Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter opens with an anonymous poem about Agnes from before the murders, which calls her “good” and “a poet.” The chapter then resumes the third-person narrative, starting the day after Agnes and Tóti’s last meeting. Tóti is still at Kornsá because the weather is not good. While fixing Steina’s knitting, Agnes tells Tóti about Natan’s farm, which was far from everything. She describes her long journey along the coast to get there. When Agnes finally arrived, Sigga came out to greet her.
This anonymous poem about Agnes, which was written before Natan was murdered, praises Agnes for her poetry. Like many other instances in the novel, this poem suggests how highly valued literacy and writing skills are in this community. Agnes also emphasizes the isolation of Natan’s farm, which exacerbates the abuse she experiences there.
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Sigga led her to the house and asked about her journey. Sigga let Agnes get settled in the badstofa while she made them coffee. Agnes looked around the badstofa and noticed that only Sigga’s bed and her bed were made up. When Sigga came back, Agnes asked where Natan was, and if he had gone to church. Sigga said no, Natan was not a church-going man—he was out foxhunting.
Agnes only retrospectively realizes that the fact that Natan’s bed was not made up should have tipped her off to the truth of his relationship with Sigga. Sigga once again states that Natan is not a part of the Christian church, further establishing that his spirituality is unconventional.
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Agnes then describes Sigga showing her the farm. Agnes tells Tóti that the farm was next to the mountain on one side and the shore on the other. There were seals, ducks, driftwood, and constant sea fog. Natan’s workshop was out on a little island in the water that faced the mountain so he could see if anyone was coming.
Agnes’s description of Natan’s farm shows how closely her sense of the place is linked to its spot in the landscape, between ocean and mountains. The area is isolated, seemingly intentionally, as Natan is concerned about uninvited visitors.
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Sigga told Agnes a little about her personal history, and then said that she had never been a housekeeper before. This surprised Agnes, since Natan told Agnes that she would be the housekeeper. Agnes thought that there was some mistake, but kept quiet. Agnes and Sigga had coffee and Agnes told Sigga about herself. Natan came back to the farm after Agnes was asleep, so she didn’t have time to ask about her position.
The promise of a better position was one of the things that Natan promised Agnes in order to convince her to leave her life at Worm’s farm. For Agnes, being housekeeper is an economic step up. She is then bewildered when Sigga says that she, not Agnes, is housekeeper.
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The day after she arrived, Agnes saw Natan walking along the shore. Sigga told her that he’d arrived the night before. Agnes did not think to ask where he’d slept. Agnes did not talk to Natan about her position until later that day, when she explained to him that Sigga told her she had taken over Karitas’s position. Natan told Agnes that Sigga was just young and simple. He showed Agnes his medicinal workshop.
Natan’s dismissal of Sigga’s claim that she is his housekeeper later turns out to be an outright lie, reflecting Natan’s tendency to abuse and manipulate the women who work for him. Agnes’s hostility toward the idea of “truth” may be in part due to Natan’s constant lying.
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Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. Lauga answers it and returns to the badstofa with Reverend Pétur Bjarnason, who has come to register them with the parish. Tóti introduces the Reverend to Agnes, who identifies herself as “Agnes Jónsdóttir.” Lauga, thinking she is referring to her own father Jón, begins to object, but Tóti confirms her name.
Agnes changes her name to Agnes Jónsdóttir, reflecting her belief that her real father was Jón of Brekkukot, not Magnús. Agnes’s name change is an especially important adjustment because of the power of names to create and define identity in the book.
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The priest speaks with each family member to determine their reading skills and knowledge of Christianity. Afterward, Reverend Pétur speaks with Agnes. Reverend Pétur then thanks them and says goodbye. Tóti walks him out. On the way, he asks Reverend Pétur what he wrote about Agnes. Reverend Pétur shows him the book, where he wrote that her character is “mixed”. Reverend Pétur says she is well educated, but that Jón had said she was prone to fits. Reverend Pétur leaves.
The fact that a priest from the local parish comes to Kornsá and the surrounding farms every year to determine their literacy and knowledge of Christianity shows both how important literacy is to this society and how it is often taught in conjunction with Christian beliefs, meaning that the church controls one of the most important culture mediums.
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The narrative changes back to Agnes’s first-person perspective as she revels in the fact that she has changed her name to “Agnes Jónsdóttir,” the daughter of Jón of Brekkukot and not Magnús. She feels like the new name belongs to a happier, more pious life in which she would never have fallen for Natan.
Agnes not only associates her new name with the truth about her father, but also with the prospect of an entirely different life. In this respect, the truth about her past sets Agnes free emotionally.
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Agnes thinks again of her first day at Natan’s farm, when she spent all day with Natan in his workshop. Natan told her about his foxhunting techniques, which required using baby foxes as bait. Afterward, Natan killed the baby fox rather than leaving it to die, and they agreed it was the “only decent thing to do.” Natan showed Agnes his books, telling her that Sigga did not like reading. Agnes tried to read Natan’s papers, but they were full of plant names she did not recognize.
Natan and Agnes’s discussion of Natan’s foxhunting techniques and his merciful killing of the fox kit at the end foreshadows Natan’s own death, in which Agnes kills Natan to ensure that he will not suffer from the wounds that Fridrik inflicted on him. This conversation may even have informed Agnes’s decision, as she thought that Natan would prefer death to suffering.
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Natan and Agnes then had sex in the workshop. Agnes thinks Sigga must have known that she and Natan were sleeping together, though they waited until she was asleep to have sex in the badstofa and Natan always went back to his own bed before Sigga woke up.
As Agnes revisits her time on Natan’s farm, it is clear to her that Natan was lying to her the entire time about the specialness of their bond and was sleeping with Sigga from the beginning.
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The narrative switches back to the third person. Agnes resumes telling Tóti about her first days at Natan’s farm. Natan had been happy that she was there. Agnes worked and talked with Sigga all day long. Sigga said Natan usually did not spend so much time at home. Natan showed Agnes medicinal tricks and Agnes read from Natan’s books. Natan brought Agnes and Sigga gifts from his travels.
The beginning of Agnes’s time at Natan’s farm is pleasant, with Natan being more or less present and Agnes striking up a congenial rapport with Sigga. Natan and Agnes bond over Natan’s books because they both have a fondness for literature that they feel Sigga does not share.
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It was an isolated life, but Agnes loved Natan and tolerated Sigga. Agnes asks Tóti if Sigga had been granted her appeal. Tóti is unsure. Agnes says that Sigga has probably become more pious since their arrest, but that at Natan’s farm she was gossipy. She resumes her narrative, saying that Sigga called herself the housekeeper and ordered Agnes around.
Agnes is still thinking about Sigga’s appeal and asks Tóti about whether it has been granted. Agnes imagines that Sigga is now conforming to Christianity as a ploy to be granted mercy and free herself.
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Soon after Agnes arrived, Fridrik visited for the first time. Natan introduced Fridrik and his lover Thórunn and they stayed for dinner. Fridrik was the son of a nearby farmer. Sigga seemed to like Fridrik, but Agnes always thought he was a little off-balance. Both he and Natan were moody, but Fridrik was violent, while Natan was more superstitious. Unlike Natan and Sigga, Agnes did not like Fridrik at all.
In Fridrik, Agnes sees violent tendencies from the beginning. Perhaps her foresight is due to Agnes’s large amount of experience with violent men on the other farms she worked on. Agnes sees a similarly volatile moodiness in Natan, but Agnes thinks Fridrik is more violent.
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After Fridrik left, Natan disappeared briefly to check if he had stolen anything. According to Agnes, Natan and Fridrik’s friendship was strained by rivalry. Fridrik seemed to want Natan’s money. This made Agnes nervous. When she told Natan that Fridrik could overpower him, Natan was furious with Agnes for talking to him like that in front of Sigga. Agnes found Natan’s temper somewhat disturbing.
Although Agnes does not avoid Natan like she does Fridrik, she encounters many warning signs of Natan’s own capacity for violence. Natan’s temper, for example, scares her. Although Agnes recognizes this, she stays with Natan.
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Tóti prompts Agnes to tell him about Sigga. Agnes tells Tóti how Sigga clearly hoped to marry Fridrik, but she worried that Fridrik was engaged to Thórunn. Agnes told Sigga that, in order to get married, she needed permission from a priest, from the authorities, and from Natan. Sigga seemed worried about Natan’s approval. Sigga asked Agnes if she thought Fridrik was a thief, and Agnes said no. When Agnes told Natan about the conversation, Natan laughed.
When Agnes tells Sigga about all the people she must receive permission from before marrying Fridrik, Agnes shows the reader how little power servant women have over their own fate and romantic lives. Notably, the people Sigga has to ask (the clergy, authorities, and her boss) are all men.
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During lambing season, Natan was away traveling. Neither Agnes nor Sigga could deliver the lambs themselves because they were not strong enough, so Sigga went to get Fridrik to help. Fridrik helped them deliver the lambs for a week, during which time Agnes would not let him sleep in the house. One day, Agnes saw Fridrik digging holes in the ground near the front door. Agnes knew he was looking for Natan’s money.
Although Agnes and Sigga are hardy, capable women who are used to hard work, neither of them has the strength to deliver the lambs themselves. Even for many independent women like Agnes and Sigga, the extreme physical demands of Icelandic farm life may require extra help.
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Meanwhile, Sigga adored Fridrik, who soon forgot about Thórunn. When Natan returned to the farm, Sigga told him Fridrik had helped with the lambs and Natan became angry that they had let him on the farm. This made Sigga cry. Agnes told Natan that they could never have managed without a man to help them with lambing, which required lots of strength. Eventually Natan calmed down and said he would hire Daníel Gudmundsson to help with the harvest so they could avoid Fridrik.
When Natan gets mad at Sigga and Agnes for letting Fridrik on the farm, it is clear that Natan cannot understand Sigga and Agnes’s female perspectives, and so fails to understand why they asked for Fridrik’s help. Natan also does not trust Fridrik, despite the fact that the two men are supposedly friends.
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