Over the past month I read both Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.
Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and without resentment.
The book is written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive through towering heights and plummeting lows.
My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.
And yet, Antonia is a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry her with them. She is by no means a weak or mild individual; she is strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:
She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.