Throughout the book, the novel portrays many of the challenges faced by women in 19th-century Iceland, from the gender roles that restrict them to the challenges of childrearing and childbirth. Clearly, life for Kent’s characters is difficult, between the bad weather, the isolation, and the poverty. These difficulties, however, are exacerbated for women, whose role as child bearers can be dangerous in such extreme conditions. Kent describes in gruesome detail Agnes’s foster mother Inga’s death in childbirth, which is due in part to a blizzard that prevents neighboring women from coming to the house to help her through labor.
Not only do women have to deal with the general hardships of life in Iceland and the way these exacerbate biological hardships like childbirth, but they also have to struggle against a general culture of misogyny and classism. For poor women who must act as servants, sexual violence and coercion seems to be nearly a given in Kent’s imagination of 1828 Iceland. Agnes describes her own experiences of sexual coercion throughout the book, discussing how many of the men she worked for forced her to have sex with them or else risk being thrown out into the cold. Again, the harsh realities of life in Kent’s novel clearly exacerbate this problem, since, for most of the year, Iceland is so inhospitable that sleeping outside would be a certain death sentence. Even Natan, who Agnes falls in love with and who initially seems to love Agnes back, uses his gender and class status to manipulate Agnes and use her for sex before hitting her and throwing her out of the house. Agnes’s continued love for Natan following this violence also shows how ideals of romantic love can trap women in violent and unhealthy relationships. Likewise, Agnes’s later conviction for Natan’s murder, despite her very small and merciful role in his death and Natan’s violence towards her, suggests how the justice system is not set up to favor or support women, even women who are victims of abuse.
Not only does Agnes herself experience this sexual manipulation and abuse because of her gender, but she also watched her mother Ingveldur undergo the same thing when she was a child. Agnes moved with her mother from place to place when she was a young girl as her mother was taken into different farms and then thrown out again after the man of the house grew tired of sleeping with her. Kent shows through this mother-daughter parallel how gendered violence and abuse gets repeated throughout generations.
At the same time that women experience gendered violence in Kent’s novel, they are also constrained by female gender roles. Women are valued differently based on how well they conform to these gendered expectations. For example, Lauga and Steina are constantly compared, and Lauga is regarded much more highly because she is beautiful, obedient, and much better at domestic tasks. Steina, meanwhile, is headstrong, loyal, and unafraid to challenge authority, so other characters consider her to be much less charming than Lauga. Similarly, Sigga and Agnes are compared in their criminal trial and Sigga comes out with a much better sentence than Agnes. Sigga gets her sentence reduced because she is “dumb and pretty and young,” as Agnes puts it, and it wins the sympathy of the judges and the public. Agnes, who is known to be highly intelligent, is accused of being the mastermind and thoroughly demonized, even in the community that she grew up in. Agnes attributes the lack of sympathy for her in comparison with Sigga to the fact that the judges “believe a thinking woman can’t be trusted” and that “there’s no room for innocence” in women who are intelligent. Agnes essentially describes how smart women are more likely to be punished, effectively showing how conceptions of innocence and guilt are inextricable from gendered norms. This also suggests how gender roles are not separable from violence against women, as Agnes’s failure to conform to gender roles is part of what provokes her condemnation to death.
Effectively, Hannah Kent shows how gender roles and gendered violence make up a vicious cycle, as gender roles are enforced with the threat of violence. This cycle, in addition to the general harsh realities of life in 19th-century Iceland, make womanhood difficult and dangerous.
Women, Violence, and Innocence ThemeTracker
Women, Violence, and Innocence Quotes in Burial Rites
Cruel Birds, ravens, but wise. And creatures should be loved for their wisdom if they cannot be loved for kindness.
What sort of woman kills men?
The only murderesses Margrét had known were the women in the sagas, and even then, it was with words that they had killed men; orders given to servants to slay lovers or avenge the death of kin. Those women murdered from a distance and kept their fingers clean. But these times are not saga times…This woman is not a saga woman.
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.
To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things…It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten…Who was she really?…she made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.
He built his church from wives’ tales and the secret language of weather; saw the blinking eye of God in the habits of the sea, the swooping merlin, the gnashing teeth of his ewes. When he caught me knitting on the doorstep he accused me of lengthening the winter. “Do not think nature is not watchful of us,” he warned me. “She is as awake as you and I.” He smiled at me. Passed the smooth breadth of his palm over my forehead. “And as secretive.”
I’ll tell you something, Reverend Tóti. All my life people have thought I was too clever…That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart… to get caught up in this by accident. But Sigga is dumb and pretty and young, and that is why they don’t want to see her die…They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted. Believe there’s no room for innocence. And like it or not, Reverend, that is the truth of it.
“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.
“Thórbjörg had an inkling of what Fridrik planned. She knew about some sheep Fridrik stole. She lied to the courtroom…Thórbjörg saved my life,” Agnes added after a moment’s pause. “She found me on her doorstep after Natan threw me out. I would have died had she not brought me inside and let me stay there.”
Margrét nodded. “No one is all bad.”