Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Five opens with a poem that Rósa writes to Agnes in June of 1828, in which Rósa tells Agnes not to be surprised by her pain, accuses Agnes of stealing Natan away from her, and says that Agnes gave her soul to the Devil. This poem is followed by Agnes’s reply to Rósa, also in verse. In her poem, Agnes warns Rósa not to cause her even more pain and tells Rósa that she is seeking God’s grace. Agnes reminds Rósa that they both belong to Jesus.
Agnes and Rósa’s poetic exchange shows how, for both of these women, poetry is a preferred means of expression. This reflects the important place of literature in their community in general, and it also suggests that poetry might be an appropriate medium for conveying the strong emotions that both women feel.
Themes
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The chapter then changes to third person narrative as it describes Margrét and her friend and neighbor Ingibjörg Pétursdóttir, stacking wood and talking about what it’s like to have Agnes living in Margrét’s house. They laugh at Róslín’s gossip about Agnes and her theatrical concern for Margrét. Ingibjörg asks what Agnes is like and Margrét tells Ingibjörg that Agnes is quiet, but she talks to Tóti when he visits. Margrét mentions that Agnes’s mother was Ingveldur, who was known for being a “loose” woman.
Unlike Róslín, who falsely expresses concern for Margrét in order to get a closer look at Agnes, Ingibjörg genuinely seems to care about Margrét’s wellbeing. The two women’s conversation about Ingveldur reflects the high standard of chastity for women, which is so profound that, even years later, Margrét and Ingibjörg still remember Ingveldur’s sexual transgressions above all else.
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Ingibjörg then asks about Lauga and Steina. Margrét tells Ingibjörg that Steina thinks she has met Agnes before, and she worries that Steina has started smiling at Agnes and acting friendly toward her. Margrét thinks that Agnes might have the same bad influence on Steina that she allegedly had on Sigga. Lauga, on the other hand, hates Agnes. Jón and Margrét try to keep the girls separate from Agnes, but it is impossible.
Margrét worries about Agnes’s corrupting influence over Steina, as if Agnes’s criminality could erode Steina’s innocence. Although Steina shows Agnes compassion while Lauga is cruel to her, Margrét endorses Lauga’s approach and discourages Steina from speaking with Agnes.
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The story switches back to Agnes’s first person narration as she describes dreaming about crawling through the snow to her own execution. The dream frightens Agnes awake. She gets up to go to the bathroom, trying not to wake anyone. Agnes’s terror lingers and she thinks of how Natan, although he did not have much respect for Christianity, believed strongly in the power of dreams.
For Agnes, as well as for many other characters in the book, dreams carry a special, sometimes prophetic significance. Natan saw dreams as an alternative to Christian faith, highlighting the tension throughout the book between Christianity and superstition.
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Agnes had begun to think of herself as a servant in the Kornsá household, but the dream reminds her that she is actually a prisoner. Soon, winter and her execution will arrive. Agnes worries about whether Tóti can help her and thinks how hard it has been to make him understand her. Tóti does not know what to do with the information about her family, and Agnes has not yet even told him about her siblings. She wonders what she will say, since Helga is dead and Jóas is so irresponsible.
Although Agnes has become comfortable with the people at Kornsá, her dream reminds her that she is still in bondage. Unlike Tóti’s insistence that the “truth will set you free,” Agnes seems to find freedom in illusion when she can ignore the reality of her impending execution and pretend to be a normal servant at Kornsá.
Themes
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Agnes remembers moving with Ingveldur from farm to farm in her early childhood. One of these farms was owned by Illugi the Black, a married man who fathered Jóas. Illugi died of disease soon after. Jóas was born at the next farm where they lived before being thrown out. The family then returned to Kornsá, and Agnes’s mother gave her the talking-stone and abandoned her, taking only Jóas. Agnes only learned later that her mother had another daughter, Helga. By that time, Agnes was living with her foster family, Inga and Björn, at Kornsá.
As Agnes describes her family moving from place to place and her mother sleeping with farmers in order to have a place to stay with her children, she shows the reader how precarious the life of a servant woman could be. Agnes refers again to her mother’s abandonment, which clearly traumatized young Agnes and left her economically and socially unstable.
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The narrative switches back to the third person as Steina, now awake, finds Agnes outside emptying the chamber pot. Steina stays to keep Agnes company, but Agnes worries that Jón and Margrét will be mad at her. Steina asks Agnes what Tóti comes to talk about and Agnes snaps that it is her own business. Steina tells Agnes that Jón has told her to leave Agnes alone, but that, unlike the others, she does not believe that Agnes killed Natan and Pétur.
Steina’s belief that Agnes is innocent (although it turns out later to be more or less the truth) is one of the many things that make Steina an outcast in her community. This shows how, rather than being a product of objectivity, reason, or real experience, truth is often established by group opinion and norms.
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Steina wants to make a petition or an appeal to help Agnes, and tells her that Blöndal made an appeal to commute Sigga’s sentence. Agnes, shocked and upset, walks away from Steina toward the river and drops to the ground. Suddenly, it starts to downpour. Steina apologizes and begs Agnes to come inside. Eventually she gives up and goes back to the house while Agnes stays out in the rain.
Agnes finds the news of Sigga’s appeal upsetting, perhaps because it highlights how, compared to how it has treated Sigga, the public has shown Agnes no empathy and is convinced that she could not be innocent. Agnes seems to find this just as unbearable as her sentence itself.
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When Steina enters the house, Margrét asks where she has been, thinking, at first, that Agnes has hurt her. Then Steina tells Margrét that Agnes is by the river and needs help. Steina finds Jón in the badstofa and tells him to go down to the river and help Agnes. Jón leaves to go find her. When Lauga comes in and says something snarky about Steina trying to be friends with Agnes, Steina yells at her. Lauga tells Steina that if she’s not careful, she will end up as wicked as Agnes. Steina starts to cry.
Margrét’s initial assumption that Agnes has hurt Steina shows the extent to which she harbors prejudgments of Agnes. These prejudgments prove wrong as Steina reveals that, rather than being a threat, Agnes is the one in distress. Lauga expresses the sense that Agnes’s guilt will corrupt Steina’s innocence if they spend too much time together.
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The perspective changes to Agnes’s first-person narrative. She is sitting on the bed waiting while Margrét, Jón, Lauga, and Steina talk in the other room. Agnes is nervous and keeps thinking about Sigga’s appeal. She believes that, while Sigga will get off, she herself will never be freed.
Although now inside and calmer, Agnes is still obviously very affected by the way that the public and Blöndal view Sigga’s capacity for innocence while assuming Agnes’s necessary guilt.
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The narration changes back to the third-person and jumps to Tóti, who is at his house and who has just received a letter from Jón asking him to come see Agnes. Tóti leaves for Kornsá over Reverend Jón’s objections. By the time Tóti gets close, he is drenched with the rain. Tóti runs into Gudmundur on his way, who tells him that Agnes had a fit, screaming and scratching at him and Jón when they approached her. Tóti is surprised.
Because the narration does not actually show Agnes’s fit, it is unclear whether Gudmundur’s perception of the “fit” is accurate or whether, like many other rumors about Agnes in the novel, it is exaggerated to makes Agnes seem more violent than she actually is. Tóti, surprised, sees this aggression as out of character.
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The two men ride together the rest of the way to Kornsá, where Tóti finds Agnes handcuffed and in bed. He asks Agnes what happened and Agnes tells him about Sigga’s appeal, saying that everyone pities Sigga because she is pretty and dumb, but no one pities her because they think she is too smart. Agnes tells Tóti that people think smart women cannot be trusted because they can’t be innocent. Agnes also points out that, if God commanded people not to kill, then Blöndal is going against God’s law.
As Agnes talks to Tóti about Sigga’s appeal, she lays out one of the major ideas of the book: that women who are too smart are not trusted and are presumed to be guilty, while women who fulfill the norms of femininity (submissiveness, beauty, sweetness) are given a pass. Agnes also points out how her execution may contradict the laws of Christianity.
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Margrét, Lauga, Steina, and Kristín enter the badstofa to talk amongst themselves while Tóti and Agnes converse. Margrét removes Agnes’s handcuffs at Tóti’s request. Once the other women are distracted, Tóti quietly tells Agnes not to give the family any more reason to hate her. Agnes then tells Tóti about her dream the night before. Tóti prays for Agnes. Afterward, Agnes asks if Tóti thinks it is her fate to be executed. Tóti says that is beyond knowing.
The fact that the family at Kornsá has put the handcuffs back on Agnes serves as a reminder to the reader and Agnes of her lack of freedom. She seems to be struggling with how her sentence fits in with the “big picture” and God as she asks Tóti if he thinks she execution and incarceration are her “fate.”
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Tóti asks Agnes if there is anyone from her past that he can bring to talk with her. Agnes tells him about her siblings: Helga, who died, and Jóas, whose whereabouts are unknown to her. Agnes also tells him that Rósa visited her before to give her a poem, in which she berated her for killing Natan. Agnes, growing agitated, says that, because Rósa was a married woman, Natan was not hers to love.
Agnes tells Tóti about the poem that Rósa delivered to her blaming Agnes for Natan’s death. Agnes reveals that Rósa gave her the poem in person, so she could have just said those things to Agnes’s face, suggesting that the poem form was important to Rósa in itself.
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Tóti notices that the other women have stopped knitting to listen. He changes the subject to Agnes’s siblings so Agnes will calm down. Agnes says she only saw Helga a few times and she was separated from Jóas when he was one year old. Agnes quietly asks Tóti to talk to Blöndal about creating a petition for her, as Steina suggested. Tóti hesitantly agrees and asks Agnes again about her childhood. She begins to tell him about her foster family, Inga and Björn, who raised her until Inga died in childbirth. Tóti asks Agnes if she remembers Inga’s death, and she says she does, and vividly. Tóti asks Agnes to tell him what happened.
Although the family at Kornsá stated that they were not listening to Tóti and Agnes’s conversation, they are clearly curious about Agnes’s past. Unlike Steina, who is hopeful that other people will come to see Agnes as potentially innocent like she does, Tóti seems skeptical about the prospect of starting a petition to change Agnes’s sentence. This suggests that, unlike Steina, Tóti is not himself convinced of Agnes’s innocence.
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