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An Analysis of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

"Burial Rites" analysis

"Burial Rites" analysis

What Is Burial Rites About?

In Northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnúsdóttir is condemned to death for the brutal murder of two men. She 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 living in their home, the family avoids her like the plague. Thorvadur (Toti) Jónsson (a young assistant reverend appointed as Agnes’s spiritual guardian) attempts to redeem her soul. This novel is 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 Effectiveness of Setting

Through figurative language techniques, Kent utilises the setting to communicate a deeper meaning for the audience to decipher. The characters live in an Icelandic society in a period where long-distance communication consists of walking, skating and horse riding, which are often impaired by heavy snowfall. This traps the characters in a claustrophobic puritanical society where gossip spreads like wildfire.

As a result, the characters are stuck together, forced to rely on each other for survival. Each character then exhibits individual perceptions of imprisonment. For instance, Agnes is trapped within her own inner turmoil. Her lips remain shut for a good portion of the book, claiming if she were to talk about the murder, her words would be only bubbles of air.

Additionally, Margrét (the farmer’s wife who finds herself playing host to the condemned murderess) is trapped in her house and a repetitive cycle of work and supporting her family. Lauga and Steina are fated to live a predestined life as suffocating as Margrét's.



Character Growth

Lauga becomes conflicted between despising Agnes and accepting her. She expresses her fear of gaining a bad reputation with Steina. However, she cannot find it within her to hate Agnes like the rest of the town. Toti is also trapped by visiting and acting as Agnes’ spiritual advisor.

These factors create a vivid depiction of the characters. Forcing these characters together forces each to reveal different sides of their personalities and provokes growth in each of them. This helps the audience to grow invested and relate to these characters.

How Weather Mirrors the Characters' Emotions

The moment she is released from prison is a great example of how the weather mirrors the characters' emotions. After being kept away from civilisation and the outside world, it pours with rain. She basks in the rain in relief, signifying her feeling of being purified once from her captivity.

It also signifies her cold wash of reality. Although Agnes was relieved, she has to face the death sentence. When she turns to smile at the townsfolk, their disgust and fear reveal to her how they now see her crimes, not her. Hence, Kent utilises the changing weather to reflect the character’s emotions.

The Issue of Female Oppression

This novel can be interpreted as a novel about female oppression when you examine the social construct of the society Burial Rites is set in. (However, it is important to note we are interpreting this text with present-day ethics and morals while the society in the book was based on held different social standards to us.)

It was no coincidence that Agnes was the only one who was sent to be executed. She was not the only one arrested for her crimes. Her co-worker, Sigga, was also arrested, yet she was let off on probation. This is because she fit the passive, uneducated, traditional archetype of a woman. In the text, women are presented as subordinate in comparison to men, holding domestic duties revolving around house life. Lauga and Steina will also live a predestined domestic with no role of power within their society. However, Agnes’s persona exceeds other female characters in intelligence. This is reflected in her first-person narrations:

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

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Agnes is the polar opposite of what is expected of a woman: murdering a man (she mercy killed Nata after Sigga and Sigga's lover (Fridrik) attempted to kill him), intelligent and literate. The audience also gains insight into her complex characterisation as opposed to the unambiguous one-dimensional character Stigga was given.

By executing Agnes, they kill the independent, unconventional and subordinate femme fatale persona woman can adopt. Agnes breaks this notion of a household woman by committing murder in a situation she had no control over, as murder was perceived as a male crime. The execution was a power move on the part of Bjorn Blondal (the district commissioner) to warn other women from following in Agnes' footsteps.

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.

Agnes' femme fatale character incited animosity from characters such as Blondal, who, along with religious figures, go out of their way to lecture the town about how she is the embodiment of evil. This is reflected in historical documents such as Blondal’s letter to Toti. He actively dehumanises her to a one-dimensional murderess.

Margrét is one of the people who bought this perception of Agnes, asking, “What sort of woman kills men?” on behalf of her entire community. However, after learning more about her personality by the end of the novel, she tells Agnes, “you are not a monster,” and cries at her execution.

Hannah Kent (author)

Hannah Kent (author)

Analysis of Binary Characters: Toti and Natan

Characters such as Toti and Natan draw a distinct divide between forces of good and evil presented within the book. 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.

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 challenges the values of a family as opposed to those who are expected to hold a rapport with 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 are developed due to Toti and Natan.

The grave of Fredrik Sigurdsson and Agnus Magnúsdóttir

The grave of Fredrik Sigurdsson and Agnus Magnúsdóttir

In contrast, Natan oppresses Agnes and Stigga. Natan adopts the stereotypical archetype of a villain with an enigmatic 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. For example, 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.

Furthermore, Natan intimidates Stigga into staying with him instead of allowing her the choice to be wed to 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 individual holds in regards to respect and morality as they both treat their loved ones differently.

Toti cared more than he did, and within the text, Natan and Agnes 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.


The Impact of Natan on the Plot

Natan’s actions catalyze the chaos that transpires in 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 Fridrik stabs him, leaving Agnes to finish the job to relieve him of his pain.

This creates a construct of cruelty and unfairness since Agnes was innocent within the situation and had. Although Natan was dead, the memory of him haunts Agnes physically as she is made to face execution and psychologically as she refuses to think of him. In turn, this provides depth to her character and past. He, as a character, allows the audience to see the humanity in Agnes, henceforth creating a sense of injustice as this event strengthens the relationship between the audience and Agnes.


Was Toti the Main Character?

Toti can be considered as the main character, fitting the hero archetype through his patriotic compliance with Blondal’s offer and working to resolve the issues within the text.

Traditionally, the hero of the text is perceived as the main character. The first chapter begins with Toti and the audience learns about Agnes at the same rate as him. 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.

For instance, he proves to be Agnes’s salvation and strives to deliver her to redemption. This is through psychological means, as he is the first to break through her mental barriers and gain her trust. He allows her the opportunity to discuss her life instead of being silenced by the political system. In this way, he opposes the villain (Blondal), who sought her death and attempts to deliver her to God.

However, this is to a certain extent as the entire novel circulates around Agnes. He barely alters the lives of minor whereas Agnes does, highlighting his passivity where 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, however, this is challenged by his lacking impact on the plot.

Picture of Iceland

Picture of Iceland

Blondal as the Archetypal Villain

The villain archetype is framed around attributes of self-centred 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: 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.

If he was successful in ‘taming’ the murderess, it would fuel his ego and improve his reputation. He 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.

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

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

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...'

The Role of Religion

However, Blondal does show a form of loyalty to the town 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.

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 religion has on the text was in regards to the archetypes that develop, character development and gaining an evocative response from the audience to the injustice of Agnes’ extreme death.

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.

Religion monopolises the town's 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 the beginning of a cursed life. For instance, she is subjected to a life of domestic duties, moving from household to household. The fact that she was born as a female contributes to this.

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 that 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 in 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 used this to his advantage.

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 how she was haunted by ill fate.

The Southern Iceland Glaciers

The Southern Iceland Glaciers

The Multiple Narrations

Kent utilises 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 are bold and capable of challenging Agnes’s charisma; while others, tread a relatively bloodless predictable path, in his case from passive observer to slightly-less-passive participant to make Agnes seem enigmatic.

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 who 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.

These perspectives are used to create dramatic irony and suspense as for instance towards the end of the book, Toti and Margrét are given the news of Agnes’ death drawing near creating irony since Agnes seemingly forgets about the sentence. She is given what she had been deprived of: a family.

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.

© 2016 Simran Singh


Simran Singh (author) from Australia on July 01, 2018:

Thank you for your kind words, Gilbert, I’m glad you enjoyed reading my review. “Burial Rites” truly is an excellent book to read for anyone curious about what it was to live in Puritanical Icelandic society in the early 1800s and showcases this in an entertaining and insightful way.

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 30, 2018:

Simran, I feel the book you have reviewed has a frightening historical background, a beautiful setting but cold environment, intriguing characters, and a great conflicting situation, a murderess placed into the custody of an Icelandic family creates great conflict, people of the times that weigh moral values of the 1830's is riveting. I love period novels. You did an excellent thorough review. I can see spending time reading, "Burial Rites."

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