Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The first chapter of the novel begins with a public notice announcing the auction of Natan Ketilsson’s possessions, including animals and household objects, to be sold to the highest bidder. If the weather is too bad, it will be held the following day. The notice is signed by District Commissioner Björn Blöndal.
Kent uses documents designed to resemble records, letters, and notices to remind the reader that her novel is based on historical events, blending the barrier between “true” stories and fiction.
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Next, Kent presents a letter to a reverend from Björn Blöndal, responding to a prior letter in which the reverend inquired about the burial of Pétur Jónsson, who was murdered along with Natan Ketilsson earlier that month. Blöndal states that, because Pétur was a convicted criminal, there was debate about how he should be buried. Since the Icelanders had not received any letters from Denmark telling them what to do, they buried Pétur Jónsson with Christian rites.
Kent makes it clear how deeply intertwined the government is with Christianity when she depicts the debate about whether Pétur should be buried with Christian rites. Notably, the Icelanders defer to Denmark in this decision, showing how influential the colonial power is in their daily life.
Themes
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Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
In the next letter of the chapter, Björn Blöndal writes to Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson (Tóti). First, he extends his congratulations to Tóti for completing his studies. Then, Blöndal tells Tóti he is going to execute Natan and Pétur’s murderers. To refresh Tóti’s memory, Blöndal describes the murders, recounting how Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson’s burnt remains were found on Natan’s farm. Eventually, one man and two women Fridrik Sigurdsson, Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir (Sigga), and Agnes Magnúsdottir, were charged with the murders and sentenced to death.
Kent first introduces Agnes to the reader in this letter, where Blöndal describes to Tóti the crimes for which Agnes, Sigga, and Fridrik are to be executed. This puts the reader in the same position as the family at Kornsá— having already heard the story of Agnes’s evil deeds, they encounter her with significant prejudgment. The reader, like the characters, must compare the real Agnes with her reputation in order to figure out what is true.
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The convicts are being held in the north, and one of them, Agnes Magnúsdottir, is being moved from Stóra-Borg to Kornsá. Agnes has requested Tóti for spiritual guidance, which is why Blöndal is writing to him. Blöndal conveys his hesitation, saying that Tóti has little experience, but says that if Tóti wants to take on the task, he will have to visit Kornsá regularly. Blöndal tells Tóti he is awaiting his response.
Through Blöndal’s various letters, Kent shows how powerful he is in his district. When Blöndal asks if Tóti will be Agnes’s spiritual advisor, Kent again shows how closely tied the government and the justice system are with religion.
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Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
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After Blöndal’s letter, the novel begins a third-person narrative, which opens with Tóti’s father, Reverend Jón, walking into their house and telling him that a messenger has arrived. The messenger enters and tells Tóti he has a letter from District Commissioner Blöndal, saying he is supposed to wait at the house until Tóti has read it. Tóti breaks the seal of the letter and reads. When he finishes, the messenger asks for his response. Tóti says he must talk with his father.
Here, the reader sees Tóti reading Blöndal’s letter, which Kent displayed just before the commencement of the third-person narrative. By giving the letter to the reader before having Tóti read it within the narrative, Kent places the reader in Tóti’s shoes as he takes in the immense religious responsibility he has been asked to bear.
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Tóti finds Reverend Jón in the communal bedroom (the badstofa), and gives him the letter to read. Once he finishes reading, Tóti asks him what he should do, and his father says it is his choice. Tóti returns to the other room and tells the messenger that he will meet with Agnes. The messenger is shocked when he hears Agnes’s name, and jokes that Tóti is too young to be Agnes’s spiritual advisor.
Kent’s prominent use of letters in the beginning of each chapter reflects the extreme importance of written communication and literacy in the world of the book. Tóti and his father are both educated and literate, allowing them to read the letters that Blöndal uses to communicate.
Themes
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The third-person narrative jumps to describing Steina Jónsdottir, who is working on her family’s farm, Kornsá. She suddenly hears hooves while she is piling dried dung. Steina stands up, and, seeing a man in a red coat approaching on horseback, tries to clean her hands in a hurry. The man greets Steina and then introduces himself as District Commissioner Björn Blöndal, Steina’s father’s superior. Steina tells Blöndal that neither her father nor mother is home.
The fact that Steina is piling dried dung when Blöndal approaches on horseback emphasizes their class difference. While Steina is dirty and wipes her hands on her apron to try to get clean, Blöndal is wearing a fashionable red coat. The difference in their clothing shows the difference in their economic status.
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Blöndal asks to come inside. Steina shows Blöndal where to tie his horse and leads him in. As Blöndal walks through the house, he is uncomfortable in the small space, thinking he does not like “the hovels of the peasants and farmers.” Steina tells Blöndal that her parents with return tomorrow or the next day, depending on the weather. She tells him to take a seat while she goes to find her sister.
Blöndal’s disgust as he walks through the house at Kornsá shows how he disdains people who are of a lower class than he is. He refers to the house as a “hovel,” lumping it in with the other dwellings of “peasants and farmers” to show his sense of superiority.
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Lauga Jónsdóttir, Steina’s sister, is weeding in the garden when Steina comes looking for her. Steina tells Lauga that Blöndal is there. Lauga criticizes her sister for leaving “a man like Blöndal” in their house alone, and probably with only the servants’ whey to drink. Steina corrects her, saying she did not give him anything, and Lauga is even more dismayed.
Lauga seems to accept Iceland’s class system and recognizes the importance of treating Blöndal with distinction because of his high class status. Steina, meanwhile, seems to either not be aware of his higher status or to not respect it.
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Lauga trots back to the house, tidies herself, and goes into the parlor to greet Blöndal. She apologies for her sister’s behavior and silently hopes that Blöndal has come to offer her father Jón a promotion. She asks Blöndal if he would like some skyr (an Icelandic dairy product) and then goes to fetch it and some coffee. In the kitchen, Steina tells Lauga they have no more coffee because she drank it all. Lauga chastises Steina, then tells her to get the skyr and bring Blöndal fresh milk. Lauga thinks better of this, though, and instead tells Steina to let their servant Kristín serve Blöndel, since Steina is so dirty.
As Lauga politely offers Blöndal food and coffee, Kent shows that she is adept at navigating the Icelandic class system. Her hopes that Blöndal will promote her father display her ambition to rise in class status by playing the necessary games. Steina, meanwhile, is clearly not interested in or good at navigating these social affairs, so much so that Lauga tries to hide Steina in the kitchen while Kristín serves Blöndal.
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Lauga returns to the parlor. To her annoyance, Steina (instead of Kristín) emerges from the kitchen carrying the food for Blöndal. Blöndal asks which of the two of them is older, and Lauga tells Blöndal that she is younger by one year. Blöndal tells them that they are both very pretty. Blöndal sniffs the food and the milk, but he does not eat it.
Blöndal again shows his disdain for the lower class family at Kornsá when he refuses to eat the skyr Lauga brings him. Throughout the book, food and drink show and reinforce class divides, as luxury goods are reserved for people with high status.
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Blöndal tells the girls that he had intended to talk to their father, but that since their father is absent, he will tell the girls. Blöndal asks if they are familiar with the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, and then updates them on the case, which proceeded to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, where the King agreed with Blöndal’s execution sentence. Lauga asks if the murderers are being sent to Denmark for execution, and Blöndal tells her no. Lauga, puzzled, asks him where they are to be killed.
As Blöndal and Lauga discuss Agnes’s case and trial, Kent highlights how the legal system worked in colonial Iceland, with Danish officials and monarchs reviewing the decisions of Icelandic officials like Blöndal. Although Blöndal thinks he is very important, and does possess a lot of authority in the book, he has much less power than his superiors on the mainland.
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Blöndal rises from his chair and walks to the window. Blöndal tells the girls that the criminals are to be executed in Iceland to serve as an example to the local community. Blöndal notes that important criminals are usually sent abroad for punishment, so there are no jails in Iceland. Blöndal has decided to place the criminals on the farms of government officials until they are to be killed. Lauga asks why they cannot be held in Reykjavík, and Blöndal tells her the cost is too high.
As Blöndal explains the lack of prisons in Iceland, he shows the reader how the lack of infrastructure makes it impossible for Iceland to have an autonomous justice system. Without jails in Iceland, people must depend on Denmark to house prisoners, shifting the power to punish out of Icelandic hands and into the hands of Danish colonial authorities.
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Steina grows angry as she realizes that Blöndal means to lodge one of the criminals in their house. Blöndal tells her he will compensate their family, and that their father’s title requires certain responsibility. He then tells them they will only host one of the women prisoners. The narrative then cuts to Blöndal leaving, as Steina, furious, clears away his bowl of uneaten skyr.
Steina’s reaction to Blöndal’s decision again shows how Stena does not subscribe to the norms of politeness attached to speaking with an authority figure like Blöndal. Blöndal’s uneaten bowl of skyr, meanwhile, represents his sense of superiority over and detachment from the people of Kornsá.
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The chapter changes to the first person narrative of Agnes. Agnes wonders whether she is already dead. She is in a storeroom and the air is filthy and stagnant. She is alone, chained and without light. Agnes wonders if it is summer, hearing footsteps and laughter outside. She imagines the valley in summer and the bright blue sky.
Agnes’s imprisonment in the storeroom is not only incredibly physically unpleasant, but it also denies her access to nature, something that Agnes clearly craves as she daydreams about the valley and the sky.
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The narrative returns to the third-person as Jón Jónsson and Margrét set out for home, three days after Blöndal’s visit to their daughters Steina and Lauga. Margrét coughs violently as they ride back. As they pass a neighbor’s house, Margrét notices their new cow and says she would like another cow for the extra butter, as well as another servant. Jón tells her to be patient.
In this section, Kent introduces the reader to Jón and Margrét, Steina and Lauga’s parents. Margrét, who goes on to be an essential character in the book and an important ally of Agnes, has ambitions to better her family by obtaining more wealth and extra help on the farm.
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Meanwhile, at Kornsá, Lauga and Steina are silently collecting water from the stream, having ignored each other since Blöndal’s visit. Lauga worries that Steina’s impertinence towards him will hurt their family, while Steina worries about the criminal they must house and feels angry at Blöndal for subjecting them to danger. Lauga, seeing a horse in the distance, tells Steina that their parents are returning. She sends Steina to fill both water buckets while she goes to greet their parents. Lauga’s mind races as she prepares broth for Jón and Margrét. She decides to tell them about Blöndal’s visit while they eat together in the badstofa.
Lauga and Steina’s relationship is very tense throughout the book. The two sisters have extremely different personalities, making it difficult for them to understand and connect with each other. As she does during Blöndal’s visit, Lauga sends Steina away when her parents arrive at the house. Lauga seems not to trust Steina to behave appropriately considering the delicate nature of the news they have for Margrét and Jón.
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When Jón and Margrét arrive, Jon greets Lauga with a kiss. Margrét and Lauga hug. Margrét asks where Steina is, and Lauga says she is fetching water. Margrét expresses surprise that she is not there to welcome them. Lauga turns to her father and says that she has something to tell him later, when they are alone, assuring him in the meantime that no animals have died. Margrét says that Lauga can say whatever she needs to tell him in front of her. The family heads inside the house.
It seems that Lauga has internalized some of the sexist standards present in Icelandic society, as she addresses her father as the “head of the household.” Margrét senses this, as she makes obvious when she tells Lauga to just say whatever it is in front of both of them.
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Once Jón and Margrét are settled in the badstofa, Lauga brings them bowls of broth. Lauga tries to tell them the news as Jón changes his clothes, but Margrét interrupts her. Finally, Lauga tells Jón that Blöndal paid a visit while they were away to deliver a letter. Jón asks for the letter, but Lauga tells him that Steina burnt it. As Jón and Margrét become agitated, Steina, sopping wet from her trip to get water, bursts into the room and tells them that they will have to house the criminal Agnes Magnúsdottir.
Despite Lauga’s best efforts, Steina ends up ruining her careful plans for informing her parents of the alarming news, as the more straightforward (and less diplomatic) Steina tells them the truth herself. The fact that Steina has burned the letter, in addition to her sudden intrusion and outburst, shows that Steina is a passionate and sometimes bold character.
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Steina’s news horrifies Margrét, as they all know that Agnes was convicted of murder. Lauga is angry with Steina for interrupting her plan to tell her parents, and begins to chastise her. Jón tells them to stop bickering. Lauga recounts the entire visit, and as Lauga finishes her story, Jón begins to dress again. Margrét implores Jón to reject the request, but Jón ignores her and rides to Hvammur to talk to Blöndal.
Agnes’s very name evokes fantasies of her crime, upsetting the family and leaving them concerned about the prospect of housing such a presumably violent woman. Even before Agnes arrives at the farm, the news of her impending arrival creates a rift between Lauga and Steina.
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Several hours later, Jón returns to Kornsá. He confirms that Agnes will be moved to Kornsá. Jón explains that, as a District Officer, he is obligated to fulfill his responsibility to Blöndal. Margrét is angry, asking why he, of all the District Officers, must shoulder this responsibility. Jón tells Margrét that they will be compensated for the service. Margrét says that they should consider sending the girls away for their safety, but Jón rejects this idea. He then tells Margrét that she will have to receive Agnes when she arrives, since Blöndal has requested Jón’s presence in Hvammur that night to discuss who the executioner will be. Margrét, Steina, and Lauga are dismayed.
As Jón explains that he is obligated to fulfill his duty to Blöndal, Kent shows the reader how the power hierarchy in Iceland can be abused, leaving families like the one at Kornsá without agency to make real choices for themselves. Margrét, meanwhile, is clearly disturbed by the rumors she has heard about Agnes, her deeds, and her capacity for violence. Agnes’s reputation precedes her, causing Margrét to fear for her girls’ safety.
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The narrative then switches to Agnes’s first person perspective as she describes her poor treatment in the days before she is to be moved. She emphasizes the quiet and the darkness, how no one ever speaks to her, and how she only hears her name on others’ lips when they are saying bad things about her. Agnes stays quiet, reciting the sagas to keep herself sane. She closes herself off from the world so that she is “not there” when people curse her and see her in a bad light.
As Agnes, who seems to be in a disturbed state because of the poor conditions she has been kept in, discusses how her name is being used, she draws attention to the importance of names, a common theme throughout the book. When other people refuse to talk to her and only say her name to say nasty things about her, it clearly hurts Agnes—and her very sense of identity—immensely. Note also that Agnes can recite the sagas to herself, showing her education and intelligence.
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The narrative changes again to the third person, which now follows Tóti as he leaves church. He accepted Blöndal’s offer to visit Agnes a month ago, and has lived in self-doubt ever since. As Tóti walks through the churchyard back to his house, he reflects on his father’s coldness after his mother’s death. When he gets to the house, Reverend Jón is boiling fish. Tóti tells him he is going to Kornsá, where Agnes is scheduled to arrive that night.
Reverend Jón, Tóti’s father, is a very tough parent, as Kent makes clear from the very first time she introduces him. Reverend Jón and his son Tóti are both priests, but despite this commonality they exemplify totally different views of Christianity.
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Tóti asks his father if he thinks he is ready, and Reverend Jón tells him that only he knows, but that since he has agreed to help Agnes he must. When Tóti asks his father if he will pray for him, Reverend Jón does not respond. Reverend Jón tells Tóti not to wake him when he returns, and then he leaves the room.
Despite Reverend Jón’s highly religious disposition, he has trouble connecting with and supporting his son. This shows how his kind of Christianity may be somewhat hypocritical, as his piety does not help him actually love the people around him.
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Tóti prepares his horse and rides towards Kornsá, rehearsing what he will say to Agnes and dreading the impending encounter. As he takes in the Icelandic landscape’s beauty, Tóti feels more at ease and whispers to himself that he will save Agnes.
As Tóti rides across the Icelandic landscape, the view renews him spiritually, so he feels capable of ministering to Agnes. For Tóti, natural beauty compliments religion.
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