Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Two begins with an entry from the Undirfell Ministerial Book, stating where Agnes was born, at what age she was confirmed, and proclaiming that she had an excellent intellect and knowledge of Christianity.
The exact nature of Agnes’s spirituality as an adult is unclear, but Agnes does possess a strong knowledge of Christianity from her childhood.
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The narrative then returns to Agnes’s first person perspective as she describes her transfer to Kornsá. An officer of the court takes Agnes out of her wretched storeroom into the yard, where it is raining. Agnes thinks that, after months in prison, she must look like a monster. She gasps at the fresh air and falls to her knees. One of the men guarding Agnes reaches down and roughly pulls her to her feet.
After being cooped up inside, Agnes is ecstatic to enjoy the rain and the fresh air. For Agnes, the Icelandic landscape is a safe place where she feels free and can express herself openly. Later in the book, for example, Agnes often chooses to be outside during her conversations with Tóti.
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Agnes notices that a crowd has gathered to look at her, and she thinks about how the crowd is not actually seeing her, but rather seeing the crime she represents. Agnes sees Rósa watching at a distance, and Agnes smiles. This makes the crowd furious, and people begin to yell at her. Then they all leave to continue their chores, including Rósa.
Agnes’s frustration about the crowd reducing her identity to her crime echoes her earlier anxiety about people never speaking her name except to curse it. Agnes is disturbed that her identity has been redefined by rumors of her criminality.
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Agnes and her guards begin their journey across the Icelandic landscape to Kornsá. Agnes is happy to return to the part of Iceland that she knows so well, but she knows she is going there to die and wonders how she will be executed. Despite the flies, Agnes is happy to be outside. Agnes hears the ocean and thinks about how Natan once told her that, “like a woman… the sea is a nag” while they were out boating.
Agnes expresses her connection to the Icelandic landscape (and particularly to the landscape around Kornsá) as she enjoys the ride from Stora-Borg. In this section, Kent also foreshadows the ugly fight between Agnes and Natan at the end of the book through the use of the word “nag.”
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Agnes hears the caws of ravens and thinks that, although they are cruel birds, they are smart. Ravens are supposed to predict death, and Agnes thinks of how she once watched a raven jerk its beak toward a farm where a boy later drowned. Agnes also remembers hearing a raven shriek with Sigga one night. She wonders where Sigga is now, and why they keep Sigga away from her.
Agnes’s description of ravens as birds that are cruel but smart seems to reflect the way Agnes has been described throughout her life: as a woman who is too smart and so is mistrusted. Agnes also displays her own superstitious nature as she talks about ravens predicting death.
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A man rides up next to Agnes and tells her that she is going to be held at Kornsá until her execution. He tells her to stop scowling, and then rides past her. Agnes thinks that she is being held at Kornsá to humiliate her, since everyone there will remember her as an innocent child, and seeing her now as a prisoner will ruin their image of her.
Agnes worries about how she will be viewed at Kornsá now that she is no longer an innocent child, and instead is a convicted criminal. She sees this blow to her reputation as a particularly unfair social and psychological punishment.
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The narrative changes back to third-person to describe Tóti standing in the doorway with Margrét, watching the group of riders arrive with Agnes. Tóti asks if Lauga and Steina will join them. Margrét reiterates how much she does not want to host Agnes. When Tóti tells her that they must “all do [their] duty,” Margrét reminds him that, as a man, he does not have to worry about the danger Agnes poses as much as Margrét and her daughters do. She hopes an officer will stay with them to protect them.
When Margrét tells Tóti that as a man he is not as physically threatened by Agnes’s presence as Margrét and her daughters are, she suggests that women must be more afraid of violence and cannot defend themselves as well against it. Margrét implies that women have to be constantly cognizant of danger in a way that men do not have to think about. (Yet it’s also worth noting that Agnes is accused of having murdered a man.)
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Margrét points out a flock of ravens to Tóti and asks if he is a man of tradition. Tóti responds yes, but only if they are Christian traditions. Margrét tells Tóti that the name for a flock of ravens is a “conspiracy,” and Tóti responds that he thought it was called an “unkindness.”
As Margrét and Tóti discuss ravens, they leave unanswered the question of whether believing that ravens predict death is a Christian superstition. This suggests the possibility that Christianity and superstition may intersect in Icelandic culture. Both of the potential names for a flock of ravens show the negative stigma against the birds.
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A rider reaches the edge of the homestead, dismounts, and greets Margrét and Tóti. He tells Margrét that Agnes will not cause any trouble, and they will stay there that night to make sure of it. Tóti asks where Agnes is, and the rider points to her before adding that Sigga, the other convicted woman, has had her case appealed because people think that, unlike Agnes, she is “too young and sweet to die.” According to the man, Blöndal supports Sigga’s appeal but not Agnes’s. Tóti asks what he should call the prisoner, and the man says “just Agnes.”
When the rider talks to Tóti about Sigga’s appeal, his opinion that Sigga is “too young and sweet to die” shows how male mercy and sympathy are heavily skewed towards women who possess qualities correlated to traditional femininity and “innocence,” like youth and “sweetness.” Agnes, unlike Sigga, is not a woman who exemplifies these qualities, and so she is automatically suspect.
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The narrative returns to Agnes’s first person perspective as she describes watching her accompanying officer talk with the people at the Kornsá homestead. Agnes has not eaten or drank all day, and she is “no longer a woman” because she is so malnourished that she no longer gets her period. Tóti approaches Agnes and introduces himself. Agnes seems to recognize him, but Tóti does not recognize her. Agnes says nothing and picks at her scabs when Tóti tries to talk to her. Finally Tóti says goodbye, then bows and walks away. Agnes, now alone, watches the ravens.
When Agnes points out that she no longer gets her period because of how little she has been given to eat, she shows how the justice system has, at least according to Agnes’s definition of womanhood, stripped her of her femininity as they punish her for her crime. Kent tries to show that, based on how 19th-century Icelanders thought about women, criminality and femininity are fundamentally incompatible.
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The narrative returns to the third-person as Margrét cleans up from dinner while Lauga and Steina sleep. The house at Kornsá has begun to decay, causing dangerous mold that gives the residents lung problems. Margrét’s persistent, worsening cough worries her. One of the officers goes to fetch Agnes from where she is tied up, and Margrét, who has not yet really met Agnes, is nervous. When the officer enters with Agnes, Margrét is shocked by how filthy and battered she is. Margrét expresses her discontent that Agnes has clearly been beaten, and asks for Agnes’s handcuffs to be taken off.
When Kent describes Margrét’s cough and how it stems from the mold of the decaying house, she shows how poverty can not only be uncomfortable, but also can create unsafe living conditions and pose a real threat to health. Kent also shows Margrét’s soft side in this section, as Margrét is obviously appalled by how the men guarding Agnes have beaten her during her incarceration.
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Margrét sends the guard away and steers Agnes into the kitchen, where she tells Agnes to take off her dirty clothes and wash in the water of a large kettle that Margrét takes off the fire. Agnes drops to the ground and begins drinking the greasy kettle water with her hands. Margrét pushes her away from it and, as Agnes cowers, Margrét tells her to ask for a cup next time.
Although Kent shows Margrét sympathizing with Agnes in the preceding section, this sympathy clearly has its limits.
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The narrative then jumps to Tóti, who arrives back at his father’s house on horseback. After taking care of his horse, Tóti walks to the church and reflects on his meeting with Agnes. He remembers how dirty, beaten, and sick she looked, and berates himself for wanting to flee from the sight of her since, as a priest, he should be able to stand the sight of suffering. Tóti arrives at the church and lets himself in. He gazes at the mural of the Last Supper painted behind the altar. Tóti thinks the mural is ugly and remembers how, after the former mural faded, his father commissioned this ugly, cheap one. Tóti sinks to his knees and prays for guidance in helping Agnes. He stays there for a long time before going to put his horse to stable.
As Tóti thinks about his encounter with Agnes, he seems to realize how his own repulsion from Agnes’s suffering contradicts the Christianity that he has been taught. Throughout the book, Tóti struggles to follow his understanding of his religion, sometimes prevented from doing so by his own limitations and other times warned against doing so by other priests. The repainted mural in this section seems to represent the more hollow versions of Christianity that Tóti tries to avoid.
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The narrative switches back to following Margrét, who wakes early to the snoring of the officer who was supposed to stay awake and protect them. Margrét looks over at where Agnes is sleeping and silently mouths her name, thinking it feels wrong to call her by “a Christian name.” Margrét thinks about how the only murderesses she has ever encountered were in the Icelandic sagas. However, Margrét thinks, those women verbally ordered murders but did not commit them themselves.
As Margrét thinks over Agnes and her crime, she, like many other characters, expresses discomfort with calling Agnes by her “Christian” name because of how incompatible Agnes’s alleged actions are with Christianity. Margrét also tries to process Agnes’s crime by referencing the sagas, using literature to help herself understand Agnes.
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Margrét, still in bed, thinks of her former servants, imagining them killing her like Agnes killed Natan. She thinks of Lauga’s belief that murderers have outward marks of evil (harelips, snaggleteeth, etc.). She also thinks of the rumors that Agnes caused Natan to end his affair with the beautiful, talented Rósa. Margrét notes that while Agnes’s dark hair is striking, she is not especially beautiful.
Lauga’s belief that murderers possess marks of evil shows the unfair truth that perceptions of innocence are often related to people’s physical appearances. Appearances that are other-than-normal or beautiful are more likely to be mistrusted and understood as markers of guilt.
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Margrét thinks of how dirty Agnes’s body looked as she had helped her wash the previous night. Despite herself, Margrét had looked for marks like the one Lauga insisted would be present. Margrét was shocked by how badly Agnes had been abused. When Agnes’s wounds bled, Margrét put ointment on them, and told Agnes that Natan had made the medicine. Agnes did not respond. When Agnes was washed, Margrét gave her clothes and bedding.
Margrét does not see any marks of evil on Agnes, instead finding the bruises and cuts from where Agnes was beaten. The presence of these marks instead of genetic “marks of evil” could be a symbol of how evilness is projected onto Agnes rather than being an innate quality she possesses.
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Margrét’s thoughts dissipate and she looks around the badstofa at everyone else sleeping. The officer is still snoring, to Margrét’s amusement and annoyance. Margrét gets up to prepare breakfast, and as she does she glances at Agnes again. Agnes, to Margrét’s surprise, is staring at her.
Clearly, the officer assigned to protect Margrét and her daughters is not especially devoted to his job, reflecting Margrét’s earlier sense that the men around her do not really understand or care about the danger she and her daughters potentially face.
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