’s  love and the ambiguity of the crime.

Pervaded by evil, when Fridrik turns up at Illugastadir with a hammer and a knife, readers expect the worse, as does Agnes, especially as she notes, “the moon slipped out from its shield of clouds” (298. (Like Macbeth, who plots the murder on a night that is completely “out of joint”. But even Fridrik is horrified by the magnitude of the crime, as he becomes so pallid and white that he is unable to finish the terrible deed (300) and defers to Agnes’s strength born of love.

Agnes kills Natan in an act of love because Fridrik is physically unable to wield the final blow and leaves Natan dying in agony.  She believes Natan urges her to plant the final death blow which sounds like an “ill-practised kiss”.  His look, “overwhelmed with gratitude” appears to offer her forgiveness.

*Illugugastadir: “I had no friends. I didn’t understand the landscape. “Only the outlying tongues of rock scarred the perfect kiss of sea and sky – there was no one and nothing else. There was nowhere else to go.” (265)  The tongues or rock symbolise the wedge in the “perfect” relationship between Agnes and Natan.

Her kindness is already foreshadowed by the gift of the eggs to the two young sisters. The two eggs were the only gifts that Agnes had following her departure from Gudrunarstadir to Gilsstadir “in a freezing spring”, and reflects her kindness at heart, prompting readers to question whether her apparent guilt for the heinous murders is congruent with Blondal’s portrayal. There were “two small girls sucking eggs by the road”. (77.)

Perhaps Agnes’s greatest sin or dilemma is her inability to negotiate Natan’s paranoia, his deceit and the rivalry into which she is drawn between Natan, Sigga and Fridrik.

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things” (107)

As her narrative recounts unfold, Agnes’s ambivalence increases.  At the core of her ambivalence lies the fact that the crime was motivated by both love and hate and the final murderess blow was an act of love.

Agnes is aware that her mother struggled, as she did, under the burden of destiny.  Unluckily for her mother, her secret became visible to the world and this sealed her fate. “She did what any number of women do harmlessly in secret” (108).  Agnes does not hold her mother to account and nor does she censure her; rather she censures those who would so harshly abandon and criticise one for the mistakes that most others make. “People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down” (108).  Agnes asks Toti, “do you think it’s my fate to be here? (134)

Significantly, Lauga will hand her mother the brooch, which Margret ritually places upon the bodice as they help Agnes prepare for death (323). As Kent shows, Agnes has finally found forgiveness among the family; she earns their sympathy.  Likewise, she will also wear the special shawl and embroidered bodice.   At one stage she considers going to church with Margret as a distraction from the “mire”. “We are all shipwrecked” (248)

A crisis of faith

Michael Mompellion (YW) suffers a crisis of faith when his wife Elinor dies. Mompellion’s own argument that the pestilence has been sent as a test of love becomes increasingly difficult to sustain when she is murdered by Aphra.  Before he loses his faith, he describes the plague as a ‘gift’ and a ‘casket of gold’ to the villagers. He exhorts the villagers to remain strong and prove that they are worthy of God’s test. He sets a fine example and is completely dependable. He exhausts himself by placing himself constantly at the assistance of the villagers and must take a strong stance against their puritanical religious views.

Burial rites:   Agnes, Margret and Toti

Kent draws a comparison between the father and son, Reverend Jon and Reverend Toti to draw attention to the later’s personal development. The priest is typical of those who stereotype Agnes and scoff: “Surely Natan Ketilsson’s dead body is a fair indication of her character.” (94).  Toti’s father reflects the traditional view that Agnes is a sinner and must pay the ultimate price.

Contrastingly, like Michael Mompellion, Toti must confront the puritanical and rigid view of religion that deems sin as a transgression of God that demands the harshest of penalties.  Blondal expresses his disappointment in Toti that he has only encouraged Agnes to talk and not to pray. (265) He finds his manner and attitude “unorthodox” (265)

At first all Toti can think of is the “horror this woman inspires in me” (50) The first meeting with Agnes brings him face to face with “the woman. The criminal. Agnes” (48).  Her appearance personifies “damaged flesh”.

When Toti reveals his self-doubts to his father, “I’ve failed her”, Reverend Jon dismisses him, with a heavy hand.  He bids his son not to visit Agnes; reminds him that he does not have the spiritual luck of the Son of God, and that he would be committing an act of suicide which is “against God”. “Do not kill yourself for the sake of this murderess” (314). Previously, whilst Toti suffers from fever, the father shows no sympathy towards the woman who has no one “and for good reason”. “She’s not worth the time you give her” (290).

His encounter with Agnes unsettles him, which foreshadows his own personal journey towards redemption and he shamefully realises he acts like a coward, scared of the woman that confronts him – the “stench peculiar to women”. (48).

Typically, the landscape reflects his bleak thoughts, as the heavy clouds “blow” in from the sea and the “light was fast disappearing” (48)  The northern days have an unsettling aspect to them and this plagues his first encounter (48). not unlike the mural in the chapel of the “squat Jesus. Judas, lingering in the shadows, was troll-like comical”. 49)

Comparison between “the priest and Toti”.

At first, Toti seeks to cling to his literary, official and academic vision of “spiritual truth”, (and seeks to begin with a prayer, (79)  Agnes accuses him of being “callow”; she realises she has made a mistake to request this priest because he does not seem to appreciate the personal demands of the situation. (83)  She regrets that she asked for him prompted by feelings of mutual kindness. He helped her cross the river “six or seven years ago” (80) “The pass was flooded and you came by on your horse just as I
was about to cross the water by foot”. He does not recall the encounter, but his kindness made an impression on Agnes. (80)

She senses that “he doesn’t want to be here” (42) and indeed the Northern days continue to unsettle him (48) (“The northern lights always herald bad weather”,  says Bjorn Blondell (143) and the impending storm becomes a critical foreshadowing device of emotional and religious turmoil.)

Through her stories of shame, turmoil, poverty and misfortune (110), Agnes begins to “look” less like a criminal and more like a woman, and it becomes harder for him to cling to the stereotypical impression of the murderess. (81)  She challenges him to treat her “a common” way and not just offer up prayers of forgiveness. Toti must earn his chance to talk with her personally. (99)

Toti becomes aware of the inadequacy of the official reliance on prayers for forgiveness . He is aware that he is failing with this approach and believes that his father would be ashamed “to know that his son could not shoulder the responsibility of one woman’s atonement” (88).  He realises that she may just need to talk.  (Hallgrimur Petursson: The pathway of Thy Passion to follow I desire, Out of my weakness fashion a character of fire” (88)

His journey to the farm metaphorically reflects his approach. He can see the goal, “the topmost caps of the mountains”, but he is aware that the rest lies covered in fog, just as the mystery and complexity of Agnes is shrouded in mist and secrecy, completely hidden from public view. “Toti could see only the topmost caps of the mountains, their brown bulk still concealed by the band of slowly shifting fog.” (89)

Aware of his pretentious approach, Agnes, typically remains “stony-faced”.

Gradually, he, too becomes to doubt and understands that the truth has been of little comfort to her” (“I‘ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me”.) (110)  (His dream and then fever show his increasingly personal involvement (251)

“There is truth in God”.

As a mark of his personal transformation, Toti finds the courage to help her meet her death with dignity. “Do not falter” he tells himself.  “Take my hand” he tells her.

God is in the landscape: a spiritual journey

“I think upon my Saviour
I trust his power to keep,
His might arm enfolds me
Awaking and in sleep”  (Icelandic Burial Hymn, 312)

“For all she says, I think Mamma holds a fondness for her now” (Steina, 208)

“Now I see that even Mamma is talking to her in a familiar way!” (Laura, 209)

Toti, too, begins to talk in a more personal, common and “ordinary way”.

And so, Toti and Margret are finally able to truly and sincerely penetrate Agnes’s personal barriers.

Kent’s reference to the “fine day” and the “bright light …of the rising sun” captures Agnes’s transformation from the dishevelled bestial criminal to the newly-minted and washed woman who takes her place next to Margret in the field. It also foreshadows Margret’s journey from narrow-minded myopic darkness to awareness and understanding of the complexity of the crime and the criminal (60)

Significantly, Lauga will hand her mother the brooch, which Margret ritually places upon the bodice as they help Agnes prepare for death (323). As Kent shows, Agnes has finally found forgiveness among the family; she earns their sympathy.  Likewise, she will also wear the special shawl and embroidered bodice.

Landscape is everywhere, personified as Agnes’ fate in the verses that “lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like a mist”.  “I killed the baby”. Did “I author my own fate then” asks Agnes. (150)

The burial rites metaphorically draw attention to the way key characters change and prepare for life and death.  Because of their relationship with Agnes, both Margret and Toti relax their judgemental views. Toti’s view of religion becomes more personal.  He, like Agnes, comes to God as “everywhere in the landscape”. His view is more personal, less judgemental. He is prepared to understand and forgive. Accordingly, he is able to offer Agnes the spiritual comfort for which she yearns. He becomes an appropriate mentor, comforting her prior to death.

Toti’s consolation reflects the fact that religion and God are not just formulaic utterances of the Lord’s Prayer but an intimate and close understanding of the natural forces that bind and that create and form one’s destiny.  (If landscape is destiny, then the God (“all around us”) that takes refuge in the landscape also creates and informs, influences and shapes one’s destiny. One has to find the key to this relationship.

Instead of prayer, Agnes hears singing. Eventually Toti summons the courage to afford her quiet dignity in death. Clasping hands, he remains true to the end, withstanding fever to provide sustenance. Squeezing her hand, and getting close, he tells her, “God is all around us, Agnes. I won’t ever let you go.” (328)

Theirs becomes a spiritual and natural view of the world as they recognise the burial hymns that grip the air, “just like the flower”.  God is part of the landscape, not in some non-descript place elsewhere or above, as she meets her death and looks up at the “blank sky”.  (328)  Their grief is akin to the wet ocean. “Everything is wet. It is the ocean.” (324)

Prior to death, Agnes is aware that God is in the landscape blessing her. She states, “I can hear singing”. Toti also recognises the burial hymn, which sings “just like the flower”.

Instead of prayer, Agnes hears singing. Eventually Toti summons the courage to afford her quiet dignity in death. Clasping hands, he remains true to the end, withstanding fever to provide sustenance. Squeezing her hand, and getting close, he tells her, “God is all around us, Agnes. I won’t ever let you go.” (328)

God is everywhere

Throughout her ordeal, Anna Frith struggles with her faith. Initially, as a puritan she automatically places her faith in God. However, her grief over the death of her sons and eventually the death of many good citizens in Eyam like Maggie Cantwell, leads her to question God.

As a heroine she depicts Brook’s conflict between God and Nature, good and evil.    The fact that her father is allowed to live ‘to waste his reason in drunkenness’, while Maggie’s ‘good and expedient skills’ die seems insupportable to Anna.

She concludes that she does not see God’s handiwork in every speck of dust. “I did not see it so.  She comes to see the plague as a “thing in nature” and prefer to focus on a cure rather than dwell on the cause of  God’s anger.

“For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate. We could simply work upon it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matters if we were a village of sinners or a host of saints (314)

Through her metaphysical journey, Anna concludes that perhaps the scourge ‘was neither of God nor the Devil’; rather it is ‘simply a thing in Nature’.   Such a belief depicts the erosion of her faith and belief in an omnipotent God. She believes in ‘unseen hands’.   She does not waste time wondering whether or not they were  “village of sinners” or a “host of saints”.

Her loss of confidence in  God is confirmed by Mompellion’s hypocrisy and shameful treatment of  Elinor. Ironically, this change in faith coincides with her humanist attitude whereby she believes that it is important to think about how the plague is spreading and containing its poison. She becomes personally more confident and self-aware.

So skeptical does she become, that she turns to other sources of knowledge for solace and hope. She departs for a new life without any certainty in God — she “cannot say that I have faith anymore”— but does not let this destroy her; she turns to other sources of knowledge in her quest to sustain her so that she can look forward to a brighter future.

Maggie Cantwell’s subsequent death raises doubts in Anna’s mind about the question of God’s ‘prodigal’ response to his creations. The fact that her father is allowed to live ‘to waste his reason in drunkenness’, while Maggie, whose ‘good and expedient skills’ do not save her, seems intolerable to Anna.   (135)   PURITANS: Unlike many of the puritans, she rejects the idea that the pestilence is a call for repentance. (They believe that the plague is God’s judgement on their sinful world. They look for ways to appease  God’s anger and to pacify him. Many resort to self-flagellation in an attempt to cleanse themselves. This is a sado-masochistic view of faith that is rejected by both Anna and Michael.

The outsider’s view

Natan was the only person who really understands how Agnes feels. Theirs is an intimate, natural and harmonious closeness that reflects the continuity and constancy of the landscape. “He knew me as one knows the seasons, knows the tide” (83).    Natan also used to say, “once you let it in, it doesn’t leave you alone. Like a woman, he said. The sea is a nag.” (36)  Natan rows the oars of the boat methodically. (37) Natan later charges Agnes with being a “nag” (287) after she raises her resentment at being promised the housekeeper’s position and ending with that of the servant.   Natan was drawn to Agnes “because he could not read me” (194) .  Premonition of gloom: “I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames” (195). Natan becomes increasingly paranoid as he toys with his pair “of whores” and becomes increasingly distrustful of both.  He castigates Agnes, “you are to blame” and “you just want what you can’t have” (288)

Natan’s view is mythical and reflects the spirituality of the landscape and the Icelandic sagas.  (142)

“Known as a “sorcerer”, it is claimed that he was incorrectly named Natan instead of Satan (91) “He dealt with the devil” (91) Natan’s views challenge stereotypical academic versions of religion; in its place he questions, he challenges, and proposes a mythical, natural and practical alternative. “Even nature defies her own rules for the sake of beauty. You understand Agnes.” (100) He is not afraid of the two headed lamb, and lies to recover the body.

Likewise, Anys Gowdie “was so skilled with plants and balms that she knew how to extract their fragrant oils, and these she wore on her person so that a light, pleasant scent, like summer fruits and flowers, always preceded her.” Anna admired Anys.  “She was quick of mind and swift of tongue”, and there were “few women who would do without her in the birthing room”.  She had a “deft-handidness in difficult deliveries”.   Anys wore her difference in the vivid scarlet gown that stood out amongst the traditional black and gloomy Sadd Colours

(It becomes synonymous with a once charming place that increasingly imprisons her).  (Natan detested winter, “he went his whole life without getting used to the darkness” (275).)  (It ‘is not much more than the base of the mountain and the shore of the sea’ 227)

The workshop

Agnes’ most precious moments at Illugastadir were in the workshop. “I was happy that first day, when Natan and I stayed in his workshop all afternoon. He showed me the two fox pelts” drying in the air. They make love on the workshop table amidst the jars, bottles and clay pots. They share the secrets of new words of diseases and horrors – words that Sigga could never pronounce such as “cochlearia officinalis”

To reach the workshop you have to walk over the rocks, “a strange place to build a workshop” (227).  It reminds one of Anys’ place of herbs and spices on the outskirts of Eyam, her place marking the boundary between faith and knowledge.

When Anys Gowdie dies, Anna recognises her knowledge and wants to explore Anys’ herbs and natural remedies.  Upon Anys’ death, Brookes describes how there “beamed a lonely finger of light” and her face is “lit up.. as if she were on fire” (93). They know this glimmer of light not only symbolises her search for an alternative vision but also the triumph of the forces of reason against the irrational voices of darkness. The light is a typical symbol of reason and truth representing the birth of this modern Age of Enlightenment).


Both authors explore the role of superstition that undermines and subverts the traditional, patriarchal stability and security. Brooks suggests that superstition can be as fatal as any plague.

Due to the lack of knowledge, the villagers struggle to source a reason for the plague and resort to superstition.  They become the unfortunate targets of some of the Puritans who seek a cause for their suffering.  Once Eyam becomes enclosed, fears and pressures mount within the village. The villagers experience great turmoil throughout the ” hard season” as death rates rise, and seek out a scapegoat in order to bear their guilt. The villagers’ readiness to believe in the “devil ” as the architect of the plague coincides with their susceptibility to charms and potions.

The actions of many villagers show just how fragile their strict, rigid puritanical faith is. They become susceptible to superstition and are prepared to pay their last penny for charms and spells against the plague. Kate Talbot expresses her despair when she explains to Anna that ‘I do not, in my heart, believe in it, and yet I bought this charm because that which I do believe has failed me.’ Lottie Mowbray who ‘boil the babe’s hair in his piss’ to keep off the plague from them also turns to superstition after her husband’s death.

The villagers’ readiness to believe in the devil as the architect of the plague complements their search for charms. They believe that Anys has brought the plague as she ‘consorted with the Devil’s spawn who brought the Plague here.’ The adversity of the plague also enables the villagers to turn to old superstition as they drown Mem Gowdie to ‘see if she’s a witch or not.’

They look for scapegoats and conveniently blame the outsiders: Anys and Mem Gowdie are the unfortunate targets.

Agnes later helps Roslin (who is still superstitious  of the murderess) during child-birth.  It was a breach birth and Agnes takes control; fetch the wild angelica in a tray of sand in the pantry (200) Agnes does not want to hold the baby, for fear it would die in her arms.

As Margret washes her prisoner and prepares her for work in the field she is also preparing her for death. Prophetically, she dresses her in the undergarments of her slave, Hjordis, who died wearing the same underdress (54).

Rebirth and death

Devices that focus on the superstitious beliefs of characters function as foreshadow devices. They also reinforce Kent’s views that landscape is destiny, and fate has been ordained. (Character, too, is fate.)

It is also the beginning of Agnes’s rebirth and journey towards death, which begins at the very moment she has nothing. Kent reflects this metaphorically by the burning of the dress “my last possession” (76). “There is nothing in the world that I now own” (76/75)

The Kornsa landscape metaphorically reflects Agnes’s journey back into childhood, into memories and into a place where she may understand a little more about herself and about her crime.

It is by the river, where Agnes begins to reveal her personal feelings about her mother. “I like to watch the water”, she tells Toti as they sit on a large rock to watch the “rushing stream”. (106)

Just before his death Natan believes that he sees “signs of death all about him” (261)There are constant references to Fridrik’s and Natan’s altercations about the “hidden” money that fuels resentment and envy. (244) Then they fight over Sigga, who seems blind to the “conniving character of the boy” (241). He was also an odd friend for Natan, although Natan at times professed to be a mentor figure (238) but also the source of his deep and dark mood swings (239).  Pervaded by evil, when Fridrik turns up at Illugastadir with a hammer and a knife, readers expect the worse, as does Agnes, especially as she notes, “the moon slipped out from its shield of clouds” (298. (Like Macbeth, who plots the murder on a night that is completely “out of joint”. But even Fridrik is horrified by the magnitude of the crime, as he becomes so pallid and white that he is unable to finish the terrible deed (300) and defers to Agnes’s strength born of love.

“Three ravens flying in a line. Agnes good omen” (77)

The ravens become a metaphor of the mysterious landscape that interweaves in Agnes’s story providing the gaps in intuition and experience.  (They sweep through the valley when Toti comes and finds Agnes “stony-faced” (81)  Agnes tells her never to call out to, or feed a raven at night’.  “Birds heard cawing in the dark are spirits, I said, and they would murder you soon as look at you.” (38)  Agnes sees the flock of ravens as a “conspiracy” (40). (321) Awaiting for death she notes that Joas has sent all the ravens away. “They never speak to me, it’s not fair”.

The three ravens are evident when Steina, the elder daughter, reveals that they have met before. (Kent presents this previous, coincidental meeting, as a parallel with Toti’s encounter of kindness. In this case, they shared dinner with the  10-year-old child.   “You were the woman we met on the way to Gudrunarstadir … two small girls sucking eggs by the road”. (77.)  (Steina’s first encounter with Agnes (21) their anxiety leads to one of their numerous quarrels. She later sees in the girl a likeness, although Agnes protests that her hard life was nothing like Steina’s 177)  “She knows only the tree of life. She has not seen its twisted roots paying stones and coffins” (Agnes gave the girls the eggs that she met on the way to Gilsstadir.  They had been a present from the farmer and his wife after Indridi died. (Gudrunarstadir) 178

The “ravens cawing at the smell of blood” outside, just like the fog, would supply another level to the story, implanting their mystery into the illegitimate birth.  “Two fathers and a mother who seem as blurry to me as strangers departing through a snowstorm” (110)

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