Hannah Kent

Burial Rites

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Burial Rites Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 38-page guide for “Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 13 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 20 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Family and Abandonment and Truth and Deception.

Plot Summary

Based on the true story of the last woman to be publically beheaded in Iceland, Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent, explores the untold, impoverished background of a woman considered a witch in her own time. In 1829, 33-year-old servant Agnes Magnúsdóttir faced execution for the murder of two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, one of whom was her employer and lover, along with two teenagers, Fridrik Sigurdsson and Sigga (Sigrídur) Gudmundsdóttir. Housed temporarily at a government official’s house awaiting her execution, Agnes calls for a spiritual advisor to assist her in making peace with her impending death.

Kent’s narrative carefully depicts the details of a time and place alien to the twenty-first century that also manages to display how similar the ways of the human heart remain. Using historical records, some of which appear in the narrative as letters, Kent pieces together Agnes’ life, filling in the blank, unknown spaces with fiction. The historical record reveals her poverty, but Agnes has a bright mind and loves storytelling and poetry; the historical record shows her abandoned, loveless childhood, but Agnes attempts to work hard and improve herself to gain other’s approval. A significant theme—how people create others’ identities through projecting their own preconceived notions, prejudices, and experience upon them—threads through the narrative, as Kent explicitly avoids revealing to the reader whether Agnes is guilty or not.

Instead, Kent allows the reader to hear Agnes tell her own life story to her spiritual advisor, a just-ordained, meek, and youthful Tóti Jonsson.  Agnes has one last opportunity, standing at death’s door, to reveal her truth. The theme of storytelling, which runs through the narrative, and the power Agnes wields in leaving her legacy in the form of a story with Toti, remain all that Agnes has left.

What emerges is a complex portrait of an all-too-human woman in love with her abusive master, Natan. The ambiguity of Agnes’ guilt or innocence remains clouded by the complicated interrelationships of the characters and their differing views of Agnes, including the regional governor’s family, consisting of the governor, Jón Jónsson, his ailing wife, Margrét, and their two daughters,  Steina (Steinvör) and Lauga (Sigurlaug). Ironically, the house in Kornsá was a previous, happy foster home for Agnes, before the death of her foster mother, Inga, in childbirth.

Fate and destiny are also significant themes, but not necessarily in a spiritual sense. Fate is determined by where you grow up, who your family is, and how much power they have to protect their members from poverty or isolation outside the family, which are the ultimate weapons of destruction in this novel. The unforgiving natural world, where Iceland is depicted as a beautiful but harsh landscape, serves as an apt metaphor for each characters’ struggles to survive.

All of the powerless people in this novel are poor and are also frequently orphaned or abandoned. Destiny is decided for the poor by the rich, as defined in this novel by the District Commissioner Björn Blöndal and his brutal decisions, such as allowing Natan’s brother, Gudmundur Ketilsson, to behead Agnes. Blöndal possesses complete control over his constituents, along with a belief in the absolute correctness of all his decisions.

The Jonsson family is at first horrified at the thought of harboring a convicted murderer in their home, but Agnes’ original pitiful, filthy appearance and eventual hard work ignite some compassion for her fate, particularly in Margrét and the older daughter, Steina. Blöndal’s power is also exemplified by the fact that the family cannot refuse his order.

In the last months of a life marred by neglect, abandonment, abuse, and poverty, Agnes manages to live in dignity; she completes the chores asked of her with diligence, and through her interactions reveals her intelligence and kind heart. Her story remains the story of all people whose lives are left open to the interpretation of others, reminding readers that our fragile characters may be only as good as the stories we leave behind for others to remember. Truth is a matter often obscured by fate.

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