Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Eight begins with a poem Rósa wrote to Natan in 1837. In the poem, Rósa thinks of how happy she was with Natan even when everyone looks down on her for the relationship. She then calls Natan a traitor and says that a “rose of Kidjaskard” (i.e. Agnes) has poisoned him.
Again, Kent repeatedly uses poetry in the novel both to emphasize the prominent place of poetry in Icelandic culture and to show how poetry can be a good form for expressing difficult or intense emotions.
Themes
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
The chapter then returns to the third-person narrator, who describes Margrét lying awake in the badstofa at Kornsá. A few days before, Margrét had stayed behind with Agnes while everyone else went to round up the sheep for winter. That day, Margrét had had a sense of foreboding. As she and Agnes were cooking, they talked about the people they’d known who died in the mountains. Margrét had the sense that by naming death, they could prevent it.
When Margrét and Agnes discuss all the people they knew that died in the mountains, Kent reminds the reader of the hostility of the Icelandic landscape and weather patterns. Meanwhile, Margrét’s belief that by talking about death she can prevent it is yet another example of superstition in the novel.
Themes
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
As it turned out, Róslín went into labor that day, and Margrét, Agnes, and Ingibjörg went to Róslín’s farm to help her. It quickly became clear that something was wrong, and Agnes told them the baby was in a bad position for delivery. Agnes instructed Ingibjörg to make a tea from angelica root to help ease the delivery. As predicted, the baby came in breech position, but it survived. Agnes refused to deliver it. When asked why she would not touch the newborn, Agnes said that she wanted it to live.
During Róslín’s delivery, Agnes shows the vast extent of her knowledge of childbirth methods, embodying the intelligent womanhood that the authorities find so threatening. Agnes’s interest in methods of safe childbirth may be related to her memory of Inga’s death and holding her dead baby, as Agnes refuses to hold Róslín’s newborn.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
That night everyone celebrated the round up of the sheep and the baby’s birth. The next day, Margrét spoke Agnes more than usual. Lauga had come in and complained about Agnes staring at her possessions, despite the fact that Agnes had proven by then that she was no thief. Margrét wondered if Lauga hated Agnes so much because she was jealous of her, though she did not know why Lauga would be.
Kent never thoroughly explores why Lauga might be jealous of Agnes, leaving the reader to guess. It is possible that Lauga resents the attention that Agnes receives, especially from Steina. Or Agnes may make Lauga, who is a people-pleaser, jealous of her independence.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Get the entire Burial Rites LitChart as a printable PDF.
Burial rites.pdf.medium
Margrét stops thinking about Róslín’s delivery and finally gets out of bed. She looks out at the animals, remembering that it is slaughter day. Margrét thinks back on the day that Agnes arrived at Kornsá and how hostile she felt toward her. Now, though, she appreciates Agnes’s help. Margrét decides to try not to think about what she will do on the day of the execution.
Margrét seems to have grown fond of Agnes and has begun to think of her as any other servant. However, when Margrét remembers that Agnes is actually a prisoner, she struggles with how she feels about Agnes’s crimes and how she will feel when Agnes is executed.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
The narrative switches back to Agnes’s first person perspective as the family begins the slaughter of that year’s animals for the winter. Agnes wonders if she is included in the calculations of how many mouths to feed. She also wonders if the animals know that they are going to die. The farmhand Gudmundur catches and slaughters the first sheep, catching the blood in a pail. Agnes brings the pail inside to Margrét before returning outside. Agnes watches as Gudmundur skillfully skins the sheep. He reminds her of Fridrik. Together, Jón, the other farmhand Bjarni, and Gudmundur skin all the sheep and gut the carcasses.
Agnes seems to also be thinking of her state of bondage and her impending execution, as the slaughter of animals reminds her that winter and her own death are approaching. Agnes empathizes with the sheep, wondering whether they know if they are doomed like she does. Gudmundur’s violence reminds Agnes of Fridrik, suggesting that the capacity for violence is more common than people may think.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Agnes remembers the previous autumn on Natan’s farm, when Natan made a mistake gutting a sheep and Fridrik laughed at him. Agnes returns to the kitchen where she and the other women make sausage. The men come in later to eat the sheep kidneys. When Agnes serves Jón his food, he looks her in the eyes and says “thank you Agnes.” Agnes thinks this is because she helped deliver Róslín’s baby.
Ever since Agnes helped Róslín safely birth her baby, Agnes has risen in the esteem of the family at Kornsá. Even Jón, who never says anything to Agnes, thanks her and calls her by name, effectively acknowledging her humanity for the first time.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
When the men finish eating, Agnes prepares the mixture used to salt the meat. It makes her think of how she used to help Natan mix medicines. Agnes remembers Natan talking to her as she made blood sausage the year before. Agnes shows Steina how to salt the meat, and Steina asks her why they’re salting it and where salt comes from. Agnes asks why she asks so many questions, and Steina, blushing, says it is because Agnes gives her answers.
Steina’s incessant questions for Agnes and her response that Agnes is the only person who gives her answers suggest that Agnes is a kind of role model for Steina. Like Agnes, Steina’s intellectual curiosity and willfulness have made her an outcast. In Agnes, Steina finally finds someone she sees as a kindred spirit.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
They poach the sausage in a kettle over the fire. As Agnes holds a sheep head close to the fire to burn away the hair, the smell reminds her of Natan’s farm burning with the bodies in it. Agnes gets upset and goes outside. Margrét finds her, and instead of chastising her, she makes small talk with her. Then they sit silently before Margrét says they should go see what Lauga and Steina are doing. Margrét holds out her hand to Agnes, who takes it. They go inside.
In contrast to the earlier incident when Agnes supposedly threw a fit after hearing about Sigga’s appeal, Margrét now approaches Agnes’s emotional turmoil with respect, and as a friend. Unlike before, when Agnes was forcibly put in handcuffs, Margrét offers her hand to help Agnes up, giving Agnes a freedom of choice.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
The narrative switches to third-person as Lauga and Steina work together in the kitchen to finish making the sausage. Steina mentions how quickly Agnes works, and Lauga says that she probably poisoned the whole barrel of meat. Steina doubts this and says that Margrét seems to be becoming fond of Agnes. Lauga, exasperated, asks Steina why she is always talking about Agnes. She expresses her frustration that everyone else seems to be acting like Agnes is a normal servant rather than a convicted murderer.
Unlike the rest of the family, who have come to view Agnes as a servant or even a family member, Lauga cannot get over Agnes’s criminal status. Throughout the book, Lauga strictly adheres to norms of class and social standing, as is evident from the beginning when she ingratiates herself to Blöndal. Agnes’s transcendence of her status infuriates Lauga.
Themes
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
Steina realizes that Lauga is very upset and asks her what is wrong. Lauga tells her that she thought that Agnes would just be a prisoner in their house, not a constant part of their family. She worries about how the other people in the valley will see their family now as a result. Lauga thinks that she and Steina will never find husbands and accuses Steina of treating Agnes more like a sister than Lauga. Steina insists that she only pities Agnes and empathizes with her. Lauga tells her that Agnes is nothing like them, and leaves the room.
As Lauga explains why she is upset about Agnes being viewed more favorably than before, it still does not seem to totally account for her disproportionate coldness to Agnes. Lauga’s concern about their marriage prospects, however, reflects the fact that being a single woman is a much more difficult path than being a married one.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
The narrative, still in third-person, jumps to follow Tóti as he decides to travel to Kornsá to talk with Agnes despite the bad weather. As Tóti prepares for his trip, Reverend Jón implies that Tóti is romantically interested in either Lauga or Steina. Tóti tells his father not to wait up for him, and his father hands him the Bible he has forgotten as he leaves. Tóti rides toward Kornsá in the cold.
When Tóti’s father hands him his forgotten Bible on the his way out the door, it seems to metaphorically represent how far Tóti has deviated from the Christian literature and formal ministering that he is supposed to be using to help Agnes repent.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
The narrative jumps to Agnes and Tóti sitting in the badstofa as Agnes tells him that, after first meeting Natan, Agnes did not see him for days. Then Natan turned up while she was cutting meat down from the rafters of an outbuilding and began talking with her. Natan told Agnes that he needed a new housekeeper. They walked together back to the house, passing María and Pétur on the way.
As Agnes tells Tóti about the beginning of her relationship with Natan, it becomes clear that their romance was tied up in Agnes’s employment and class status. In part, Natan uses the fact that he is hiring a housekeeper to attract Agnes to him.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
Tóti asks if she is talking about the same Pétur that was murdered when Natan was, and Agnes confirms that she is. She says they were all afraid of Pétur, who told them about his strange dreams. Agnes says that Natan also told her some of the strange dreams he’d had. Across the room, Lauga pipes up, saying that Róslín told her about Natan’s dreams.
As has already been consistent throughout the book, many characters, especially those on the margins of society, believe in the prophetic and psychological power of dreams and harbor superstitions about their meanings.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Jón tells Lauga to let Tóti speak with Agnes without interference. This infuriates Lauga, who says that it is Agnes who has been interfering with their lives. Margrét tells Lauga to go back to her knitting. Agnes asks Lauga what Róslín told her about Natan’s dreams. Lauga says that Natan had a dream that an evil spirit stabbed him in the stomach and another in which he saw his own body in a grave. Tóti then asks Agnes to continue with her story.
Like the many rumors circulating about Natan and his murder, it is unclear whether the story about Natan’s dream of being stabbed in the stomach is true or not. Again, characters believe in the power of dreams to predict the future, as Natan’s dreams (or at least the rumors of those dreams) seem to prophesize his death and condemn Agnes as guilty.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Agnes continues, talking about Pétur’s bad reputation for having been arrested for killing animals for fun. Agnes says she walked Natan to Worm and then rejoined María in the field. Agnes told her about Natan’s visit and María told Agnes to be careful, and that she was worried for her. Suddenly Jón interrupts and asks Tóti to speak with Agnes away from his family. Tóti says that, unfortunately, their discussion cannot help but being overheard in such close quarters. Margrét says that it doesn’t make a difference, since anything the girls did not know before, Róslín has since told them.
Jón’s request that Tóti talk with Agnes away from the family reflects the worry that many characters express throughout the book that Agnes’s presence will corrupt Lauga and Steina, stripping them of their innocence. Tóti, who ignores Jón’s request, seems unswayed by this concern. Margrét, likewise, seems to have gotten over her concern for the girls’ innocence now that she is more comfortable with Agnes.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Tóti and Agnes resume their talk. Agnes says she thought that María was jealous because Agnes was the one getting Natan’s attention, and because they both knew that Natan was looking for a housekeeper. Whenever Natan came back to the farm, he and Agnes would talk. They quickly became friends. Soon, Maria started ignoring Agnes. When Agnes told them that Natan had asked her to work for him, the other servants were angry. Then Agnes goes silent. Jón suggests that they go to bed, offering Tóti the spare bunk, and they all go to sleep.
At the beginning of her friendship with Natan, Agnes believed that María stopped talking to her out of jealousy that Natan was interested in her. She also believed María was jealous that Agnes might get a better job than she had before, raising her social class. It is unclear whether María is actually mad at her for this or whether María was concerned about Agnes’s safety and emotional wellbeing.
Themes
Women, Violence, and Innocence Theme Icon
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
The narrative switches to Agnes’s first-person perspective as she describes how sometimes her mouth aches after talking with Tóti. No matter what she says to him, though, it is impossible for him to understand what it was like to be with Natan. She remembers walking in the snow in the evenings and talking with Natan about how he didn’t believe in God. Natan had said that they were two of a kind, and they were better than the other people in the valley.
Agnes describes feeling like Natan understands her better than anyone else. This seems to be linked to Natan’s alternative experience of spirituality, as Natan is firmly anti-Christianity. Natan and Agnes also both resent their place in the Icelandic class system and feel that they are different from and better than other people.
Themes
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Theme Icon
Natan had then asked Agnes what the name was for the space between the stars, and when Agnes said “soul asylum,” Natan told her that was another way of saying “heaven.” Agnes disagreed. It was only later, Agnes says, that they could not have these kinds of discussions without arguing. That night, Agnes and Natan had sex in the cowshed. Afterward, Agnes wanted to cry with happiness. Natan left, but he came back to see her again and again that winter.
When Agnes says that the space between stars is a “soul asylum” and that it is different than “heaven,” she asserts the importance of differences in naming— to Agnes, “heaven” and “soul asylum” are very different things. Agnes’s comments express her preference for spirituality outside of Christianity.
Themes
Literacy, Language, and the Icelandic Landscape Theme Icon
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Theme Icon
Agnes fell in love with Natan and felt flattered that he had chosen her. She would look with satisfaction at the bruises she’d gotten during sex and feel sad when they faded. Agnes tried to keep her love a secret from the other servants. Finally, Agnes and Natan decided Agnes would go live with him. However, Natan also had Sigga the whole time.
Although Agnes’s memories of the early days with Natan are extremely happy, Agnes’s retrospective comment that Natan “had” Sigga the entire time suggests how the truth of their romance was very different than Agnes believed at the time.
Themes
Truth and Liberation Theme Icon