Sigrid Undset, the acclaimed female Nobel Prize winner, remains largely unknown to American audiences. Perhaps her vivid portrayal of ordinary life steers readers towards more exciting venues, or the Scandinavian setting of her stories appears too foreign to elicit much interest from an egocentric society. More deterring, I believe, is her frank exploration of sufferings and struggles in order to uncover life’s significance. Those whose vision of a reality beyond the mere physical and sentimental is obstructed by doubt and skepticism will likely be unmotivated to pursue literary characters to their supernatural enlightenment by story’s end. Typically, the common busy reader will settle their mind on her characters’ early mundane sufferings and ponder why such esteemed works depict merely life’s drudgery.
Undset’s more well-known novels include two multi-volume works: Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of of Hestviken, both of which were set in the Middle Ages and precipitated her winning of the Nobel Literature Prize in 1928. A later novel, often overlooked in the wake of these great pieces of historical fiction, is Undset’s Ida Elisabeth, which has recently been unearthed and republished by Ignatius Press. While lacking the famed reputation of Undset’s medieval novels, this contemporary story nevertheless offers profound insight into life’s meaning, as well as into the psyches and struggles of the men and women who are afflicted by the question of what this life is about. Certain themes from Undset’s earlier book Jenny resurface, yet are dealt a gentler hand here; the experience of the aging author seems to allow her characters a less jarring coming-of-age as well.
Like the majority of her literary achievements, this story rests upon the ordinary happenings within a woman’s world. In a letter to a close friend, Undset disclosed her abhorrence for romanticized literature. Novels, she wrote, “should be written in such a way that whatever might seem romantic to us … becomes ordinary and alive.” The description of the simple aspects of life, Undset felt, were essential to unveiling the truth of men’s and women’s natures and relationships. Ida Elisabeth truly excels in allowing the reader to glimpse the everyday difficulties of a poor family amidst the splendor of the Norwegian fjords and mountains. The mistakes and memories which haunt Ida appear strikingly familiar as well: largely in guilt and shame over their sexual relations as teenagers, she has married Frithjof, an infantile man incapable of supplying any stability or financial security for their family. Undset’s fans will acknowledge a recurring plot device here, yet its new treatment will appear fresher to our modern hearts. Ida is consequently forced to utilize her skills as a seamstress to provide sustenance for their small children. Ultimately, the pressures of Frithjof’s childish demands and burdensome family are compounded by his infidelity and, released from her marital commitments by her conscience, Ida moves apart from her husband to establish a safer environment for raising her two small boys.
As the rest of Ida’s story unfolds, her life appears to be partitioned into three stages of development as she yearns after true happiness, an elusive idea she is unable to realize until the novel’s close. Her initial life with Frithjof is marked solely by a spirit of endurance. She longs to stake her confidence in adherence to hope, but fails to secure this consolation and resigns herself to a spirit of tolerance. After the book’s opening image of her contemplation of the Magi’s journey and the thrill of traveling “after a star which showed one the way somewhere” she concludes that she would be satisfied even to wear the long-suffering look of the little country farms, since the opportunity to chase after stars has clearly been withheld from her.
The journey motif continues, albeit in subtle tones, as Ida’s life changes. Apart from her husband, she encounters some success and the leisure to pursue such hidden talents as gardening and drawing. While a distinct detachment from nature typified her earlier life, Ida now finds in scenery and nature’s seasons the expression of her inward being. She ponders what life is in itself, beyond the continuous work that fuels its progression. Likewise there awakens within her the desire to truly love someone with a consuming passion that acknowledges the fragility of human relationships and for that very recognition casts all fear and selfishness aside in a relentless fight to prolong the taste of communion.
Throughout these years, Ida’s definition of happiness similarly begins to shift. Before, she could only fancy herself happy if she blinded herself to the sufferings of the past and the future, and clung desperately to the moment at hand. Watching her boys play with their contented childish enthusiasm, she discovers a new joy of life, one that stems from one’s emergence out of an arduous struggle. She muses, “So long as one is out in the open country, where the wind has full force and one has to crawl forward against the driving snow, the feeling only lies smouldering deep within, but no sooner does one reach shelter than it leaps out into the mind: it is the simple joy of living.” This picture images not only the rugged Scandinavian weather but parallels Ida’s life as well. Still, as she encounters the gentle stirrings of love with the arrival of a new man’s affections, she grieves her loss of the flagrant happiness young people so often latch hold of, that which enables them to forget the world and cleave to their beloved as the only one who possesses true worth. Ultimately, as she contemplates the struggles of her children to adapt to the changes within their mother, she recognizes that greater sacrifice is being asked of her. Yet, inwardly, her spirit rebels because the same voices that sing of merciful consolations awarding those suffering have always seemed to her to be sated with sentimentality and self-pity. Is there nothing “solid” behind it all, she wonders.
Peace comes through the advent of events Ida could not have anticipated, involving her estranged husband’s family, Frithjof’s re-entrance into her world, and the touch of death’s thought-probing finger. The revelation of understanding as the key to love, and of heaven as the gateway to full understanding, illuminates the purpose of Ida’s own journey and the way by which the “joy of living” can be united to actual supernatural happiness.
Bound up with Ida’s transformation is the demonstration of what a true obligation of love consists. Throughout the novel, various characters consistently distinguish between those people who are capable of serving themselves and others, and those individuals who, like Ida’s husband, cannot shoulder any burden even when they are being excessively aided. The “mystical value” of the person has fallen into disrepute in Ida’s world – as it has in our own – and even good, upstanding individuals find themselves labeling the other division of people as “scrap metal.” Yet, Ida cannot choose to embrace this willful blindness to others’ needs, and her sacrificial acts are ultimately abdicated by her epiphany at another’s deathbed: God is the same for all men whether or not they fight through life, and the “bare stuff” of humanity is shared by all, making human dignity a universal trait.
Other themes are taken up as well during the novel, such as women’s newfound independence in the masculine work force and the guilt-ridden obsession of people to earn their own redemption after a particularly shameful sin. The deep conversations of Ida and her friends, as well as the descriptions of her work and the Norwegian countryside are poetically marked by Undset’s beautiful prose. Rather than merely describing a scene or relaying the facts of a dialogue, Undset attempts on every page to paint the novel’s reality for the reader. Her desire as an author was to abandon the modern style of writing to, as she expressed it, “write in a painterly way…if only I could master the language…make the reader see the springtime.” Undset’s resolution comes to fruition in this novel, as symbolism even creeps into her portraits of the landscape. The flowers that Ida cares for in her home take up the sweetness and growth of Ida’s own soul; similarly, the descriptions of the varying Scandinavian seasons reflect the changes in Ida’s life. Experiences of death and loss are foreshadowed in autumn’s colors and manifested in dark winter months; new love and hope spring up in the milder months. While the beautiful scenery in Jenny appears as distinct from the characters, and a reflection of what they lack yet desire, here nature accompanies and reveals Ida’s journey.
The triumph of Ida Elizabeth is a quiet one. Yet the novel’s purpose is to mirror reality – one comprised of minutes, not continuous adventure - and we are not worthy of a story we refuse to enter. Only the reader who joins in these characters’ debates and walks with Ida down the beautiful country lanes will grasp the significance of her final thoughts and bequest of understanding to her children. How else could we ever absorb Ida’s meaning, which transcends these written pages to find resonance within each soul?