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An Analysis: Burial Rites

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What Is Burial Rites About?

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men. Agnes is sent to wait out the time leading to her execution on the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderess in their midst, the family avoids speaking with Agnes. Tóti, the young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian attempts to redeem her soul. This novel was based on a true story.

Now comes the darkening sky. And a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there. It passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead. For you will be gone and the wind will still be there.

— Agnes Magnusdottir

The Effect of Setting in the Novel

Through the techniques of figurative language, Kent is able to convey the setting and utilise it to emphasise the effectiveness of the novel. Within the text, the characters live in an Icelandic society in a period where long distance communication consists of the walking, skating and horse riding which is often impaired by the heavy snowfall which also leaves the characters to be trapped in a claustrophobic puritanical society where gossip and judgement pass quickly.

The heavy snowfall imprisons the characters with a claustrophobic house where they are to rely on each other for survival. This allows the characters to exhibit individual perceptions of imprisonment as for instance Agnes is caught in her inner turmoil, refusing to speak of the murder as she states that if she did her words would be only bubbles of air. Margret is trapped in her house and trapped in a repetitive cycle of work and supporting her family. Lauga and Steina are fated to live a predestined life to live the life no better that Margaret's.

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Due to the closeness of Angels, she is conflicted between despising Agnes and accepting her as the proximity of her connection creates scepticism from the rest of her town and as expressed to Stiena, she fears for her reputation. Toti is furthermore trapped by visiting and acting as Agnes’ spiritual advisor. Consequently, this allows a vivid depiction of the characters, allowing the audience to engage and relate the characters. This creates substance to the character relationships that begins to develop that would not have been constructed if the characters were not forced together to such an extent.

Furthermore, the weather mirrors the emotive reactions that the characters have in response to the situations they face. Take Agnes for instance; within the text when she leaves prison after being kept away from civilisation and the outside world, it rains. She basks in the rain. This response of the weather mimics her relief as the sensation of purification from her captivity. However, the rain responds to her emotions in a bitter-sweet way in which how the rain could have been perceived as a cold wash of reality to the book since although Agnes was relieved, she has to face the death sentence and how when she smiled she realises that the minor characters all see her murders, not her. Hence, Kent utilises the changing weather to reflect the character’s emotions and to emphasise the moods that evolve in the text.

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The Issue of Female Oppression

Essentially, this novel can be interpreted as a novel about female oppression for a variety of reasons reflecting the notions of injustice and examination of the social construct of the society Burial Rites is set in. This is expressed through the contrast of modern day society to the past the audience automatically makes and juxtaposition exhibited within the text.

This is expressed through the way Sigga was let off on probation, as she clearly fits the passive notion of a traditional archetype of a woman. However, Agnes’s persona exceeds other female characters in intelligence through her first person narrations such as stating;

I stole the breath of a man, now they must steal mine

— Agnes
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: book trailer set in Iceland
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: book trailer set in Iceland | Source

If you draw this quote towards the death of Natan, it is clear he had been the catalyst for his own death from the mistreatment of Sigga. Agnes commits a social crime since murder was a male crime and her intelligence is threatening as they are seen as the ones with authority, as reflected in through the fact that no females within the text hold as much power as Blondal, Jon and even Margaret's husband maintains the position of being the head of the household.

Also, women are subordinate in comparison to men in the text as they held domestic duties that predominantly revolved around house life. The level of education can be considered quite low, but however, Agnes clearly displays a form of intelligence through the language she uses to delineate her situation.This can also be interpreted through Lauga and steina’s predestined domestic life that Margret lived as they held no role of power within their society. Instead, Agnes breaks this notion of a household woman through committing murder in a situation she had no control over, as murder was perceived as a male crime.

The museum Glumbær, in a cold January. Glumbær was once a wealthy farm in the Skagafjörður area. The original turf buildings have been preserved, and offer visitors a wonderful insight into the old Icelandic way of life.
The museum Glumbær, in a cold January. Glumbær was once a wealthy farm in the Skagafjörður area. The original turf buildings have been preserved, and offer visitors a wonderful insight into the old Icelandic way of life. | Source

She fits into the role of a femme fatale since how she brings about the downfall of Natan, other men such as Blondal feel threatened by this action as it is made known that she is a ‘murderess’ and a ‘devil’. Thus, this receives an animosity infused response from characters such as Blondal who along with religious figures go out of their way to lecture the town of how she was the embodiment of evil which is interpreted in historical documents such as Blondal’s letter to Toti, acting as a method of dehumanizing her to a one-dimensional murderess.

This could be considered as ironic as Agnes is the only one who helps Margaret with her ‘natural healing’ whose interpretations of her at first is the product of the puritanical society. For instance, she states, “What sort of woman kills men?” she asks, on behalf of her entire community. In juxtaposition by the end of the novel, inevitably, she is telling Agnes that, “You are not a monster” and cries at her execution. Hence this reveals that it is highly unlikely she would reoffended, introducing the notion of injustice as her execution which is condemned as extreme for her situation in today’s society.

Hannah Kent (author)

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Analysis of Binary Characters: Toti and Natan

Characters such as Toti and Natan draws a distinct divide between forces of good and evil presented within the book. In contrast, however, Toti acts as an antithesis to Natan, holding passive and equivocate traits. For instance, Toti offers Agnes liberation from her past through the opportunity to express herself. To illustrate, Agnes falls into a panic attack as the news of her death sentence drawing near reaches her.

Instead of neglecting her to face her own anguish, as Natan would have done, Toti attempts to calm her. He tells her that he would not abandon her and would fight to remain at her side during her death sentence. This initiates an aspect of loyalty as Toti keeps to his word instead of exerting judgement on Agnes. Furthermore, Toti consistently shows support to Agnes. This monopolises and questions the values of a family as opposed to those who are expected to hold a rapport to Agnes such as her mother he instead shows her the concern that she had been deprived of. As a result, the binary themes of loyalty and disloyalty is developed due to Toti and Natan.

The Grave of Fredrik Sigurdsson and Agnus Magnúsdóttir

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In contrast, however, Natan oppresses Agnes and Stigga. Natan adopts the stereotypical archetype of a villain as he is given an enigmatical yet solipsistic persona. Despite the fact that Natan was her lover he was willing to compromise the innocence of the protagonist’s character for his own needs. This was the way he Natan had thrown her outside to die by the snow, ignored her on numerous occasions and cheated on her. This presents the theme of loyalty and the divide of morals that both characters hold, therefore proving how in which both are characters in opposition.

Furthermore, Natan intimidates Stigga in to staying with him instead of allowing her the choice to be wed of Frederick. This highlights the callous behaviour that Natan exerts as well as the possessive need for dominance and control. This shows the stark contrast both individuals holds in regards to respect and morality as they both treat their loved ones differently since Toti cared more than he did and within the text Natan and Anges were together, not Agnes and Toti. This also highlights that Natan oppresses women in a struggle for dominance, therefore both characters are significant since they construct prominent themes of injustice, immorality and oppression within the text.

Natan’s actions cast a catalyst to the chaos that transpires into the death of Agnes. Natan provokes Agnes to develop a multi-dimensional persona through his volatile behaviour. For instance, this consists of the way Natan had put himself in a position where Fredrick stabs him, leaving Agnes to finish the job to relieve him from his pain. This creates a construct of cruelty and unfairness to the text as Agnes was innocent within the situation and had, in fact, cried during his death. Although Natan is dead it is clear that the memory of him lingers and haunts Agnes, physically as she is made to face execution and psychologically as she refuses to think of him. In turn, this provides depth into her character and past.

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He as a character allows the audience to see humanity in Agnes, henceforth creating a sense of injustice as this event strengthens the relationship between the audience and Agnes. As a result, this creates attributes of a femme fatale such as independence whilst maintaining a mysterious past, as opposed to the unambiguous one-dimensional character that Stigga was given. Therefore, it is succinct that Toti and Natan allow personas insinuating to the femme fatale and develops complexity to the text in regards to the responses and aftermath of character relationships.

He as a character allows the audience to see humanity in Agnes, henceforth creating a sense of injustice as this event strengthens the relationship between the audience and Agnes. As a result, this creates attributes of a femme fatale such as independence whilst maintaining a mysterious past, as opposed to the unambiguous one-dimensional character that Stigga was given. Therefore it is succinct that Toti and Natan allow personas insinuating to the femme fatale and develops complexity to the text in regards to the responses and aftermath of character relationships.

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Toti as the Main Character

For a variety of reason Toti can be considered as the main character to a certain extent. This is prescribed in the way he fits the hero archetype since he is patriotic through his compliance to Blondal’s offer and works to resolve issues within the text to defeat evil. For instance, he proves to be Agnes’s salvation and in a quest strives to deliver her to redemption. This is not through physical means but psychological as he is the first to break through her mental barriers in order to gain her trust. He allows her the opportunity to discuss her life instead of being oppressed into silence as the political system has. Through this, he opposes Blondal who sought her death. Furthermore, he attempts to deliver her to God. This poses as the quest that hero archetypes often partake in.

Traditionally, in the hero of the text is perceived as the main character as reflected through works such as the myth of Hercules. This can be highlighted by the way the first chapter begins with Toti. From this point, the audience appears to be learning about Agnes at the same rate as him as she poses as an enigma. Light is only truly shed on her past through her discussions with Toti such as her first time meeting Natan and how her relationship evolved with him from that point.

However, this is to a certain extent as the entire novel circulates around Agnes. He barely alters the lives of other characters such as Margaret as whereas Agnes does, highlighting his passive behaviour he barely contributed to the main plot. He has no influence over Blondal and his only function appears to be the serve as Agnes’ salvation and is used to engage the audience with the love tension between Agnes and himself. Therefore, it is plausible to state that Toti could possibly be the main character due to his position as the hero archetype but however due to his passive attributes this is debatable.


Agnes Magnúsdóttir

Agnes was the last person to be executed in Europe
Agnes was the last person to be executed in Europe | Source

Agnes as the Archetypal Femme Fatale and Blondal as the Archetypal Villain

Essentially, the archetype of villains is framed around attributes of self-centered vanity, a hunger for power and interest in personal gain, usually at the cost of others. Blondal fits into the archetypal villain through the aspects of the bureaucratic personality revealed throughout the text. Blondal is puritanical, exerting the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. For instance, he uses quotes such as, “Those who shall murder may be put to death “, from the last testament in his letter to Toti. This, in turn, pressures Toti into taking the place of Agnes’ spiritual advisor, clearly a move made to boost Blondal’s ego. This could also mean that he had in fact instructed Toti to lead her to salvation for his reputation. If he was successful in ‘taming’ the murderess this would have fuelled his ego and would have constructed a greater reputation in regards to other religious figures. This clearly manipulates members of the Icelandic society to bend to his will through the word of the bible to justify his domineering actions and his place of authority, despite differing opinions.

This is highlighted through the treatment of characters such as Agnes. Instead of matching the passive idealistic stereotype of a woman like Sigga, Agnes breaks this notion of a household woman through committing murder in a situation she had no control over, as murder was perceived as a male crime. She fits into the role of a femme fatale since how she brings about the downfall of Natan. Clearly, Blondal feels threatened by this action as it is made known that she is a ‘murderess’ and a ‘devil’. This, after all, contradicts his interpretations of women and threatens his position of power as since she had the ability to bring the downfall of Natan, Blondal questions how far she could go. This was despite the fact that Natan didn’t have a positive reputation in the first place and how she didn’t have a voice in the matter of how did the murder occur. Additionally, Blondal may have made Agnes live in the farmhouse to torment her as she had once lived within the same area. Therefore it is clear through Blondal’s attributes of manipulation and blind arrogance he is definable as a villainous archetype within the text.

A baðstófa, communal living and sleeping room of roughly similar date to Agnes' life as an adult

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Instead of matching the passive idealistic stereotype of a woman like Sigga, Agnes breaks this notion of a household woman through committing murder in a situation she had no control over, as murder was perceived as a male crime. She fits into the role of a femme fatale since how she brings about the downfall of Natan. Clearly, Blondal feels threatened by this action as it is made known that she is a ‘murderess’ and a ‘devil’. This, after all, contradicts his interpretations of women and threatens his position of power as since she had the ability to bring the downfall of Natan, Blondal questions how far she could go. This was despite the fact that Natan didn’t have a positive reputation in the first place and how she didn’t have a voice in the matter of how did the murder occur.

Agnes commits a social crime since murder was a male crime and her intelligence is threatening as they are seen as the ones with authority, as reflected in through the fact that no females within the text hold as much power as Blondal, Jon and even Margaret's husband maintains the position of being the head of the household. And the fact that Agnes’ murdered Blondal intimidates him as he had once known the man who healed his wife. Thus, this receives an animosity infused response from Blondal who goes out of his way to lecture the town of how she was the embodiment of evil.

This is a photograph of the original letter from Pétur Bjarnason, Reverend of Undirfell, to Björn Blöndal. Translated, it reads: 'The condemned Agnes Magnúsdóttir was born at Flaga in the parish of Undirfell in 1795...'
This is a photograph of the original letter from Pétur Bjarnason, Reverend of Undirfell, to Björn Blöndal. Translated, it reads: 'The condemned Agnes Magnúsdóttir was born at Flaga in the parish of Undirfell in 1795...' | Source

Agnes commits a social crime since murder was perceived as a male crime and her intelligence is threatening as they are seen as the ones with authority, as reflected in through the fact that no females within the text hold as much power as Blondal, Jon and even Margaret's husband maintains the position of being the head of the household. And the fact that Agnes’ murdered Blondal intimidates him as he had once known the man who healed his wife.

Thus, this receives an animosity infused response from Blondal who goes out of his way to lecture the town of how she was the embodiment of evil. Blondal does show a form of loyalty to the town, however, it was to his religion. However, he does so in a reprimanding strict way where he exerts his power in a classical manner. He rejects other perspectives of how he was to exert his religion, indicating an aspect of vanity and pride in his judgement. Due to this, Blondal only saw vice in everything except within Therefore, it is clear through Blondal’s attributes of manipulation and blind arrogance he is definable as a villainous archetype within the text.

Hannah Kent on Burial Rites

Was Agnes' Fate Sealed From the Time She Was a Young Girl?

It is clear that Agnes’ fate was sealed to a certain extent for a variety of reasons. This can be divided up into the areas of religious scepticism and the fact she was born as a female. Religious monopolises the political and social structure of the town but despite this Agnes is born as a bastard child, which within the puritanical society could be considered as the beginning of a cursed life. For instance, she is subjected to a life with domestic duties, moving from household to household. The fact that she was born as a female contributes to this. Instead of matching the passive idealistic stereotype of a woman like Sigga, Agnes breaks this notion of a household woman through the fact she becomes educated due to her adoptive family, a family that would not have existed if her mother hadn’t have abandoned her. Due to the way women was depicted as subordinate, she is trapped into a repetitive life of labour without any power over society. Eventually as expressed she grew bored of living a repetitive mediocre life, thus one of the main reasons for falling for Natan. The fact that she is female also invited Natan into her life as he was a womaniser and moved his interests to her and the fact she was intelligent intimidated Natan as he tells her to learn her place.

They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother, but they will not see me.

— Agnes

Agnes states that god had has his chance to free her, but he had pinned her to ill fortune and she is knifed to the hilt with fate. This is expressed through the way her mother abandons her and moves on to another family. As an orphan, she struggles through life through difficult conditions. Consequently is clear that falling for Natan at this point was inevitable since through due to this she was deprived of love. She craved affection and Natan proved to be a complexing, enigma of a character. She was vulnerable as her mother is depicted as a sinner as she moves and leaves men and families after a certain period of time that contradicts the domestic wife and it is almost expected that Agnes is to follow these traits. The notion of a sealed fate is extended through the fact she falls for Natan, the typical villain who does not believe in religion. She proves to be educated and her presence in Natan’s life acts as a catalyst to his and her death. This shows that she is haunted by a bad fate.

The Multiple Narrations

One thing that Kent does very well is to utilise perspective to create a sense of myth and reality surrounding Agnes. Agnes only narrates roughly a half of the novel; the rest of the story is told by an omniscient third-person narrator who skips between the supporting cast. Some of these characters – such as Margrét, the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess – are relatively full-blooded, capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; and others, such as Thorvadur Jónsson, the priest assigned to Agnes as her confessor, tread a relatively bloodless and predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant in order to create Agnes’ enigma.

The narrative is split into many differing perspectives: Agnes’s, Toti’s, Margret’s, but also the official perspective is shown through letters of communication, court notes, official documents. These serve to create historical accuracy dehumanise Agnes as she is reduced to being a criminal who must be made an example of. The emotionally detached way these passages deal with organising her execution, down to quibbling the price of the axe that will kill her, add a chilling clericalism to the proceedings, and to borrow Agnes’s own words suggested that those who pass judgment are hypocrites as they conspire to rob her of her life just as she robbed a man of his.

Climbing the slope of Þrístapar, the site of execution, a few days before the 183rd anniversary of Agnes's death.
Climbing the slope of Þrístapar, the site of execution, a few days before the 183rd anniversary of Agnes's death. | Source

As a result, this allows the audience to identify juxtapositions of the perceptions of her as for instance, Margaret at the beginning state; “what kind of woman murders a man?” whilst in the end, she ends up telling Agnes she is not a monster. This is utilised to gain an evocative response from the audience as they are able to relate to the characters and in some form to the different perceptions that develop in regards to her. Additionally, these different perspectives are used to create dramatic irony and suspense as for instance towards the end of the book, Toti and Margaret are given the news of Agnes’ death drawing near creating irony as Agnes seemingly forgets about the sentence and just had been given what she had been deprived of; family.

Hannah Kent Discusses Burial Rites and Speculative Biography

The Role of Religion

The role of religion forms issues such as female oppression, inhumanity and challenges the prospect of justice. Religion is the core root of the paranoia and fear that dehumanises Agnes as shown in the beginning of the text a child had called her the devil, although all she did was smile. This shows how religion frames the ethical construct of the setting’s society, hence how as Agnes had prescribed they didn’t see her as a woman desperate for affection but in her place saw her murder.

This is the result of the claustrophobic religious society being lectured about her sins by priests and demonised as a ‘murderess’ and ‘sinner.’ Instead of a human being, she is treated as an animal in imprisonment, and additionally was feared by the town by characters such as Margaret and her daughters, and furthermore Rosa who expresses her judgement of Agnes to Margaret. It was almost as though Agnes is condemned by religion from her bastard birth to her execution.

Religion acts as a tool that the villain archetype in the text, Blondal is able to manipulate with his hellfire and brimstone attributes in order to gain authority over the rest of society. For instance, he uses quotes from the old testament, ‘ Thou who shalt murder shall be put to death,' to convey his puritanical beliefs to Toti and push him into the position of Agnes’ spiritual advisor. This could also mean that he had in fact instructed Toti to lead her to salvation for his reputation. If he was successful in ‘taming’ the murderess this would have fueled his ego and would have constructed a greater reputation in regards to other religious figures. This clearly manipulates members of the Icelandic society to bend to his will through the word of the bible to justify his domineering actions and his place of authority, despite differing opinions showing that due to religion, he can be perceived as the villainous archetype.

The plaque marking the exact site of Agnes Magnúsdóttir's execution on the 12 January 1830. Moss and ice cover the inscription. Taken in January 2013.
The plaque marking the exact site of Agnes Magnúsdóttir's execution on the 12 January 1830. Moss and ice cover the inscription. Taken in January 2013. | Source

However, religion allows Toti to form into the hero archetype.Toti has ended up being her psychological salvation as he allowed her the ability to openly express her past without being oppressed as the political system does. Blondal views females as subordinate as in Christianity since the majority of Christian figures are male such as Jesus, David and the Apostles, hence forming the way he was raised and how he assumes an automatic throne to authority is embedded in his character.

This impairs his perspective of justice as Agnes contradicts the ethical values that he maintains. This enabled the character development of Agnes as she was able to trust due to this, allowing the audience insight to her humanity and sympathise with her. Furthermore, this allowed Toti to develop into the hero archetype. Therefore it is clear that the impact that religious has towards to the text was in regards to the archetypes that develops, character development and to gain an evocative response from the audience to the injustice of Agnes’ extreme death.

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