Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Six begins with a clerical record of Agnes and Sigga’s possessions at the time of their imprisonment. The list includes clothing, books, knitting tools, odds and ends, and a sheep.
The list of Agnes and Sigga’s possessions shows how little they own and how they are of a lower class than, for example, the family at Kornsá.
Themes
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
The narrative then returns to Agnes’s first-person perspective as she begins to tell Tóti about Inga’s death. It was winter. Agnes had been living at Kornsá for several years with Inga, Björn, and their son Kjartan. Inga, who Agnes called “Mamma,” had taught Agnes to read in secret, because Björn did not approve of women learning. One night, Björn summoned Kjartan and Agnes outside to look at the northern lights. Inga, who was pregnant, stayed inside embroidering. Björn told them that the northern lights forewarned of bad weather.
As Agnes describes how Inga taught her to read against Björn’s wishes, Kent suggests that Björn objected to Agnes learning to read because of her gender. In doing so, Kent shows one of the many ways that antiquated understandings of gender roles can disempower women. Inga teaches Agnes anyway, however, giving Agnes a skill that she enjoys and benefits from for the rest of her life.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
The next day it began to snow, and Inga, not feeling well, stayed in the badstofa. Björn went to check on her while Agnes made porridge. Agnes peeped outside and saw a storm fast approaching. The blizzard struck, and continued for three days. On the second day of the storm, Inga went into early labor. Björn sent a farmhand to ask the women from the nearby farms to come help, but the blizzard was so strong that he did not even make it far past the door. Björn tended to Inga in the loft and told Agnes to take young Kjartan to the badstofa. The two children sat and waited together for a long time, until Björn came down, handed Agnes a bundled infant, and then returned upstairs.
As Agnes describes the impossibility of leaving the farm in such bad weather, Kent shows how profoundly the Icelandic climate can affect daily life, sometimes exacerbating the profound isolation of individual farms in Iceland. Without neighborhood women to come to help Inga through labor, Björn must help Inga himself. Because of the gender roles at the time, Björn likely had not assisted with births before, so the danger of childbirth is worsened by Björn’s inexperience.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
Agnes, little Kjartan, and the infant huddled together as the room grew colder and colder. Agnes tried her best to keep the baby warm. Meanwhile, Inga’s moans continued in the loft. The children fell asleep, and when they woke Björn was standing over them. He informed them that Inga was dead. Agnes offered him the baby, but Björn told her the baby was dead too. Agnes realized she had been holding a lifeless infant.
Agnes’s terrible experience of holding the dead child for hours without realizing it contributes to her intense trauma surrounding Inga’s death. Agnes later refuses to hold Róslín’s infant, as she seems to superstitiously believe that babies she touches will certainly die.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
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Agnes threw a fit, screaming that she wanted to die. Björn, meanwhile, sat with his head in his hands. Agnes then went up to see Inga’s body, which was lying on the blood-covered bed. Agnes pulled Inga’s dress down to cover the lower half of her body and then kissed her. Agnes pushed her face into Inga’s hair until the farmhand carried her down to bed.
As Agnes describes the bloodied sheets and Inga’s body, the graphic description of the room depicts childbirth as a gruesome, violent ordeal, and even a deadly one. Agnes’s love for Inga, meanwhile, is incredibly poignant.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Agnes, back in the present, wants to ask Tóti if she is now going to be executed as punishment for saying she wanted to die. She also wants to ask him if she killed the baby. But she doesn’t, since she thinks the other women are listening now. Agnes thinks that it’s a good thing she has no one left to love, since everyone she’s loved has died.
As Agnes thinks about asking whether she killed the baby and expresses fear that she hurts the people she loves, it is clear how profoundly the loss of Inga has traumatized her, leaving Agnes with a warped perception of her guilt in Inga and the baby’s death.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
The narrative switches to the third person as Tóti asks what happened next. Agnes tells him that after Inga died and the storm ended, the farmhand was sent to fetch Björn’s relatives. Björn told Agnes to put the baby’s body in the storeroom, which she did. Then Björn’s brother Ragnar and the farmhand carried Inga’s body downstairs, where Aunt Rósa cleaned Inga’s body. Rósa’s servant, Gudbjörg, cleaned the loft. Agnes talked to Gudbjörg about her trauma from the deaths, and Gudbjörg comforted her.
After Inga’s death, no one except Aunt Rósa’s servant comforts Agnes. As a child, Agnes did not receive the emotional support that she needed in order to healthily cope with the loss of Inga, and as a result Agnes blames herself for the death, despite the fact that Inga’s death was due to inevitable childbirth complications.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
After everything was clean, the family stood together around Inga’s body and Björn’s brother passed around a flask. The farmhand fetched a priest, and Aunt Rósa told Agnes a story while the men talked with him. The men carried Inga’s body to the storeroom, where they laid it next to the baby’s body because the ground was too frozen for a burial until the spring. Agnes remembers seeing the bodies every time she had to fetch lamp oil.
The ground in winter is too cold to bury Inga and the baby’s bodies, meaning they will have to be stored until spring. This shows how daily life, including religious services like burials, can be subject to change depending on the hostile Iceland climate.
Themes
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
One day in the early spring, Agnes was in a bad mood and she went outside, picked up a shovel, and tried to dig Inga a grave. Uncle Ragnar asked what she was doing. Agnes explained, referring to Inga as “Mamma,” and Ragnar told her not to call Inga that. The two exchanged tense words. Later, Ragnar told Agnes that Björn was moving away and could not afford to keep her. Her foster brother Kjartan went to live with Ragnar and Aunt Rósa, and Agnes was given to the parish to be taken care of.
When Agnes refers to Inga as “Mamma,” Ragnar thinks that this name is inappropriate because Inga was not Agnes’s real mother. This is another instance that shows distinctions in names as very important. Agnes’s use of “Mamma” for Inga makes Ragnar dislike her so much that he gives her up to the parish rather than take her in.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person in the present as she wakes the next day. She thinks someone whispered her name in her ear, and believes she sees Natan’s face in front of her. It seems to have been a dream, however, as no one else is awake. She whispers Tóti’s name, since he is sleeping in the badstofa with her. Agnes then begins to tell him about the dream, but Tóti falls back asleep. Agnes thinks of Inga’s death again. Agnes, perhaps dreaming again, imagines her foster mother trapped in the storehouse and calling to her. Agnes enters the storehouse and finds that Inga is really dead, and then sits on the floor while the wind howls outside.
As Agnes’s sleep is plagued by dreams, she imagines someone whispering her name. This may be Natan, since Agnes sees Natan’s face before her, reflecting Agnes’s disturbed state of mind. Agnes then dreams that Inga is calling to her. As Agnes imagines her loved ones calling her name, the reader realizes how profoundly Agnes has been traumatized by the loss of so many people that she loved.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon