Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for her epic historical trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. The Norwegian novelist is admired for her honest portrayals of relationships between men and women, especially her descriptions of romantic love and marriage. At the same time, she displays a thematic interest in flawed human characters who, nonetheless, rise above their failings and transcend to virtue. In the wake of the First World War and her own marriage, she began to question her upbringing that was without any formal practice of religion. After taking instructions from her local priest, she was received into the Catholic Church in 1924. With the outbreak of World War II, she fled to the United States because of her vocal opposition to Nazi Germany, but returned home in 1945.
This last week, I treated myself to reading one of her later novels, Ida Elizabeth, published in 1932 (It has recently been reprinted by Ignatius Press.). In the novel, Undset anticipates the later larger social issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and the effects produced by these on children. To say that this has become a toxic issue is an understatement—to suggest that divorce and remarriage might harm children is often met with condemnation. Undset takes this on in her novel. Near the end of the novel, the titular character, long-since divorced from the youthful and imprudent marriage to her teen-age love and father of her children, has been “reunited” with him do to her former husband’s critical illness. While she considers turning her back on him (for the sake of another relationship) in his hour of need, Ida Elizabeth reflects upon how her children, who have recently been reintroduced to their father after many years, might be affected:
At times she thought of things she had heard—before she was grown up, for instance. A friend of her mother’s was thinking of marrying again, and her children by her first husband mad a great to-do about it. She talked about her new happiness—“our painful, sensitive happiness. But oh, what triumphant joy it is too, when we can have an hour of peace together, just we two.” There was something about the children being sent out for a walk and the maid given an afternoon off and the telephone receiver taken off. And it was courageous—not to renounce one’s happiness, but to pay what it cost.
Oh yes, it seemed tempting—she saw that even now. But if one looks into the dry meaning of all such humid sentimental phrases one arrives at a very simple question: Am I to take what I desire and let my children pay for it? Well, God knows, it is less simple when one had to answer it. Then one discovers that, when all is in tumult within one, the voice of conscience is only like the feeble crow of the mistress in a school-yard full of roaring youngsters. But the fact remains—when they are old enough and strong enough, children can refuse to pay the debts of their progenitors; they can take refuge in bankruptcy from morality or society or whatever the creditor may be called who holds all the unredeemed claims on their parents. But so long as children are children they cannot prevent it, if their parents choose to live their own lives at the cost of the offspring.
Perhaps it is true that people nowadays cheat and exploit one another with more barefaced assurance than formerly. Perhaps human nature remains the same, and it is some outside factor which makes it appear as though there has been more honor and fidelity in the world at some periods than at others. But whatever pass we may come to, even if everyone fails everyone else, the last thing to happen should be a mother’s failing her children (Ida Elizabeth 386-387).
Undset asks the explosive question: not only do the children pay the price for the adults’ indulgence, but should they? Must they “pay the debts of their progenitors?’ And, as she suggests, are we content to let them repay these debts by taking “refuge in bankruptcy from morality or society or whatever the creditor may be called who holds all the unredeemed claims on their parents”? Are antisocial or amoral tendencies in the children something we can countenance?
While many today might say: children are better off if they are not with contentious parents, Undset is unwilling to dismiss this issue so quickly. She acknowledges that children DO suffer the contention of their parents and wonders if these are the occasions when parents ought to sacrifice for the sake of the children. For while these situations are often painted in a dualistic manner (either remaining in a loveless marriage OR separating to spare the children from conflict), Undset presents a third way: working towards reconciliation and/or sacrificing a degree of happiness for the sake of the children. She takes seriously the moral aspiration of the prophet Jeremiah, who saw the injustice of children paying the price for the “sour grapes” of the parents, when he predicted a future free of this: “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ (Jeremiah 31:29).
It seems to me that Undset, writing nearly a century ago, has much to contribute to this current issue that seems to be no longer a conversation. For the sake of children, maybe it’s a conversation that deserves reopening.
By the way, if interested, check out this interesting pod cast of a discussion about the novel:
Undset, Sigrid. Ida Elizabeth. Trans. Arthur G. Chater. San Francisco: Ignatius P. 2011.