One of the most painful things in art is realism. Grotesquerie, exaggeration, wish fulfillment, romance: all of these allow a generalization of human behavior that may portray some truth, but they don’t cut to the bone in the same way that a stark portrayal of real, honest, human behavior does.
And that’s why reading Sigrid Undset hurts. Somehow, she has that rare ability to capture the essence of humanity on paper. Turning the pages of her books flenses away the protective layers of the psyche as the behavior of her characters holds up a mirror to our own faults, fears, hopes, and dreams. Reading her magnum opus Kristin Lavransdatter may leave the reader feeling as if he or she needs to stop every few pages just to calm one’s nerves.
Ida Elizabeth is no different. Emotions will be triggered and tears may flow: from sadness during tragedy, from frustration in witnessing the destructive power of stubborn pride, and in watching the evaporation of ephemeral dreams that can never be.
Unlike many of Undset’s other works, Ida Elisabeth is set in the modern day: 1930s Norway. And it is because of this modern setting that Undset is able to give glimpses into distinctly modern views on marriage, society, death and life.
Much what the Church teaches on marriage today is not so much under attack as it is ignored and untaught. I can remember when my wife and I went through pre-Cana, the mandatory teaching session required by the Catholic Church before marriage, it was clear that perhaps two other couples in the group of twenty had a grasp on what marriage really is. And much of the presentation on marriage at the session tended to show Church teaching on marriage filtered through pop psychology: Catholic couples tend to be happier! According to this study, married couples who practice their religion have better sex lives! Have you heard of Natural Family Planning? It will improve your intimacy and communication, and make your marriage stronger!
What this approach tends to sidestep is that the modern understanding of marriage—that it is the formalization of a romantic commitment, nothing more and nothing less—has come into being via a steady erosion of ideals, made possible by focusing on hard cases. What about a marriage that is desperately unhappy? What about a case where the husband is unfaithful? What do we say about marriage then? It’s then that the pop psychology turns up empty and mercy seems far out of reach.
This is what makes Ida Elisabeth ring true. Undset gives us a hard case: Ida and her foolish, irresponsible husband Frithjof. No punches are pulled in the writing; the author shows us Ida’s dissatisfaction in marriage, her ambivalence to another pregnancy, and the consequences of her husband’s immaturity. While Frithjof is an idler, a dreamer, and a man seemingly incapable of acting like an adult, Ida herself is a prickly, judgmental woman prone to passive-aggressive behavior toward all who displease her. They are uniquely ill-suited to be a couple. When a series of disasters leads up to an act of betrayal on the part of Frithjof, the couple separates.
It’s in beginning a new life apart from Frithjof that Ida begins to find some happiness in life. She has a thriving business. Her children appear to be happy. And then she meets another man, Tryggve. He’s everything Frithjof wasn’t: intelligent, hard-working, well-spoken and respectful. But as they fall in love (a process marvelously described by Undset) Ida keeps getting reminders of the life she tried to leave behind. It’s also made clear that Tryggve has some troubling opinions on humanity, referring to the poor as “scrap” who out of consideration for the betterment of society should be left to fend for themselves rather than be given charity. His eugenic views also make him look askance at Ida’s children by Frithjof, as they were fathered by a man who was of inferior stock.
And it’s here that the uncompromising Undset sets up the final act of the book. Frithjof comes back into Ida’s life. She must make a choice about her relationship with Tryggve. Despite her own personal flaws, she makes decisions that require immense sacrifice. Happiness is not apparent. Suffering is. It’s the hard case, not just about marriage but about how we relate to others, how we understand the bonds of community and family, and how we respect the dignity of even those who are difficult to love.
Unlike the superficially happy resolution offered by pop-spirituality, Undset shows that even in the hard, difficult cases, some measure of peace and even joy can be found; but only if suffering—unavoidable in life—can be shouldered and dealt with.
We could use more writers like Sigrid Undset these days.
Ida Elisabeth is available in softcover, e-book, and audio download from Ignatius Press.