Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Four begins with a letter from Blöndal to the Deputy Governor of North-East Iceland, informing him that Blöndal has decided to purchase an axe from Copenhagen for the impending executions rather than having a local blacksmith make one. Blöndal asks whether the money for the axe should be withdrawn from the funds for the case, and what to do with the axe after the execution.
Blöndal’s decision to buy an axe from Copenhagen rather than having one made in Iceland, despite the fact that the two choices cost about the same, means that Blöndal is supporting Denmark’s economy rather than keeping the money in Iceland.
Themes
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The third person narrative resumes to follow Tóti after he leaves Kornsá, feeling unsuccessful. He intends to write a letter to Blöndal relinquishing his responsibilities with Agnes, but he is too embarrassed, and so does not write for two weeks. One night, Reverend Jón asks him if Agnes has been praying. When Tóti responds equivocally, Reverend Jón tells him to make sure she does, and not to disgrace himself.
Tóti feels overwhelmed by his responsibility to help Agnes prepare for her death, so much so that he intends to write to Blöndal giving up his responsibility. Reverend Jón, however, pressures Tóti to continue ministering to Agnes in the typical Christian way in order to uphold his reputation as a priest.
Themes
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The next morning as he milks the cow, Tóti thinks about his father’s comment and wonders what he could possibly do for Agnes and why she asked for him specifically. Tóti ultimately realizes that Agnes, having no one, might have asked for him as a friend to talk to. As Tóti finishes milking, he resolves to return to Kornsá and try again.
As Tóti meditates on Agnes and on his father’s insistence that she pray, he realizes that the typical version of Christian ministering is not what Agnes is looking for. Instead of structured prayer and preaching, Agnes needs someone to listen to her.
Themes
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When Tóti does ride to Kornsá, he passes through the same stunning, misty landscape that he did the first time. On the way, Tóti stops to see the Reverend of Undirfell. When he knocks on the door of the homestead where he believes he will find him, a farmer named Haukur Jónsson opens the door. He tells Tóti that the Reverend lives close by. Haukur invites him inside and Tóti follows him into the large house’s badstofa, where he sees a little girl holding a toddler and an elderly woman that Haukur introduces as Gudrún.
As Tóti rides again towards Kornsá, he once more takes in the beautiful Icelandic landscape. Although the landscape is familiar to Tóti, he still finds it breathtaking, showing how the landscape is awe-inspiring even though Kent’s characters experience it daily. Tóti uses the view of the landscape as a means of centering himself.
Themes
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Haukur goes to fetch the Reverend while Tóti waits, and Haukur’s wife comes into the badstofa and introduces herself as Dagga. She asks if she can bring Tóti anything while he waits. Dagga tells Tóti that their baby is sick, and they have no medicine now that Natan Ketilsson is dead. The little girl tells Tóti that Natan cured her of whooping cough.
As Dagga and her daughter long for Natan’s medicine, the reader sees Natan’s good side as a healer. Throughout the book, Kent shows how Natan is a complex person whose true character cannot be reduced to good or evil.
Themes
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Gudrún says that Natan was a sorcerer named Satan who deserved his end. Tóti asks what she means, and Dagga tells him that Gudrún believes a rumor that Natan’s mother was prophetic and that, when she was pregnant with Natan, she dreamed that a man appeared to her and said she would have a boy. In the dream, she agreed to name the baby after the man, who then told her his name was Satan. Natan’s mother changed it to “Natan.” Many people believe Natan dealt with the devil, which is why he had so much money. Dagga, on the other hand, simply believes that Natan made his money with his remedies.
When Gudrún talks about Natan, she offers the alternative view of Natan as an anti-Christian sorcerer. Gudrún tells Tóti the rumors about Natan being named after Satan, and in doing so reinforces the idea that names indicate the essence of something or someone. She also shows how superstitious thought can intersect with traditional Christianity as she mixes prophetic dreams with the Christian devil.
Themes
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Dagga asks what brings Tóti to the area. Tóti explains that he is Agnes’s priest and that he has come to the place where she was born to learn about her life from the ministerial record book. Dagga tells Tóti that Agnes has always been selfish, conniving, and not content with her lot in life. According to Dagga, people liked Agnes when she was younger, but as Agnes aged she grew bitter and developed a bad reputation for promiscuity and backtalk. Haukur, who is suddenly standing in the doorway, interrupts and introduces Tóti to Reverend Pétur.
As Dagga explains why she does not like Agnes, she complains about Agnes being unhappy with her sexuality and her status as a servant. Later in the book, Kent reveals that Natan, whom Dagga admires, has this same open sexuality and discontent with the class system as Agnes. However, as a man and a landowner, Natan is not nearly as demonized for these qualities as Agnes is.
Themes
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The narrative then cuts to Tóti and Reverend Pétur in the local church. Reverend Pétur is trying to unlock the chest that contains the ministerial records. Reverend Pétur asks about the family at Kornsá and comments that Lauga is very beautiful and smart, and “runs circles around” Steina. Reverend Pétur heaves the record book onto the altar. He asks how old Agnes is, telling Tóti he has only been the priest in that parish for one year, so he does not know. Tóti, disappointed, says he was hoping to learn about Agnes’s character from him. Reverend Pétur tells him that he can learn about that from her crimes.
When Kent introduces Reverend Pétur, she portrays him as somewhat unmotivated and unfocused, more interested in longingly discussing Lauga’s good looks than in helping Tóti learn more about his spiritual charge. When Reverend Pétur discusses Lauga’s superiority to Steina, he shows how women in the book are valued based on their beauty and their performances of femininity rather than their individual qualities.
Themes
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The two men find Agnes’s entry in the record book. Tóti takes interest in the fact that Agnes’s parents were not married. Agnes was confirmed at age fourteen. The priest who confirmed Agnes wrote that she had an “excellent intellect” and “strong knowledge and understanding of Christianity.” The entry ends there. Reverend Pétur suggests they go back to “Haukur’s pretty wife” for breakfast.
Reverend Pétur readily objectifies not only Lauga and Steina, but also Dagga, referring to her as “Haukur’s pretty wife” rather than by her name. In a book where names are extremely important, referring to Dagga as only someone’s wife reduces her individuality and importance.
Themes
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Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
The narrative jumps to when Tóti eventually arrives at Kornsá and Margrét opens the door to welcome him in. They make small talk and Margrét offers coffee to Tóti, who is surprised they have any. Margrét explains that trading went well recently. As Margrét goes into the kitchen, she breaks into a coughing fit.
Coffee is one of the more expensive “luxury” goods that characters in the novel use to mark class. Rather than revealing that she is being compensated for keeping Agnes, Margrét, perhaps embarrassed, simply says that trading went well.
Themes
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Tóti hears Agnes say his name as she enters the room to get her knitting. Tóti implores Agnes to stay and talk as Margrét enters the room with the cup of coffee and bread with butter. Margrét gives Agnes permission to suspend her chores for the moment and speak with Tóti. She then leaves the room. Tóti offers to share his bread and coffee with Agnes. Agnes refuses the coffee but takes the bread.
Unlike many of the other Christians in the book, Tóti seems to actually exemplify Christian forgiveness and kindness, even going so far as to split his food and coffee with Agnes. Although coffee is a luxury reserved for upper class visitors, Tóti offers it to his condemned spiritual charge.
Themes
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Tóti asks Agnes how she likes being at Kornsá. Agnes says the family tolerates her. Tóti tells Agnes that she was wrong about him being just a boy, that he is well educated, and that Agnes should let him help her. Agnes tells Tóti to talk to her in a “common way” unlike other clergymen, who Agnes felt spoke with insults and accusations. Tóti agrees to talk to her in an ordinary way. Then Tóti tells Agnes about his trip to find her entry in the ministerial book, and he asks about her family history. Agnes bristles, tells him that she has no family. Then Steina appears and tells Tóti that Margrét wants Agnes back at work. Agnes invites Tóti to come again the next day.
When Agnes tells Tóti to speak to her in a “common way,” she shows that she objects to the power hierarchy of Christianity, in which the priest is supposed to be the knowledgeable instructor and the parishioner is supposed to take everything the priest says as true. Agnes sees the condescending way that clergymen talk to her as “insults and accusations.” When Tóti agrees to talk to her like a normal person, Agnes feels more comfortable.
Themes
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The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person perspective as she remembers how, at her trial, the interrogators manipulated her words to make her seem evil before declaring her guilty. Afterward, a priest told Agnes that if she did not repent, she would burn in hell. Natan, on the other hand, did not believe in sin. Agnes remembers him telling her this after a two-headed lamb was born at a nearby farm and Natan took the body home to dissect it. Agnes and Sigga did not eat the meat out superstition that it was tainted by the devil. Agnes wonders if Tóti sees her like the two-headed lamb— interesting, but evil.
Agnes’s description of Natan’s alternative belief system compared with mainstream Christianity sheds light on Agnes’s own spirituality, as she is caught between Natan’s aggressive atheism and her Christian upbringing. As Agnes tells the story of the two-headed lamb, she shows the pervasiveness of Christian superstition in the Icelandic community of the book.
Themes
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The narrative changes to the third-person as the narrator describes the Kornsá household preparing to cut the hay together. Jón says a prayer and then assigns the groups to cut together, putting Agnes and Kristín with two hired farmhands Gudmundur and Bjarni. When Gudmundur hands the scythe over to Agnes, he refuses to let go. As Agnes is trying to pull it out of his grasp, Gudmundur suddenly lets go of the tool so that Agnes stumbles backwards, nicking her ankle. Everyone laughs except Steina, who asks if Agnes is hurt.
Following Agnes and Tóti’s discussion about evil and sin, Gudmundur bullies Agnes and causes her to hurt herself. However, because Agnes is seen as a criminal, no one except Steina objects to Gudmundur’s actions, and they all even laugh. This goes to show how what might normally be considered unchristian is permissible because of Agnes’s dehumanized status.
Themes
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The narrative changes to the first person as Agnes describes falling into a rhythm when she cuts hay. She enjoys the feeling, which resembles her delirious happiness in her first romantic months with Natan. Suddenly, Agnes realizes that Gudmundur is leering at her. She is used to men looking at her like that, as they have since she was a teenager. Agnes feels her scythe ensures Gudmundur will not threaten her.
As Agnes describes Gudmundur’s lecherous gaze, she reflects on how her life has been full of undesired male attention. Since Gudmundur has just hurt Agnes before staring at her, this scene also links Gudmundur’s capacity for violence with his objectification of women.
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The third person narrative resumes, describing Tóti riding to Kornsá the next morning. He passes Blöndal’s house and wonders how Agnes felt during her trial there. When Tóti arrives at Kornsá, he greets Jón, who is standing on his doorstep. Jón tells Tóti that one man offered to serve as executioner, but that Blöndal rejected him because he wants Gudmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, to do the honors.
As Blöndal has previously stated, he wants to make an example of Agnes and Fridrik’s executions in order to show his authority and the power of the government over the Icelandic people. To do so, Blöndal has made the dramatic choice to use Natan’s brother as the executioner—making the execution seem even less like an act of justice, and more like a personal attack.
Themes
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The narrative jumps to Tóti and Agnes sitting next to the stream near Kornsá, because Agnes prefers to talk outside. Agnes begins to tell Tóti about her family, confirming that her mother was unmarried and so was her father, Magnús. She tells him that her mother left her when Agnes was six, and that she’s unsure if she’s alive or dead. Agnes says her mother, Ingveldur, had a bad reputation. When Tóti asks what she did, Agnes tells him that knowing what someone has done and knowing who they are are two different things. She laments how mistakes ruin reputations forever. Agnes thinks that her mother was unfairly condemned for having Agnes out of wedlock, even though plenty of people have sex outside of marriage.
In this conversation, Tóti and Agnes discuss how to know the “truth” of someone’s character. While Tóti sees someone’s true character as defined by their actions, Agnes thinks that who someone is and what they have done are two different things. Agnes’s comment about her mother’s unfair condemnation for her pregnancy shows how the blame for having sex outside of marriage falls unfairly on women, whose sexual escapades, unlike men’s, are made public and condemned if they fall pregnant.
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Related Quotes
Tóti asks about Agnes’s father, and Agnes tells him that her real father was Jón of Brekkukot, but that since he was married, her mother said it was Magnús to create less scandal. Tóti asks Agnes if she ever asked Magnús about it to try to get the truth out of him, but Agnes says there is no such thing as truth. When Tóti tells her there is truth in God and it will set her free, Agnes tells him that she told the truth already, but clearly it has not helped her very much.
Agnes expresses her skepticism towards the idea of truth as she tells Tóti about the likelihood that her father was not Magnús, but Jón. Agnes’s skepticism about truth itself reflects the fact that, in her experience, people in power heavily influence what “truth” is commonly accepted.
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The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person perspective as she thinks that Tóti’s attempt to learn about her in the ministerial book was useless, since the facts do not get at who Ingveldur really was. One of Agnes’s few memories of her mother is the day she left, but she feels she cannot totally trust her memories or tell if they’re true or not. Agnes wonders what her mother was thinking when she lied about her father and abandoned her.
Agnes’s mistrust of the idea of “truth” resonates in her first person narrative as she thinks that the “facts” of her mother’s life do not really reflect her personhood. Likewise, Agnes does not know which of her own memories are accurate.
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