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“My Will is as Strong as Yours”

March 23, 2015

(part one, part two, part three)

Now I am like a bird that lies on the ground fluttering its broken wings; it cannot move from the spot where it has fallen, and it cannot see farther than the stream of its own blood. If I think upon what used to be, I remember only what is now. If I recall the time when I lived here blithe and carefree, it seems it was only that this might come upon me. (36)

Gunnar’s Daughter is set at the end of the 11th century in Norway and Iceland and is written in a style reminiscent of the Viking Sagas beloved by readers of northern heroism and adventure. But this is not a tale of exploration and conquest; it is a story of a cheiftain’s daughter, Vigdis Gunnarsdatter, and the suffocating hold that tradition, a male-dominated society, and social expectation have on women and men—in the time of the sagas, in Undset’s time (1900s), and in a prescient nod to today. Sherrill Harbison, who wrote the introduction and edited the version I will be quoting from (Penguin Classic 1998), explains an important point about the novel’s place as an historical intervention:

[W]hereas the thirteenth-century saga writers had wanted to show their pagan ancestors positively, and thus injected modern Christian ethics into their accounts of blood feuds, Undset wanted to show the pagan period negatively, because she feared the revival of sanctified violence in her own time. (xxv)

Undset reaches back to an already glorified nostalgia for the past to comment on the dangerous potential for romanticizing violence, masculinity, virility, and homogeneity. Knut Hamsun, literary hero of Norway and an older but still contemporary of Undset, gave incendiary speeches and wrote virulent essays on these themes, which culminated in his joining of the Nazi party. Harbison thoughtfully notes at the end of her introduction:

[W]hile [Undset] conveys enormous sympathy for Vigdis as a victim of violence, Undset refuses to sentimentalize her—or any of her characters. She understands that being badly used does not make one a saint, but only a badly used person bearing permanent scars and deep resentments. Without social structures to provide justice, reconciliation is impossible, and unreconciled pain and anger can lead victims to victimize others. (xxix-xxx)

Looking at the novel more closely [CAUTION SPOILERS], it seems to start out like an early modern romantic comedy, including a meet-cute that seems to not end favorably for the visiting Icelandic suitor, Viga-Ljot. But over time and some rocky social moments, Vigdis hesitantly thinks to love him; in the narrative structure of the romance, he is the hero from outside her social world that will woo her, win her, and provide the happily ever after. Except, this fairy tale is “repeatedly interrupted by reality” (vii). Ljot becomes angry that Vigdis might not love him given that she cannot unequivocally throw out her family and social circle like today’s movies tell us is normal for women to do for a man. Ljot decides to believe rumors from men jealous of Gunnar’s wealth and power that Vigdis sleeps around. So he casually rapes her.

After his betrayal, she does well for herself after surviving turmoil and violence to her household. He leaves Norway and marries another well-born woman in Iceland and has a family, although he cannot escape the guilt he feels for his treatment of Vigdis; consequently, his family suffers and one could argue that his inner turmoil manifests itself in the deaths of his wife and children (he blames a curse placed on him by Vigdis—it is always the victim’s fault for any hardship suffered by the victimizer, amiright?). Vigdis bears a son and he is raised to hate the man he does not know is his father. When Ljot visits again when the son is an adult, the son kills him in single combat and brings Ljot’s head to his mother in order to please her. He then leaves and never returns. No one is happy or at peace at the end of the novel, all lives are destroyed.

In Undset’s gifted hands, Vigdis’s story doesn’t simply reprise familiar ancient tropes of social etiquette and aspiration in Norwegian folktales. While the form of the story is comforting for its recognizable prose rhythm, character archetypes, and plot points, it subverts expectation that the violence done to Vigdis will in some way reconfirm heroic sensibilities. Instead, Undset poignantly and mercilessly tells a story “of the fear, self-loathing, suicidal depression, loss of trust, and blinding fury that permanently change the lives of rape victims” (xxvi). [Vendela Vida expresses this sentiment as her motivation for writing Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name: she wanted to write about a character who experienced a “split’ in her life, a defining moment that changed her personality (“About the Book”).]

Vigdis bears an illegitimate son that she raises to avenge the violence done to her. The violence imprints on her her utter disposability in this social setting; marks her transformation from a trusting child into a wary and canny adult; is a synecdoche of that step across the threshold. It suggests that one does not leave the comforts of the home, hearth, and family without some sort of violence done to the self. But the rape of Vigdis is more than a symbol of metamorphoses, the violence of transforming or crossing stages of life. It is more than a necessary plot point for telling the story of the two men, the beloved turned rapist, the son turned weapon of vengeance.

Vigdis’s most profound injury is not the loss of Gunnar [her father]; indeed, his death in defense of family honor was itself honorable, and to be expected. It is rather her loss of innocence and trust in the man she wanted to love, and her subjection, as the weaker of two parties, to physical force. This is the sign of the novel’s modernity, since innocence and trust—though expected of young women in Undset’s day—could hardly have lasted past childhood in a blood-feud society. In this regard, Vigdis’s feelings are unheroic, less ancient shame than a very modern, very personal feminist fury. (xxviii)

Violence against Vigdis sets in motion generational violence that cannot be stopped without the deaths of everyone remotely touched by it. Women’s autonomy, the codes of conduct of a man’s world, and the smallness of worlds dominated by fear and retribution characterize the action in this novel. The rape is an inciting moment in this female-centric saga—it tears away the veils of illusion of protection that Vigdis feels as a spoiled only-child of a wealthy family. The rape of Vigdis is, however, only one of many instances of violence in the novel, which also include murder, treachery, and combat. The rape, though, reveals a culture that does not see women as autonomous with self-worth other than as daughter, wife, sister. The rape is formative for the story and the making of Vigdis as a protagonist. And it is also “speaks most eloquently in Undset’s own twentieth-century voice…on sexual violence” (xxviii).

In the next post I will use this potent nexus of literary/representative structure and social reality presented in Gunnar’s Daughter to continue to think about the implications of the literary-literal relationship of sexual violence in literature. Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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