Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Three opens with a document from the Supreme Court trials of Agnes’s case in 1829. The document states the allegation that Fridrik, Agnes, and Sigga entered Natan’s house with the intention of robbing him. According to the District Commissioner, they acted together to kill Natan and Pétur with a knife and hammer before burning the farm and the bodies.
At this point, Kent has presented the reader with several different descriptions of the crime that Agnes has allegedly committed. Kent’s repetition of the events of that night suggests how the facts of the murders may differ depending on who is talking about it.
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The narrative then resumes Agnes’s first person perspective as she describes how at Kornsá, she has dreamed for the first time since her imprisonment. In Agnes’s dream, she and Natan were brewing herbs together. Agnes, feeling deeply in love with him, reached out to embrace him, causing him to drop the beaker, which then smashed on the floor. When Agnes awakes the next day, she remembers with grief that Natan is dead.
Throughout the novel, dreams are important windows into characters’ psychology as well as sometimes predicting the future. Here, Agnes’s dream reveals that she was not only close with Natan, but also was, in fact, in love with him. When her embrace causes Natan to drop the beaker, the dream takes on a sense of foreboding.
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Agnes thinks of happy memories of her mother to try to counteract her sadness, but the memories feel hollow. Agnes opens her eyes and sees Margrét lying awake. Margrét turns and sees Agnes watching her. Margrét tells Agnes to get up and the two women go outside. Margrét makes it clear that she does not want Agnes living with them, but says she is obligated to keep her. Margrét tells Agnes that her husband will return that morning, and warns her not to act up.
Margrét seems to believe that Agnes is guilty of her crimes and treats Agnes with a strictness that shows that Margrét does not trust her. Margrét also reveals her anxiety as a woman left alone without a man for protection when she tells Agnes Jón will be home soon as a warning not to act up.
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Margrét then asks Agnes about her work experience as a servant and whether she can do household tasks and wield a scythe. Margrét is pleased with Agnes’s affirmative answers, and tells Agnes she has no use for a “criminal,” but she can use a servant. Agnes mentally objects to the word “criminal,” thinking it does not fit her, but does not say anything. Margrét tells Agnes she will not tolerate any misbehavior. As Margrét brings Agnes outside to show her the livestock, they see Margrét’s neighbors Snaebjörn, Páll, and Róslín approaching the house.
Agnes’s objection to being called a “criminal” shows her attention to how nuances of different names can either accurately reflect or obscure someone’s or something’s essence. Margrét, meanwhile, shows that she sees Agnes as a two dimensional criminal by the way she talks to her, but suggests that, through obedient work, Agnes might elevate herself from a criminal to a “servant.”
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Margrét quickly tells Agnes to go into the house. When Snaebjörn gets closer, he greets Margrét. Snaebjörn tells Margrét that they had heard about Margrét’s situation and wanted to make sure she was all right. As Róslín, who is pregnant, comes within earshot, she greets Margrét and gives her a loaf of homemade rye bread.
Agnes is a curiosity in the neighborhood, and although Margrét’s family did not have a choice in housing her because Blöndal demanded it, Margrét clearly worries about how Agnes’s presence will affect their reputation in the community.
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Snaebjörn asks where Jón is, and when he hears that he is out, Snaebjörn excuses himself and Páll to do some work, leaving Róslín to chat with Margrét. Margrét falls into a spell of coughing. Róslín says she worries about her and that she has heard strange rumors. She says she thought she saw someone else in the doorway with Margrét as she approached and, feigning innocence, asks Margrét if it was a new servant.
Róslín exemplifies how stories and rumors can become toxic in the small communities of rural Iceland. Róslín, who is a dramatic busybody, thrives on gossip. Although later she professes to despise Agnes, she is also extremely curious about her, and, as Agnes fears, sees Agnes as a criminal rather than a human being.
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Margrét tells Róslín that Agnes has been placed in their care. Róslín says that she actually came by because she heard a rumor that Blöndal had moved Agnes to Kornsá. She says it is because the family Agnes was with before was too important to be put in such dangerous proximity to a murderess. As Róslín says this, she realizes how offensive it is, and tries to take it back, but Margrét simply says that the rumors of Agnes staying with them are true, and she does not know the reasons behind the decision.
When Róslín lets slip that Blöndal decided to move Agnes because she was staying with a more important family before, Kent makes it clear that Blöndal sees people who are not powerful or influential as expendable. This shows how class differences and hierarchies can allow more powerful people to place those less powerful in real danger.
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Róslín tells Margrét that she feels sorry for her, and warns her that the murderers of “good” Pétur and Natan are extremely wicked. Margrét reminds Róslín that Pétur was a thief and Natan a womanizer. Róslín asks if Margrét thinks that they deserved to die, and Margrét says of course not. Róslín then says Agnes is rumored to be the worst of the murderers, and the mastermind.
Róslín clearly sees morality in a way that it very black and white—Natan and Pétur, for example, who were never especially good in life, are “good” now that they are murder victims. Róslín’s interpretation suggests that innocence can be projected onto someone retrospectively.
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As Róslín describes the graphic rumors about the murders, Margrét wishes that she would leave. Róslín continues to talk dramatically about Agnes and to ask Margrét probing questions, clearly hoping to get a glimpse of her, as Margrét grows more and more annoyed. Finally, Margrét pointedly says goodbye to Róslín and Róslín leaves.
Kent shows Róslín’s simultaneous fascination with and hatred and fear of Agnes as she describes her looking for Agnes as she says terrible things about her. To Róslín, Agnes’s name and identity are highly sensationalized.
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The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person perspective as she, having been sent back to the badstofa by Margrét, sees that the sleeping officer, Lauga, and Steina are now gone. She realizes with exhilaration she is unguarded for the first time in months. Her thoughts jump to escape. She thinks, though, of the harsh Icelandic landscape, knowing that the wilderness would mean certain death.
As Agnes contemplates the possibility of escape, she realizes that she could never survive in the Icelandic wilderness. In this way, the Icelandic landscape is its own kind of prison, forcing Agnes to depend upon other people and keeping her from setting out on her own.
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Agnes stumbles to her bed and looks around the room, which needs repair. She wonders if the family sings hymns or recites sagas in the winter, noting that she has a great love for and excellent knowledge of the sagas. As a child, Agnes’s foster mother Inga encouraged reading, but her foster father Björn did not, saying books other than the Bible were “not for [her] kind.”
Agnes’s love of literature is obvious throughout the book. Her foster father Björn did not encourage this passion, as literature was, according to him, “not for her kind.” It’s not clear what “kind” he objected to exactly— Agnes’s gender, class, or something else.
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The traditional furniture and everyday objects in the room make Agnes think of the stone that her mother Ingveldur gave her. Ingveldur said the stone would allow Agnes to talk to birds if she put it under her tongue. Agnes put the stone under her tongue for days, but nothing came of it. She remembers being abandoned by her mother at Kornsá at age six.
Agnes introduces the stone her mother gave her as a child. The stone is a symbol of one of many ways Ingveldur failed Agnes, as it did not seem to work the way Ingveldur said it would (though it may explain Agnes’s fascination with ravens, language, and understanding secrets).
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Agnes tries to reconcile herself with the idea that she will spend her last days in the town she knew as a child. Agnes chants the names of all the different farms she lived on throughout her life. The last one, Natan’s farm, carries strong and negative feelings for Agnes, and she thinks of the farm burning.
As Agnes chants the names of the farms she lived on, each evokes specific feelings, and the name of Natan’s farm evokes negative feelings in particular. Names carry intense resonance for Agnes.
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Agnes notices a silver brooch hidden under the bed across from her. She picks it up, and then, suddenly, Lauga appears beside her and tells her to put it down. Agnes drops the brooch and Lauga calls for Steina, who comes running in. They both yell for Margrét. When Margrét appears in the doorway, she screams at Agnes not to touch anything in the house, and then drags Agnes off to do chores.
Here Kent makes a point about the precarious nature of innocence. Although Agnes does not have a history of stealing, the family at Kornsá assumes she is a thief because she is a “criminal” overall. Since Agnes’s innocence has been taken away, she is presumed guilty of everything.
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The narrative switches back to third-person and follows Tóti as he completes chores and gets ready to head to Kornsá again. As Reverend Jón sees Tóti herding sheep and doing laundry, he tells Tóti that he doesn’t have to do that, and commands him to get to Kornsá to talk with Agnes.
While Reverend Jón is not always a warm and supportive father, he takes Tóti’s religious obligations to Agnes very seriously, encouraging him to go to her at the expense of chores on the farm.
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The narrative moves back to Agnes’s first person perspective. Agnes and Margrét milk sheep together and then burn Agnes’s old dress, which she had sewed with Sigga. Memories of this trigger Agnes’s regret as she watches the dress smolder. The dress was the only possession Agnes had left.
As Agnes watches her very last dress burn, Kent emphasizes how Agnes is now truly at the lowest rung of the class system in Icelandic society. This also means that there are no longer any physical bonds tying Agnes to earth, as her execution inevitably approaches.
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Margrét and Agnes go to do work in the herb garden to escape the smoke of the burning clothes. As Agnes weeds, she remembers Natan’s workshop. Agnes enjoys the weeding, but Margrét’s lungs give her trouble and she struggles to breathe. Margrét tells Agnes to go fetch her daughters in the house. When Agnes goes to get them, Lauga immediately leaves to go help her mother, but Steina lingers behind.
Agnes continues to enjoy any work that allows her to be outside and spend time in nature. Agnes’s special connection to the outdoors may be partly a result of her time with Natan, who had a particular love for the natural world and who used natural remedies to make his living.
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Steina tells Agnes that she thinks they met once before, while they were both travelling. She remembers that Agnes plaited Lauga’s hair and gave them each an egg. Agnes begins to vaguely remember the day Steina is referring to. She remembers seeing three ravens flying in a line—a good omen— but also remembers that one hundred whales washed ashore that year—a bad omen. Agnes, however, does not confirm Steina’s memory. Margrét comes in to fetch Steina, telling her to shovel the ashes from Agnes’s dress into the garden.
As Agnes begins to vaguely remember meeting Steina, she also vividly remembers the omens she saw around that time. While the ministerial book stated that Agnes possesses a strong knowledge of Christianity, it seems that Agnes also has a rich spiritual life comprised of symbols that she sees in nature. Agnes’s spirituality privileges the role of the Icelandic landscape and the symbols she finds there.
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The narrative, still in third person, cuts to Tóti, who, having arrived at Kornsá, is sitting with Agnes outside the house and asking if they should begin their session with prayer. Agnes says nothing, and when Tóti asks again, Agnes responds by asking him what he means when he talks about her “absolution.” Tóti explains that he received a letter from Blöndal saying Agnes had requested him to be her spiritual guide, and that they all want Agnes to “return to God.” When Agnes quips that she will be returning to God soon enough by execution, Tóti is caught off guard.
When Tóti tries to minister to Agnes, he begins by using traditional Christian religious techniques like prayer. As Tóti tries to explain his role to Agnes, it becomes clear that his approach is not working. Agnes staggers Tóti with references to her impending death and questions about Christian concepts that Tóti takes for granted. Traditional Christianity, it seems, does not work for Agnes.
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Agnes tells Tóti that they have met before, but Tóti is confused because he doesn’t remember her whatsoever. Agnes tells him that he helped her cross a river seven years ago, but Tóti still does not recall the event. Tóti asks if that is why Agnes asked for him specifically to be her counselor, and when Agnes does not respond, Tóti tells Agnes she might be better off with a more qualified clergyman. Agnes tells Tóti that she has never met any clergymen that she liked.
As Agnes tells Tóti about why she chose him instead of someone with more experience to guide her, she implies that she is unhappy with Christianity as taught by society and other priests. Agnes seems to be looking for something other than dogma from her interactions with Tóti.
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A few ravens land on the stone fence nearby and Margrét chases them away. Tóti takes a breath and recites a rehearsed speech about how, if Agnes does want him for a spiritual advisor, he will come visit her and guide her prayers. When he’s done, Agnes tells Tóti that perhaps it would be better if he did not come to visit her, saying she’d forgotten how young he is. Tóti, unsure how to respond, looks at her for a moment and then bids her goodbye.
When Margrét shoos away the ravens, it could be seen as a metaphor for how Tóti is dismissing Agnes’s desire for a nontraditional approach to spirituality. Tóti’s stiff prayers and ministerial condescension do not work for Agnes, who dismisses Tóti and suggests that his youth is the reason he is ineffective.
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The narrative switches back to the first person as Agnes describes the rest of her day doing garden work alongside Margrét. They work silently, and Agnes thinks that she made a mistake in asking Tóti, who is practically a boy, to coach her through her impending death. Agnes thinks the only person who could understand how she feels is Natan, because he knew her so incredibly well. Agnes thinks Tóti can do nothing for her, since God already had the opportunity to free her. Instead, she is condemned.
After Tóti leaves, Agnes feels pessimistic about the Reverend’s ability to help her. She longs for Natan, whose nature-focused spirituality moved Agnes more than Christian-based prayer and ministering. Agnes’s lack of faith in Christianity is exacerbated by her sense that God has betrayed her by condemning her to death.
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