Hannah Kent’s story of Agnes Magnússdóttir is inextricable from the hierarchies of power that defined Icelandic politics and life in the early 19th century. At the time, Iceland was a colony of Denmark, meaning that Iceland had to defer to the Danish crown and follow Danish law. The colonial state of Iceland was thus already the manifestation of a hierarchy, but the state also created further inequalities within the island itself. Burial Rites clearly depicts a pronounced class system within Iceland, with land and farm owning families possessing much more money and power than their impoverished servants.
Servants in Iceland were subject to physical discomfort and their lives were plagued by uncertainty, as they could be thrown out of the farm they were working on at any time without warning or reason. They had very few possessions, as evidenced by the meager list of Agnes and Sigga’s personal belongings compiled by officials after their arrest. Female servants were frequently subjected to unwanted sexual advances from the farmers they were serving, and they could be thrown out simply for refusing sex. Agnes’s experience at Natan’s farm is a perfect example of the uncertainty and potential danger of servitude, as Natan lies to Agnes, uses her for sex, and then becomes violent towards her before throwing her out in the snow. Clearly, life for servants in Kent’s novel is dangerous and their agency is severely limited.
These servants, meanwhile, do not benefit from luxuries that farmers and officials occasionally enjoy. Notably, these “luxuries” are things that most modern reader would expect as day-to-day items: glass windowpanes instead of seal bladder ones, coffee, salt. But in contrast to the lower class servants and middle class farmers, the upper class in Iceland benefit from many of these “luxuries.” Although Icelandic officials have to defer to the Danish Crown, they also enjoy financial and social benefits that elevate them over the middle class farmers and landowners. Blöndal, who is the district commissioner, clearly has much more money than the farmers he oversees, as evidenced by his beautiful red coat trimmed with silver buttons and his lavish home with its glass windows, iron stoves, swan quills, and many other luxuries that are unavailable except in Denmark.
As Blöndel’s connections to Denmark result in his great wealth, so they also give him the power to control people in his community. Blöndel has let his power and money go to his head, and he expresses disdain for middle and lower class people, thinking at one point how the “hovels of the peasants had begun to repel him” when he goes to visit the Kornsá farm. Meanwhile, the family at the Kornsá farm cannot refuse to accept Agnes because failing to honor Blöndel’s request would ensure that Blöndel would cause the family trouble. The family worries that Steina’s objections to Blöndel and her impertinence towards him could affect their social standing. The family even hears a rumor that Blöndel originally was going to place Agnes in a different family, before deciding that, if Agnes decided to kill anyone else, the family on the Kornsá farm was more expendable. This shows how, even for middle class farmers like the family at Kornsá, small differences in status can be a matter of life or death.
Through her examination of characters like Agnes and Blöndel, Kent gives portraits of different class statuses, showing how colonization exacerbates class differences and how people of high classes generally abuse people of lower classes.
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power ThemeTracker
Class, Colonization, and Hierarchies of Power Quotes in Burial Rites
I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames…fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me…I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
He had grown corpulent since his posting as District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwelling provided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovels of the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped rooms constructed of turf.
I prefer a story to a prayer. They whipped me for that at this farm, Kornsá, once, when I was young and fostered out to watch over the home field. The farmer Björn did not like that I knew the sagas better than him. You’re better off keeping company with the sheep, Agnes. Books written by man, not God, are faithless friends and not for your kind.
“Why not Sigga?” Tóti asked in a small voice.
Blöndal shook his head. “The maid of sixteen who burst into tears as soon as I summoned her? Sigga didn’t even attempt to lie—she is too simple-minded, too young to know how. She told me everything. How Agnes hated Natan, how Agnes was jealous of his attentions to her. Sigga is not bright, but she saw that much.”
Tóti nodded, and slowly picked up the swan feather… “You mean to make an example of her,” he said quietly.
“I mean to deliver God’s justice here on earth,” Blöndal said, frowning. “I mean to honor the authorities who have appointed me by fulfilling my duty as a lawkeeper.”
…“I hear that you have appointed Gudmundur Ketilsson as executioner.”
…“I do not have to explain my decisions to you, Reverend. I am not accountable to parish priests. I am accountable to Denmark. To the King…We are not her to discuss my performance. We are here to discuss yours.”
She said Natan had started giving himself some airs, calling himself Lyngdal, not Ketilsson, though neither of us could work out why—it was a strange sort of name to have, not Icelandic in the slightest. María thought it was probably to make himself out to be a Dane, and I wondered that he was allowed to change his name at all. María told me that men might do as they please, and that they are all Adams, naming everything under the sun.