Publisher and Publication Date: Penguin Classic. Published in Norway-1909. First published in America by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1936. My paperback copy-1998.
Genre: Scandinavian historical fiction. Women and literature. Classic literature.
Audience: Readers of historical fiction. Readers of women’s stories.
Link for the book at Amazon.
11th century. Norway and Iceland.
Gunnar’s Daughter is Vigdis Gunnarsdatter. She is the surviving child of Gunnar of Vadin. He is the owner of a large manor near a river in Norway.
When the story begins the description of Vigdis shows she is spoiled, quiet, stoic, and richly dressed. She had to be encouraged to be friendly to guests in their home. The guests are 2 men named Veterlide and Ljot. They are from Iceland. Ljot (pronounced Yot) is the younger man who is quickly smitten with Vigdis. A romantic relationship began between the young couple, but her father said no to marriage.
I recently read a historical fiction story titled The Historians. This story is Scandinavian historical fiction with a setting in Sweden during WWII. It was through this story I was introduced to a list of Scandinavian historical fiction books on Goodreads. There are several lists on Goodreads that have Sigrid Undset’s books. I searched online for more information about Undset. Her life itself is an interesting story, especially during the World War II years.
I love big books. I love chunkster books that take weeks to read. I love long sentences and paragraphs. I love lengthy descriptive writing. I love long tales that need several pots of tea to finish. Gunnar’s Daughter is not that kind of book. It is a big and powerful story, but it’s cradled in a small package. This tells me excellent stories can be written in less than 200 pages.
Before reading this story I knew little about Scandinavian history and culture, especially during the middle ages. During the time period of Gunnar’s Daughter, Christianity is new to Norway. King Olav is a Christian. He has embraced this religion by being baptized. After Sigrid talked with Olav, she too asked to be baptized. But in regards to understanding the belief system of Christianity this is not taught. Being baptized didn’t change Sigrid’s heart. It didn’t change her goal for revenge. Gunnar’s Daughter is not a Christian story. Christianity is so new to the Scandinavian land, people have not come to regard certain ways of doing things as pagan. I wanted to make this point because it effects the story.
Sigrid is a picture of what happens to women when they are sexually abused. Her abuse is not described in graphic detail. The lasting trauma of her abuse is a large part of the story. Her response to men. Her response to life choices. Her deep depression. The anger and bitterness is bigger than forgiveness and love.
The story reminds me of an oral tale or saga. A story people knew by memory and told to others during the middle ages. Much later it was written down for reading. The sentences and conversations are short for memory purpose.
Ljot is a character I don’t want to like. I don’t want to feel sorry for him. Sigrid Undset created a character who is an ogre yet I feel sympathy.
The ending is heartbreaking. It reminds me of a poem my mother loved.
“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Some examples of themes in the story: family honor, revenge, rape, shame, courage, obsession, redemption, and jealousy.