Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: Life of a Condemned Woman

Published: 2021-09-15 22:15:08
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Set against the bleak Icelandic landscape, Kent’s “Burial Rites” explores the life of condemned women, Agnes Magnusdottir. By allowing Agnes to have a voice – readers are able to understand her death as a product of not only her own choices but the society in which she lived in. A society in which powerful men with status are favoured and prejudice is pervasive. Thus, Kent seeks to shed light on how Agnes’s death sentence cannot be blamed on Agnes herself but is also due to her unforgiving society that punishes those who are underprivileged.
Agnes’s passionate love for Natan blinds her from any sense of reason and logic which leads to make foolish decisions that contribute to her death. By depicting passion and lust as both empowering and disempowering emotions, Kent conveys love as a double – edged sword. Although Agnes initially finds a sense of worthiness because of Natan’s attention towards her, she later expresses her love as a “hunger so deep, so capable of driving [her] into the night”, thus highlighting how her love for Natan has completely enveloped all her senses, making her incapable in forming the right decisions. Time and time again, Agnes forgives Natan or chooses not to face up to his deceitful and manipulative ways. When Natan lies to Agnes that she would be “housemistress” and yet “there was Sigga”, Agnes chooses to believe his words that indeed “[he] would not lie to [her]”. Further, when Natan purposely sleeps with Sigga in the presence of Agnes, she experiences great grief and sorrow – “rage flooded through [her]” and she “screwed [her] fingernails into the flesh of [her] arm” highlights how Agnes is willing to self-inflict pain and torment herself for such a man. Perhaps if Agnes was not so caught up in her love with Natan and realised that indeed Natan is conniving and duplicitous in nature, she would have made the reasonable decision to leave him, thus changing her fate. Agnes’s attempt to forgive Natan for sleeping with Sigga further emphasies her malicious and unhealthy love for him, as she is depicted as a desperate woman unable to see the danger that lies ahead of her. Thus, it is through the many moments in which Agnes commits herself again and again to Natan despite his mistreatments of her that exemplifies how Agnes’s overwhelming love for him leads her to making the wrong choices which ultimately leads her to her own death. Therefore, although to some extent, Kent shows Agnes to have authored her own choices, by highlighting the toxic nature of gossip in society Kent is able to create a more ambiguous character doomed by more than just her decisions and authorship.The deeply prejudiced society that is quick to stereotype Agnes contributes to her impending death as she is seen as the unequivocally evil woman. By highlighting the toxicity of such a society and the consequences they bring to people, Kent condemns Agnes’s society for falsely characterising her and others in general. Agnes claims that “how other people think of you determine(s) who you are.” This highlights the preconceptions of society and how Agnes herself has become a victim of it. That people will see a “witch caught in the web of her own fateful weaving” and not her, further reveals how society’s branding of Agnes as a “murderess”, has restricted her from proving people wrong. This is because in the eyes of everybody else she is already a dead woman. Further, Kent implements historical documents all throughout her novel to reinforce how history has defined Agnes as “condemned”, as someone who “stabbed and thrashed” her victims and not someone who committed a mercy kill. The use of primary sources further emphasises how society and historical documents display the absolute truth, supposedly. By doing so, it leaves Agnes no chance in providing an alternative story, leaving a tunnel visioned view that she committed the crime out of evil nature and thus everyone driving Agnes to her death, thinking that the death penalty is a suitable punishment. It is Agnes’s inability to transcend the malicious nature of her society that she is unable to prove herself to be more than just a “murderess”, besides the Jonsson family and Toti, thereby leading society to endorse the view that Agnes should be fated to die.
Agnes’s patriarchal society strips Agnes of her voice and ultimately forces her to her own death. Kent demonstrates the over-arching patriarchal society that punishes the underprivileged through her characterisation of Blondal. During the trial, Agnes claims “they [Blondal and other male officials] plucked at [her] words like birds” suggesting Agnes’s oppression in such a society. Further, Blondal’s adamant stance on executing Agnes lies in his underlying desire to prove his power and competence as an “opportunity for [his] community to witness the consequences for a grave misdemeanour.” That Sigga is pardoned, yet Agnes is condemned further illustrates the power of men such as Blondal and how Agnes is unable to escape her predicament, as she is no match for a society where males with status are on top of the pyramid. When Blondal recounts the murder to Toti, he repeatedly uses the phrase “I am of the opinion” whilst portraying Agnes as the master mind who manipulated Sigga and Fridrick into the murders of Natan and Petur. Here, the word “opinion” connotes a sense that Blondal himself is unsure of the facts however it is his word that is law – thus Agnes is unable to escape Blondal’s authority and condemnation of her to death. By portraying Blondal as a man so vested in his power and authority, Kent condemns the patriarchal society and highlights the tenuous grip that Agnes has over her own life.
In essence, whilst Kent allows Agnes to have moments to author her own fate, it is ultimately a combination of her society as well as her unrelenting passion and love for Natan that leads her to her own execution. By depicting Agnes’s death being a consequence of both her emotions and society, Kent successfully encapsulates the ambiguous nature of Agnes. Yet by highlighting the devastating effects of such a male dominated and prejudiced society, Kent ultimately disapproves of such a society as being disempowering and unjust.

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