Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Seven begins with a testimony about Fridrik from the Reverend who is now the priest at his parish. According to the priest, Fridrik was smart as a child. However, he was disobedient, which the priest thinks was the result of too much freedom as a child. This testimony is followed by a letter from Blöndal to Tóti, asking to meet with him next week to deliver a report on Agnes’s spiritual progress.
The letter from Fridrik’s priest shows how, like Agnes, Fridrik seems to have been too smart for his own good. Blöndal’s letter to Tóti suggests that the authorities are carefully monitoring Agnes and Tóti. Both letters, like others in the book, emphasize the importance of literacy.
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The chapter then resumes its third-person narrative as Tóti arrives at the Blöndal homestead to give his report. He greets Blöndal and his servants and Blöndal welcomes him inside. A servant named Karitas shows Tóti through the house. Tóti compliments the house’s fine decorations, and Blöndal explains that, as District Commissioner, his family enjoys many of the luxuries usually only afforded to people on the mainland (Denmark).
When Tóti goes to Blöndal’s house to give his report, he is struck by how fine the house’s furnishings are. Kent shows how Blöndal’s authority and wealth allow him to enjoy luxury goods usually only available in Denmark, emphasizing the discrepancy between Denmark’s wealth and Iceland’s relative poverty.
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Blöndal dismisses Karitas and brings Tóti to his study. Tóti begins to give his report on Agnes and Blöndal expresses surprise that Tóti uses Agnes’s Christian name. When Tóti tells Blöndal that Agnes has been helping with the hay harvest, Blöndal is surprised that the family doesn’t keep Agnes chained.
Blöndal clearly prefers a stricter approach to Agnes’s incarceration, including not using her Christian name. Blöndal seems intent on dehumanizing Agnes and preventing her from enjoying any small freedoms at all.
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Blöndal draws Tóti’s attention to a jar of swan feather quills on his bookshelf. He offers Tóti one of them, telling him that a “true man” is recognizable by his writing implements. Blöndal then asks Tóti to give a summary of his religious work with Agnes as Blöndal writes it down. Tóti tells him that he selected passages from the Corinthians to administer to Agnes and told her to pray. Blöndal says that the priest working with Fridrik is reading him the Passion Hymns and suggests that Tóti do the same. Tóti says he feels that Agnes needs more than a simple religious rebuke, and admits that he has been talking to Agnes like a friend. Blöndal is somewhat scandalized.
Blöndal’s statement that a “true man” can be told from his writing equipment implies that he thinks that “true men” must be rich, since the quill he then offers Tóti is an expensive swan feather. As she does elsewhere in the novel. Kent suggests here how the idea of “truth” is not objective, but rather is the product of social norms and values. Blöndal, although not a clergyman, also tries to use his political authority to control how Tóti ministers to Agnes.
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A maid knocks on the door and brings in food and coffee, interrupting the conversation. As Blöndal eats, he tells Tóti that his methods show his inexperience. Blöndal describes the murders in detail to try to convince Tóti to stop empathizing with Agnes. Blöndal tells Tóti how Natan and Pétur had gone to bed and Fridrik and Agnes murdered them in their sleep in a plot to steal their money. Blöndal tells Tóti how Fridrik confessed to killing Pétur with one blow of his hammer and then striking Natan with a hammer several times, missing his skull. Natan begged Fridrik and Agnes to stop before he was killed with a knife.
Interestingly, Blöndal tries to get Tóti to empathize with Agnes less, despite the fact, as a priest, Tóti’s job is to have compassion for everyone in society. As Blöndal describes his version of events, Kent offers yet another account of the murders. Through these many different versions of what happened, which all differ slightly, Kent troubles the idea of objective truth and the capacity of the justice system to discover it.
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Tóti points out that Agnes did not actually kill them, but Blöndal thinks that Agnes killed Natan. Blöndal believes that, after Fridrik killed Pétur, he lost the nerve to murder Natan. Blöndal thinks Agnes is the one who stabbed him in the belly. Tóti asks Blöndal why Sigga could not have wielded the knife, and Blöndal tells him that Sigga, sixteen, had burst into tears and told him everything about Agnes’s jealousy toward Natan. He points out Agnes’s older age and says he believes that Agnes had expected Natan to marry her, but that Natan had preferred Sigga. Tóti is shocked. Blöndal tells him that Agnes is manipulating him to gain sympathy and that he needs to be sterner.
As Blöndal describes his theory of why he thinks that Natan’s murderer was Agnes, rather than Fridrik or Sigga, his logic reflects the truth of Agnes’s earlier comment that Sigga is not being punished because she is too young and stupid and pretty, while Agnes’s age and intelligence make Blöndal believe she is guilty. When Blöndal tells Tóti that Agnes is manipulating him, he imagines Agnes as a criminal mastermind who is tricking Tóti into helping her.
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Blöndal then begins to tell Tóti about Fridrik’s spiritual process. When he was first arrested, Fridrik was violent and vulgar. After he worked with his Reverend, however, Fridrik confessed to the murders. Blöndal says that he and the priest both believe Fridrik was raised with too much freedom. The Reverend was able to use prayer and ministering to help Fridrik repent his crime and accept his execution as “God’s justice.”
As Blöndal describes Fridrik’s priest’s technique, it becomes clear that Blöndal and Tóti have different goals for Agnes. Blöndal seems to be hoping that Agnes will admit her moral depravity, while Tóti is more interested in Agnes’s well being and helping Agnes work through her past to prepare for her death.
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Blöndal asks if Agnes is similarly repentant, and Tóti tells him she does not talk about repentance. Blöndal tells Tóti that moral boundaries have been deteriorating and it is his own responsibility to fix that. Tóti suggests that Blöndal means to make an example of Agnes and says that he heard Blöndal has appointed Natan’s brother as executioner, and Blöndal tells him that they are there to discuss Tóti’s work, not his. Blöndal tells him to stop listening to Agnes and to start ministering again.
As Blöndal asks about Agnes’s repentance, it becomes even clearer that Blöndal and Tóti see Tóti’s role as Agnes’s priest very differently. When Tóti implies his disagreement with Blöndal’s use of Agnes as an example, Blöndal shuts down the conversation, showing how their power difference prevents Blöndal from accepting criticism.
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Tóti leaves Blöndal’s office, now doubting Agnes’s words. Karitas, Blöndal’s servant, then approaches Tóti and tells him that she needs to speak with him. She says that she worked for Natan just before Agnes arrived. Karitas says that Natan had told Agnes she could be his housekeeper, but then gave the position to Sigga. She explains that Natan was virulently anti-Christian and when she was working for him, she saw Natan manipulate people for fun.
Just as Tóti is beginning to believe Blöndal’s perception of the murders, Tóti’s conversation with Karitas further complicates the truth. Notably, Karitas seems to associate Natan’s anti-Christian sentiment with his abusive and manipulative behavior, perhaps unfairly linking the two things.
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Tóti tells Karitas that he knows opinions about Natan are divided. Karitas tells him that Blöndal liked Natan because Natan healed his wife. Karitas asks Tóti not to tell Blöndal she talked to him, and Tóti agrees. Tóti asks if Karitas would visit Agnes, and she says no, as she would be in too much trouble. The two say goodbye and part ways.
Karitas not only offers information about Natan’s bad side that Blöndal did not take into account, but she also suggests that Blöndal’s perception may be biased toward Natan because of their personal connection.
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The perspective changes to Agnes’s first person narrative as she helps Margrét prepare food for the harvest celebration. Steina and Lauga are away picking berries and moss. Agnes thinks of how Steina told her that they were “alike” before she left. She thinks that she is, in fact, nothing like Steina. Agnes’s childhood was so much more difficult than Steina’s, as she was alone and working for her keep.
Although Steina finds commonality with Agnes based on the fact that neither woman fits well into society, Agnes thinks her class difference makes her fundamentally different from Steina. Unlike Steina, who is relatively financially secure, Agnes never had a stable home or income.
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When Agnes was Steina’s age, she remembers trying to avoid the man who raped her several times and deciding whether it is worth sleeping with the owner of the farm where she was living so as not be thrown out in the snow. Agnes thinks that Steina has never been subjected to that kind of degradation. Agnes remembers the children she helped deliver at one farm dying. It was just after she left that farm that she met Steina and Lauga on the road and gave them eggs, as Steina remembers. Lauga reminds Agnes of Sigga.
Because of her lack of a family as a child and personal wealth, Agnes suffered from sexual violence at the hands of other servants and sexual coercion from farm owners who threatened to otherwise throw her out in the cold Icelandic winter. Agnes’s memories display the particular difficulty of being a poor servant woman at the time.
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Ingibjörg and Róslín appear at the farm for the feast and they all come inside. Margrét introduces Róslín to Agnes. Róslín furiously asks Margrét why she invited them over with Agnes there. Margrét tells Róslín to calm down. Agnes then glances at Róslín’s belly and tells her that the child will be a girl because of the shape of the bump. The women are horrified, and Róslín calls Agnes a witch.
Agnes’s knowledge of midwifery and medicine disturbs Róslín, who sees her knowledge of the baby’s gender as witchy and anti-Christian. This shows one of the many ways that characters in the book are skeptical, afraid, and mistrusting of intelligent women.
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Ingibjörg and Margrét quickly calm down, and Ingibjörg asks how she knows that. Agnes says that she learned this from the poet Rósa. The food finishes cooking and the women bring it outside, leaving Agnes in the kitchen. Agnes stays there except to bring out butter and milk to the guests as more and more arrive. She wishes she could stay inside and not be looked at.
Although Ingibjörg and Margrét are initially as disturbed by Agnes’s comment as Róslín is, they soon calm down and Ingibjörg rationally asks how Agnes learned this. When Agnes explains, it becomes clear that she is not a witch, but simply a knowledgeable woman (and they certainly wouldn’t have condemned Rósa if she had said the same thing).
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The narrative switches back to the third person as Tóti walks into the kitchen and asks Agnes if she is going to be joining them. Agnes, who is churning butter, says no. Tóti listens to Agnes breathe as she churns, feeling that it is somehow intimate. Tóti thinks again about everything Blöndal said to him. Once the butter is finished, Tóti suggests that they go outside. Agnes picks up her knitting and follows Tóti to a spot away from the party but within sight of it.
As Tóti and Agnes become closer, Tóti sometimes expresses a sense of intimacy towards Agnes that verges on romantic feelings. Tóti continues to struggle with his mixed emotions about Agnes after his meeting with Blöndal, trying to reconcile the woman he knows with the deeds that Blöndal described.
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Tóti tells Agnes that he talked with Blöndal. He tells her that Blöndal wants them to change the structure of their meetings, and he asks if it is true that Natan healed Blöndal’s wife. Agnes confirms that it is true. Tóti tell Agnes that Karitas says hello, and that she told him that Natan was manipulative. Others, Tóti says, have told him that Natan was a sorcerer who got his name from Satan. Agnes says she does not know whether she believes those stories or not, but confirms that Natan’s mother’s dreams were prophetic.
As Tóti comes clean about the rumors he has been hearing about Blöndal, Agnes, and Natan, he seems to be hoping that Agnes will clear up what is true and what is false. Although Agnes gives Tóti some answers (like about Blöndal’s wife), she is unsure of others. As usual, Agnes seems uncomfortable with the idea of objective truth.
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Agnes reminds Tóti that she asked him to be her priest because, as she said earlier, she had met him before and he helped her across a river, though Tóti did not remember this. Agnes then admits that this was not their first meeting, because they also met in one of her dreams. Agnes tells him that when she was sixteen she dreamt that she was walking barefoot across a lava field covered in snow. Agnes’s feet were bleeding and she was afraid. Tóti appeared, took her hand, and helped her across. Then Agnes suddenly fell into a dark and silent chasm and woke up.
When Agnes reveals to Tóti that she believes that she met him in a prophetic dream, Agnes suggests that her interest in working with Tóti has less to do with her need of specific Christian teachings, and more with her belief that Tóti has some abstract spiritual role to play in her life. Elsewhere, Agnes brings up the idea of destiny, and her dream seems to support the idea that her execution is fated.
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Agnes tells Tóti that, when he helped her cross the river, she recognized him and knew they would meet again. Agnes says that it was not the darkness of the chasm that scared her, but the silence. Tóti tells her that God can take the fear away. Tóti takes her hand, and Agnes smiles.
As Agnes describes the fear she felt in the dream, Tóti, reframing the spiritual energy that Agnes expresses in a Christian context, promises that God will remove her fear. Agnes and Tóti seem to bridge their difference in this moment.
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Tóti asks Agnes to tell him about Natan, and Agnes says that she met Natan when she was working on Worm Beck’s farm. Before that, Agnes had gone in search of her father. Magnús had become furious when Agnes said Ingveldur’s name. Although Magnús said Agnes could stay, she felt uncomfortable there, and so she went to work for Worm.
When Agnes describes Magnús’s fury at the mention of Ingveldur’s name, she offers the reader another example of the power of names to evoke powerful emotions. Clearly, Magnús is still extremely upset that Ingveldur lied about him having fathered Agnes.
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On her way to Worm’s farm, Agnes ran into her little brother Jóas. Jóas was excited to see her. Agnes was too, although she noticed that Jóas smelled like alcohol. As they rode to Worm’s farm, Agnes learned that Jóas also had a hard childhood, having been left by their mother soon after Agnes was. Worm took both Jóas and Agnes as servants. Agnes remembers that the farm was a nice place to work. At the farm, Agnes became close with María Jónsdóttir, another servant.
When Agnes finds her brother again, it is clear that their poverty and instability as children has taken a toll on him as well. Agnes’s description of the friends and community that she found at Worm’s farm makes her later decision to leave with Natan for his isolated farm seem like an even worse choice.
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Agnes tells Tóti that, although Jóas liked working on the farm, his friends were troublemakers. Jóas and Agnes became closer. Jóas said he’d tried to find her before, and they talked about their dead half-sister Helga. One night, though, they fought because Jóas talked badly about Ingveldur. The next morning, Jóas was gone and Agnes’s money was missing. Agnes never saw him again.
Jóas, as a man, cannot understand the choices that Ingveldur made, and is angry with his mother. Agnes, on the other hand, feels that she better understands her mother’s decision and attempts to defend her. This causes a fight between the two siblings and their estrangement.
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Agnes said she had been saving that money for marriage, and she talks about how a servant named Daníel Gudmundsson had wanted to marry her. After Jóas left, Agnes enjoyed María’s friendship on the farm. María was her first friend, since Agnes generally preferred reading to socializing. As Agnes talks, Tóti remembers for the first time helping Agnes across the river. He thinks that Agnes is beautiful. Agnes tells Tóti that she loves the sagas and used to read as much as she could.
Agnes and Tóti find common ground in their mutual love of literature. As Agnes describes how she preferred spending time with books rather than people, Tóti again expresses nearly romantic sentiments for Agnes and admires her beauty. Literature humanizes Agnes for Tóti, and allows him to forget about her crimes and even think about her romantically.
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Tóti asks Agnes if she writes poems, and Agnes says that, unlike Rósa, she does not brag about her poems. She tells him that Natan loved Rósa’s way with words and they spoke to each other in verse. Agnes then tells Tóti that she met Natan at a harvest celebration. María had come to the cowshed where Agnes was working, and told Agnes that she had seen Natan arrive on horseback. Agnes already knew of Natan’s reputation. There were lots of rumors about how Natan had obtained his wealth.
The capacity of literature to encourage passionate, romantic feeling recurs as Agnes describes how Rósa and Natan used to speak to each other in verse. On the other hand, Agnes also shows the more insidious role of stories in Iceland as she describes the many rumors about Natan at the time she met him. It is unclear whether these rumors were true.
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Agnes had no opinion of Natan at that point. María told her that Natan had left Rósa and bought his own farm near Worm’s. Natan had also tried to change his last name from Ketilsson to a Danish one, Lyngdal. Agnes and María then left the cowshed, and outside, Agnes saw Natan for the first time. He was not handsome. Natan saw them and walked over to introduce himself. He said his name was Natan Lyngdal, and María asked if it wasn’t Ketilsson. Natan told them he had many names. Worm then called Natan over to him, and Natan said goodbye.
Natan’s name change is never fully explained in the novel. However, the fact that Natan has various names seems to reflect the fact that there are many different aspects of his identity and many different ways of looking at him as a person. Natan’s name change to a Danish name, “Lyndal,” may reflect Natan’s conviction that he is superior to other people in Iceland.
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That afternoon, Agnes and María worked hard to get ready for the feast. Later that night, the servants celebrated amongst themselves, and Natan asked to join as they told stories. He sat next to Agnes. Natan later told her he sat next to her because he felt he could not read her, and was intrigued.
Although the servants’ storytelling is not written, their oral literature shows another medium that is important to the literary culture in the world of the novel.
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The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person perspective as she thinks that Tóti is probably wondering about the nature of her relationship with Natan. Agnes thinks it is strange to try to remember a time when she did not know and love Natan. Agnes does not tell Tóti that she and Natan stayed up late talking together that night they met. Natan looked at her palm and told her that her hollow palm was like his own. The hollow palm, according to Natan, meant that there was something secret and dark about them. Natan then took Agnes’s hand and held it in his own.
As Agnes tells Tóti about the first time she saw Natan, she withholds the romantic nature of their relationship from him. It is unclear why exactly Agnes feels the need to do this—perhaps she still treasures their romance so much that she doesn’t want to “spoil” it by sharing it with others. When Natan reads the symbolism of Agnes’s palm, he offers another example of the world of spiritual knowledge and culture outside of the Christian culture that dominates Iceland.
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