Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)
Sigird Undset was a Norwegian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. Her parents were atheists, but still they had her baptized in the Lutheran church because it was customary in that day, whether or not the parents had any faith (sometimes that happens yet today). She spent many years as an agnostic, but gradually moved toward the Christian faith, and at age forty-two joined the Roman Catholic church to worship the Lord in whom she had come to believe.
Undset’s novels, placed in both the Middle Ages and modern times, deal primarily with family life and its struggles. From the anguish of her own troubled and tragic relationships, and from the perspective of her faith, she was able to tell stories that powerfully depict for us the lesson that our lives are intertwined with the lives many others, and our good and bad choices will have profound consequences on those we love, now, and long into the future. This is not a new lesson, but it is a necessary one in a time when so many people have come to feel that their primary obligation is to their own personal fulfillment and happiness. One reviewer commented that Undset’s life and work bear witness to the Old Testament truth that sins of the fathers (and mothers) will be ‘visited upon even the third and fourth generation;’ and this, not as an arbitrary punishment inflicted by God from the outside, but as the consequences of our sins against others.
Undset’s 1917 novel Images in a Mirror portrays the unhappy marriage of Uni, a former stage actress, to a man who no longer fulfills her dreams of romantic love. Along with the frustration of her stale marriage, Uni has given birth to five children in ten years, and she is tired. The death of one of her children has further weakened her confidence in ever finding a lasting joy in her family. So Uni goes out looking for some kind of missing excitement, and seems to find what she needs in an affair with another man. Now she is happy again. But before long, she is neglecting her children.
Uni does not at first notice this, but she is unexpectedly called back to herself by a friend. Uni is stunned when this friend tells her that she misses the way Uni used “to sing to the children in the evening.” Uni’s recognition that she has indeed been neglecting these children that she really does love, leads to a change of heart. She leaves her affair and returns to her husband. There is a painful confrontation, but they do work things out, and they continue on together as a family.
After this is all over, Uni reflects upon her pursuit of happiness. Here is how Undset describes her thoughts in Image in a Mirror:
“Happiness…” she thought, “What was I doing, at my age, to go and believe in happiness? The happiness that my husband and I once shared– that happiness is like a shooting star. In the brief instant that it shines one must think of one’s heart’s desire and wish; and in the brief space while caresses are new and thrilling, one is called to understand and determine one’s life. I wonder how many there are who succeed…
“But happiness in one’s children is so natural that one does not think of it. All the times when our heart gleams with joy– at the odd things they say, at their comical first steps, at their beginning to take notice, at their caresses and those we give them, at the fright which proved needless and an illness which did not turn out to be dangerous. It does not occur to us that this is happiness, all these thousand little gleams. And yet it is on them that we live. No one could live without being happy now and then, but we do not think of it when it is there. We are only conscious of ourselves when we are unhappy. So long as I have my children I know that I can face life– cheerfully, in whatever way everything else may turn out.”
“A thousand little gleams”– this is where happiness can be found. Happiness may be found in recognizing and receiving and appreciating these little gleams when they come. But happiness will never be found where many people think they will find it– in once and for all getting all our ducks in a row, having everything in order, removing all the frustrations from our lives, and finally getting away from all unpleasant people and their burdensome claims on our life. All of that will not happen, and if we insist on happiness on that basis we will never be happy. But through Uni’s reflections, Sigrid Undset is teaching us that even in the midst of the ever-present frustrations, we can find happiness in these thousand little gleams. And this applies not only to the joy we find in children, but to all of life, with or without marriage, with or without children.
God has indeed given all of us so much for which to be grateful.
“Such moments of spiritual awakening are typical in Undset’s fiction. In this story, children represent the opportunity for release from the preoccupation with self. In welcoming them, Undset thinks, we overcome our yearning for hedonistic self-realization and find joy in serving a will other than our own.”
–By Deal Hudson at:
Exodus 20:14 — You shall not commit adultery.
Numbers 14:18-19a — ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love…
Psalm 127:1a…3 — Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain… Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.
Psalm 136:1 — Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.
Luke 15:17…18 — And when he came to himself, he said… “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.”
Colossians 3:23-24 — Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
May God be with you and bless you.
May you see your children’s children.
May you be poor in misfortune, rich in blessings.
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.
–Old Wedding Blessing