Burial Rites

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Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Burial Rites, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon

Hannah Kent’s story of Agnes Magnússdóttir is inextricable from the hierarchies of power that defined Icelandic politics and life in the early 19th century. At the time, Iceland was a colony of Denmark, meaning that Iceland had to defer to the Danish crown and follow Danish law. The colonial state of Iceland was thus already the manifestation of a hierarchy, but the state also created further inequalities within the island itself. Burial Rites clearly depicts a pronounced class system within Iceland, with land and farm owning families possessing much more money and power than their impoverished servants.

Servants in Iceland were subject to physical discomfort and their lives were plagued by uncertainty, as they could be thrown out of the farm they were working on at any time without warning or reason. They had very few possessions, as evidenced by the meager list of Agnes and Sigga’s personal belongings compiled by officials after their arrest. Female servants were frequently subjected to unwanted sexual advances from the farmers they were serving, and they could be thrown out simply for refusing sex. Agnes’s experience at Natan’s farm is a perfect example of the uncertainty and potential danger of servitude, as Natan lies to Agnes, uses her for sex, and then becomes violent towards her before throwing her out in the snow. Clearly, life for servants in Kent’s novel is dangerous and their agency is severely limited.

These servants, meanwhile, do not benefit from luxuries that farmers and officials occasionally enjoy. Notably, these “luxuries” are things that most modern reader would expect as day-to-day items: glass windowpanes instead of seal bladder ones, coffee, salt. But in contrast to the lower class servants and middle class farmers, the upper class in Iceland benefit from many of these “luxuries.” Although Icelandic officials have to defer to the Danish Crown, they also enjoy financial and social benefits that elevate them over the middle class farmers and landowners. Blöndal, who is the district commissioner, clearly has much more money than the farmers he oversees, as evidenced by his beautiful red coat trimmed with silver buttons and his lavish home with its glass windows, iron stoves, swan quills, and many other luxuries that are unavailable except in Denmark.

As Blöndel’s connections to Denmark result in his great wealth, so they also give him the power to control people in his community. Blöndel has let his power and money go to his head, and he expresses disdain for middle and lower class people, thinking at one point how the “hovels of the peasants had begun to repel him” when he goes to visit the Kornsá farm. Meanwhile, the family at the Kornsá farm cannot refuse to accept Agnes because failing to honor Blöndel’s request would ensure that Blöndel would cause the family trouble. The family worries that Steina’s objections to Blöndel and her impertinence towards him could affect their social standing. The family even hears a rumor that Blöndel originally was going to place Agnes in a different family, before deciding that, if Agnes decided to kill anyone else, the family on the Kornsá farm was more expendable. This shows how, even for middle class farmers like the family at Kornsá, small differences in status can be a matter of life or death.

Through her examination of characters like Agnes and Blöndel, Kent gives portraits of different class statuses, showing how colonization exacerbates class differences and how people of high classes generally abuse people of lower classes.

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Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power appears in each Chapter of Burial Rites. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Quotes in Burial Rites

Below you will find the important quotes in Burial Rites related to the theme of Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power.
Prologue Quotes

I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames…fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me…I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?

Related Characters: Agnes Magnúsdottir (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which Kent uses to open her novel, Agnes, who has not yet been introduced by name, meditates on the nature of life and death. As she does throughout the book, Agnes imagines the nature of mortality as being outside of the Christianity that dominates society in the book, preferring to think of human lives as candles lights. Instead of imagining that her soul will go to the Christian afterlife, Agnes pictures herself “vanish[ing] into the air and the night.” She expresses uncertainty about exactly where she will go after death, asking “where will I be then?’

Agnes’s imagination of human morality also features an unnamed “they” approaching to blow out her life, and which will “blow us all out.” It is unclear who she means by “they”— is “they” a god? A group of gods? The mortal authorities that are persecuting her? Agnes never answers this question, but her description of “them” blowing out her life and everyone else’s reflects her feelings of fear and powerlessness in the face of persecution and death.

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Chapter 1 Quotes

He had grown corpulent since his posting as District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwelling provided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf.

Related Characters: Björn Blöndal
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

When Blöndal, the District Commissioner of the region and one of the most powerful men in Kent’s Iceland, arrives at the Kornsá farm, his contempt for Kornsá and the family of District Officer Jón is immediately palpable. Blöndal is one of the story’s villains, and in this first chapter Kent introduces him through passages like this that convey his sense of superiority and lack of respect for the people he rules over.

As a perk of his authority, Blöndal enjoys a large house made from “imported wood” and enough fine food to make him plump, marking his power and wealth. In comparison, the farm at Kornsá is very humble. Blöndal’s word choice in this section conveys his disdain for Kornsá when he describes the farm as a “hovel of the peasants” and talks about how it “repel[s] him.” Clearly, Blöndal does not have much respect for the people he is supposed to be protecting and serving, suggesting that Blöndal has his own greed and not their best interests at heart.

Chapter 3 Quotes

I prefer a story to a prayer. They whipped me for that at this farm, Kornsá, once, when I was young and fostered out to watch over the home field. The farmer Björn did not like that I knew the sagas better than him. You’re better off keeping company with the sheep, Agnes. Books written by man, not God, are faithless friends and not for your kind.

Related Characters: Agnes Magnúsdottir (speaker), Björn
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Agnes discusses her love of literature and how her foster father disapproved of her literary talent. Agnes begins by saying that she prefers “a story to a prayer,” setting literature in opposition to religion. This is interesting because, at various other points in the novel, Christianity and reading are closely linked, since many children learn to read through the church and the Bible. Agnes is punished for her preference for non-religious stories as a child—perhaps an early sign of Agnes’s skepticism towards mainstream Christianity.

Agnes believes that Björn is jealous of her superior knowledge of the sagas, showing how literary prowess is a highly desirable quality in Kent’s Iceland. Björn seems wary of secular books, telling her “books written by man, not God, are faithless friends.” Essentially, Björn is telling Agnes that reading outside of the Bible is a dangerous pursuit for her. When Björn tells Agnes these book are “not for [her] kind,” it is unclear what “kind” he means, exactly— is it her low class? Her gender? Either way, Björn worries about the effect of literature on Agnes, showing exactly how powerful he considers books to be.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“Why not Sigga?” Tóti asked in a small voice.
Blöndal shook his head. “The maid of sixteen who burst into tears as soon as I summoned her? Sigga didn’t even attempt to lie—she is too simple-minded, too young to know how. She told me everything. How Agnes hated Natan, how Agnes was jealous of his attentions to her. Sigga is not bright, but she saw that much.”

Related Characters: Björn Blöndal (speaker), Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti) (speaker), Agnes Magnúsdottir, Natan Ketilsson, Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir (Sigga)
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

This dialogue takes place during Tóti’s meeting with Blöndal, when Blöndal asks about Tóti’s progress with Agnes and tells him in detail about what he believes happened on the night of the murders. After Blöndal has laid out his evidence for why he believes Agnes killed Natan, Tóti asks if Sigga could not have killed him instead.

Blöndal’s response effectively confirms Agnes’s earlier analysis of why she believes people have sympathy for Sigga and not for her. Blöndal points out Sigga’s young age and describes how she “burst into tears” when questioned. Blöndal seems to believe that, because of Sigga’s emotional outburst, her youth, and the fact that she is “simple-minded,” she could not be guilty. These traits (emotionality and supposed “simpleness” especially) are stereotypically feminine traits, and they appear to make Blöndal trust Sigga even more, despite the fact that, rationally, they would seem likely to make Sigga’s perspective less reliable.

Tóti nodded, and slowly picked up the swan feather… “You mean to make an example of her,” he said quietly.
“I mean to deliver God’s justice here on earth,” Blöndal said, frowning. “I mean to honor the authorities who have appointed me by fulfilling my duty as a lawkeeper.”
…“I hear that you have appointed Gudmundur Ketilsson as executioner.”
…“I do not have to explain my decisions to you, Reverend. I am not accountable to parish priests. I am accountable to Denmark. To the King…We are not her to discuss my performance. We are here to discuss yours.”

Related Characters: Björn Blöndal (speaker), Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti) (speaker), Agnes Magnúsdottir, Gudmundur Ketilsson
Page Number: 164-165
Explanation and Analysis:

This dialogue takes place during Tóti’s meeting with Blöndal, after Blöndal has explained his perception of the events the night of Natan’s murder. Tóti turns the tables on Blöndal in this dialogue, subtly implying his objections to Blöndal’s use of Agnes as an “example” and his appointment of Gudmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, as the executioner.

While Tóti sees Blöndal’s execution of Agnes as a demonstration of Blöndal’s power and the power of the authorities, Blöndal reframes the execution as delivering “God’s justice here on earth” and “honoring the authorities who appointed [him].” Blöndal conflates Christianity and God’s justice with his own power and the power of the Danish authorities, showing the danger of a highly intertwined church and state. Even though Tóti, not Blöndal, is a priest, Blöndal presumes to equate “God’s justice” with his own. When Tóti tries to imply his dissent, Blöndal uses his higher status to shut down the conversation.

She said Natan had started giving himself some airs, calling himself Lyngdal, not Ketilsson, though neither of us could work out why—it was a strange sort of name to have, not Icelandic in the slightest. María thought it was probably to make himself out to be a Dane, and I wondered that he was allowed to change his name at all. María told me that men might do as they please, and that they are all Adams, naming everything under the sun.

Related Characters: Agnes Magnúsdottir (speaker), Natan Ketilsson, María Jónsdóttir
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Agnes’s friend Maria tells Agnes about Natan before she meets him for the first time. Maria describes how Natan has supposedly changed his last name from “Ketilsson” to “Lyngdal.”

Because names are so significant in the novel and evoke strong emotions or indicate what is essential about a person or place, Natan’s multiple names suggest that his identity is amorphous or splintered. This makes sense with how polarizing a figure he is (many people hate him, while others love him) and how he can be viewed in so many different lights—and, further, how he presents different facades to different people, particularly the various women he manipulates. Maria’s suggestion that Natan is trying to make himself out to be a Dane makes sense with Natan’s desire to elevate his social status and prove himself superior to those around him, since the Danish colonizers have much more power and wealth than most Icelanders. As Agnes wonders about the logistics of name changing, Maria says that, as an “Adam” (the biblical first man, who gave names to all the animals), Natan can name whatever he wants. Maria highlights the power that men have to change their own identities and name others—a privilege that, based on Maria’s Adam and Eve reference, women do not have.