Sigrid Undset’s Ida Elisabeth: The Moral Nobility of a Loving Woman

A novel about a self-sacrificing woman whose life of heroic suffering for the sake of her marriage and children exemplifies moral courage, Ida Elisabeth traces the heroine’s life from the folly of an adolescent scandal in which she loses her virginity to the period of adult womanhood as a mother of three children. Several years after the embarrassing episode in the barn where the town doctor accidentally finds them in the midst of their lovemaking, Ida, to reclaim her honor, agrees to marry the young man who tempted her. Surprised by the proposal of her lover, Ida rationalizes that the respectability of marriage will remove the stigma and restore her respectable character: “It did look as if she were doing a sensible thing in marrying Frithjof, but that was only an excuse she made to herself for yielding to her ardent longing for rehabilitation.” Their expedient marriage (“a marriage contracted as the result of a juvenile faux pas”) for the sake of human respect rather than true love soon brings enormous tribulations and anguish to Ida who quickly learns that she must not only accept the full responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood but also carry the economic burden of providing for the family as a dressmaker—an exhausting, demoralizing situation in which her lethargic husband Frithjof fails in his role of husband and father: “But when a mother has to take the place of the father while the father hangs about seeming to assume the part of the mother—why, that is simply iniquitous, utterly against the order of nature.”

Unmotivated and slothful, Frithjof—constantly promising to find work but hardly making a total effort—never learned the meaning of duty, the value of work, or the discipline of will power in his family upbringing. Spoiled by his doting parents who never instilled in their son a sense of industriousness, Frithjof—though a husband and a father—remains a child dependent on his wife for the family income to provide for him and their three children. Remembering her father’s words about the consequences of indiscretion—his example of the drunkard who orders drinks without thinking but then must pay for them in his sobriety (“what one has signed in one’s cups one must abide by when sober”)—Ida accepts the consequences of her moral choices by honoring her marital vows, sacrificing for her children, and submitting to a life of toil both inside and outside the home as a cross she must bear. With fidelity to her vows and a heart full of love and unlimited charity, Ida more than atones for the folly of her youth by all the sacrifices of a lifetime demanded of a wife and a mother. As a faithful wife, caring mother, and dutiful breadwinner, Ida accepts her lot according to the proverbial wisdom of her people: “When the wedding was over, it meant bearing the yoke together as long as they lived.”

Soon after their marriage when Frithjof loses his temporary position with the excuse that “he was not quite the right man for his uncle’s business,” Ida confronts the hard realities that marriage presents. Aware of her husband’s unreliability and the emptiness of his promises, she feels depression in sensing that Frithjof has no intentions of working for a living, content to live as a dependent under the care of a successful businesswoman. Without earnestness or sincerity, Frithjof continues as the husband who lacks manhood and “never will be grown up” to assume the role of the head of the family and helpmate to his wife. Frustrated, Ida submits to a life of “tolerant endurance” though she often finds herself reaching the limit of her patience and complains “she couldn’t stick it any longer,” only to resist the temptation and demand more of herself: “of course she could stick it. For she had to.” Ida’s conscience never fails her in the most difficult and complex decisions: “She must not fail anyone,” especially her children.

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Committed to her multiple responsibilities and unfailing in her maternal love, Ida cherishes the children as the purpose of her existence. She places them first in her life and her personal happiness and individual desires as last. Twice she resists the temptation to divorce her husband. First, she refuses the offer of an affluent physician, Dr. Sommervold, a physician thirty years her senior promising her and the children a comfortable life and a welcome relief from the drudgery of toil—a temptation Ida rejects as unworthy of her moral principles and integrity: “Ugh, no—all this is nothing but—you must know yourself that it’s impossible. Think of my children—!” Ida chooses the humble lot of poverty with its ceaseless worry and dread of debt. Later she resists a second proposal for marriage. After her Frithjof’s infidelity and Ida’s separation from her husband who later dies of tuberculosis, Ida rejects an even more attractive offer from a gentleman she respects and loves, Tryggve Toksvold, a lawyer who stirs her heart with romantic yearnings and the bliss of love’s joy. Struggling to reconcile her love for her children with the prospect of marital happiness, Ida hopes the children will accept their step-father and her fiancé will love her children, only to realize that in her situation this solution is impractical—a compromise that fails and forces her to choose the best interests of the children over her personal desires: “Am I to take what I desire and let my children pay for it?”

Ida suffers other burdens that break her heart and fill her with “the tears of things”—the anguish of giving birth to a still-born child and of losing a daughter to an automobile accident—a heart-rending sorrow that burdens her afflicted heart with more sorrow. Also she finds her husband’s family excessively oppressive and annoying, always making unreasonable requests and taking advantage of her kind heart. Once again Ida struggles to “make the best of things” with patience and perseverance. A frustrated mother who feels guilt in struggling to divide her time between earning a livelihood and caring for her young children, Ida never doubts the source of the problem—“the shame of being married to a shirker.” If only he earned the income for the family, she could know the joy of giving her children the attention they deserve and of transforming a bare house into the welcoming warmth of a loving home adorned with a woman’s feminine touch. Embittered because of “all that made it impossible for her to enjoy anything to the full,” she resents her life behind a counter talking to customers in her dressmaking business while neglecting her children: “She could not give her children properly cooked food at the right time nor change their clothes when they got wet … she was not on the spot to smack them when they did something that was dangerous or wrong, because before all else she had to provide.”

To find relief from the tedium of this joyless life and financial struggle, Ida motivates Frithjof to agree to a position as a chauffeur in another city. Even though it means a brief separation, she intends to join her husband when his work and income prove steady. However, she is mortified when her husband unexpectedly returns home complaining of his distaste for a town life, his loneliness for his wife, the state of his nerves, and his sadness at the prospect of “destroying our little home where we have been so happy.” Living at home with no thought of resuming his work as chauffeur, Frithjof receives a perfumed letter from an older woman with whom he flirted in “a trifling infidelity” in town. At the very time Ida is expecting another child, she learns of her husband’s adultery and the proposal of divorce. The older woman writes, “… it would be extremely ill bred of her [Ida] to refuse to set you free” because of a marriage “contracted as the result of a juvenile faux pas.” Although Frithjof regrets the affair, wants no divorce, and never foresaw his weakness as a serious offense, Ida finds this episode the ultimate disgrace. Combined with the degradation of poverty and the failure of a father to act like a man, a behavior she condemns as “too sickening” and “simply iniquitous,” this situation makes Ida’s life unbearable.

Separating from her husband and leaving for another town, Ida begins a new life in another home without the shame of a man who expects to be mothered by his wife rather than act like the head of a family and a father who provides for his children. Instead of anxiety about the future, Ida now awaits the time when her children will reach adulthood or pursue an education, hopes to prosper in business again, and begins to ponder the meaning of work, life, suffering, and religion. Though she finds satisfaction in the role of loving, caring mother providing the children “the feeling that there is something they can rely on in this world,” Ida senses “There must be something more.” Life must be more than the will to survive, the burden of great sorrows, cruel injustices, and repetitious work. As Ida compares her life with professional women, she never doubts the nobility of motherhood in which humble women thought of themselves “last of all” compared to worldly careerists who “thought of themselves first and last of the one whose only thought was of them.” To Ida an obscure life that has nothing “grand, or striking, about it in people’s eyes is worth more than if a woman makes a name for herself in art….”

In this second phase of her life, Ida attends a social occasion that leads to love. When Tryggve Toksvold invites her to dance, she rejoices in the thrill of new life, feeling young again and embracing once more the beauty of the womanhood that has suffered neglect from her hard life. Toksvold awakens in Ida the romantic longings for the love she has not known in her marriage with Frithjof. As the courtship matures into the joy of abiding love and culminates in their engagement, a sudden complication arises. News of her former husband’s tuberculosis and impending death brings him to the sanitarium in the city where Ida now lives. Even though she had no wish to resurrect the past or continue any relationship with Frithjof’s family, Ida’s magnanimous heart and generous kindness cannot refuse to bring comfort to the dying man or his family. Just as Ida is rejoicing in the blossoming of her womanhood and feeling the ecstasy of true love, her former life revisits her and undoes all her plans for marriage to Toksvold. Although he counsels Ida not to have any scruples or concern for her former husband’s plight, insisting that “Nobody can do anything for them” and “all they want is to get stuck in the bog,” Ida is not convinced even though he calls her a “softie.” Although Toksvold recommends no involvement in their affairs, Ida feels his counsel lacking in compassion: “the way of thinking she could not accept.”

No matter the flaws in Frithjof’s character and the failure of their marriage and despite the constant dependence of his family for special favors and unreasonable requests, Ida cannot ignore the suffering of these people and their misery in an hour of need. “Her old compassionate tenderness” stirs in sympathy for their sorrow, and she agrees to meet her in-laws at the train station and accompany them to see their dying son: “Not to stir a finger after hearing all their story—she could not do that either.” As her two sons resent the stranger who demands their mother’s time and attention and resist the idea of a step-father, Ida finds she cannot reconcile her lover and her boys even though she foresaw harmony. The thought naturally crosses Ida’s mind that “a mother has already left her children when she is in love with a man, even if she sleeps with them in her arms.”

Ida’s kindness, compassion, and charity have no limits no matter the “infantile” character of the adults beholden to her whom Toksvold rejects as “scrap metal.” When he insists, “Let the dead bury the dead,” Ida states the obvious: “they’re not dead.” When Toksvold asks if Ida still loves him in the midst of her ambivalent feelings and involvement in her husband’s dying hours, Ida confesses that she forgets even her children when she thinks of marrying her lover and views them as a heavy weight: “But they were there, she could not come to him without them….” Ida, however, is determined not to leave the rearing of her children incomplete, and she knows that the two boys she would force into their marriage “can never be anything but strange” to Toksvold. Even though Ida’s love for him counts as the only thing that matters in her life (“nothing else in the world is worth troubling about”), she quickly adds, “And that’s not true, as we both know.” Ida must be her children’s mother first, and therefore she must sacrifice her love and marriage to Toksvold for this ultimate and greater good: “Am I to take what I desire and let my children pay for it?” Ida Elisabeth understands the full meaning of love’s sacrifices.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “La Petite Couturiere” painted by Jules Breton in 1858.


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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