Undset Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature

Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her contributions to that area, notably for her multivolume historical novels set in medieval Norway. She was the first Norwegian woman to receive the award as well as only the third woman of any nationality to be so honored.

Summary of Event

Although she was thirty-eight when the first volume of her first epic novel appeared, from the time of her birth Sigrid Undset had been accumulating the knowledge and the experience that would enable her to write the books for which her Nobel Prize was awarded. Undset was born in Denmark, but her family moved to her father’s native Norway when she was two. During her childhood, Undset learned Scandinavian folktales from her mother. However, she said later that it was the influence of her father, Ingvald Undset, and his archaeological work that dominated her imagination. At the museum of antiquities, Undset was allowed to handle medieval artifacts, and she made up stories to go with the objects. She might well have become an archaeologist, as her father hoped she would, had his relatives in Trondheim not turned her attention to the saga. Her best-known works would be her prose sagas, which were set in Norway during the Middle Ages. [kw]Undset Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1928)
[kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Undset Accepts the (Dec. 10, 1928)
[kw]Prize in Literature, Undset Accepts the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1928)
[kw]Literature, Undset Accepts the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1928)
Nobel Prize recipients;Sigrid Undset[Undset]
Literature;Nobel Prizes
[g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1928: Undset Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature[07120]
[c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1928: Undset Accepts the Nobel Prize in Literature[07120]
Undset, Sigrid
Undset, Ingvald
Svarstad, Anders
Svarstad, Maren Charlotte
Svarstad, Hans Benedict

Sigrid Undset.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Undset’s life experiences also prepared her to write novels that recognized women’s psychological stresses while at the same time emphasizing the importance of the family and the need for moral responsibility. When Undset was eleven, her father died, leaving the family in financial difficulties. For the next ten years Undset worked in an office, painting and writing in her spare time. After she was making enough from her writing so that she could leave her secretarial job, she quit and married the painter Anders Svarstad. In 1913, they had a son, Anders; two years later, their daughter Maren Charlotte was born, but she was severely retarded. The couple removed Svarstad’s other three children from the institution where they had been living and added them to their household; one of these children also had brain damage. Undset had to find time for her writing while she managed a household of seven and took care of five children. In 1919, she and Svarstad separated, but she was already pregnant; a son, Hans, was born later that year. The marriage was later annulled.

Undset had already created a sensation with her contemporary novel Jenny (1911; English translation, 1921), Jenny (Undset) the story of a young woman who has an affair with her fiancé’s father, bears an illegitimate child, suffers through the child’s death, becomes convinced that she is a failure as an artist, and commits suicide. Undset explored the same conflicts between passion and sexual fidelity and between motherhood and the creative impulse in her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (1929), Kristin Lavransdatter (Undset) which comprised Kransen (1920; The Bridal Wreath, 1923), Bridal Wreath, The (Undset)
Husfrue (1921; The Mistress of Husaby, 1925), Mistress of Husaby, The (Undset) and Korset (1922; The Cross, 1927). Cross, The (Undset) However, in these novels the conflicts were played out against a medieval setting, brilliantly and accurately re-created by the author. The fact that the trilogy ends with the title character’s entrance into a cloister, where just before her death she acknowledges the sovereignty of God, is another indication of the close correlation between Undset’s experiences and those of her characters: In 1924, the author, who for many years had classified herself as an agnostic, converted to Catholicism.

Sin, guilt, faith, and redemption are also important themes in the tetralogy that followed, Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken and Olav Audunssøn og hans børn (1925-1927; The Master of Hestviken, 1928-1930), Master of Hestviken, The (Undset) published in English as The Axe (1928), Axe, The (Undset)
The Snake Pit (1929), Snake Pit, The (Undset)
In the Wilderness (1929), In the Wilderness (Undset) and The Son Avenger (1930). Son Avenger, The (Undset) Again, these works were praised by critics as medieval epics that were both brilliant re-creations of the past and masterpieces of psychological insight. The general public was just as enthusiastic: As soon as they were translated into other languages, her novels became international best sellers. While Undset had been mentioned in previous years as a possible Nobel laureate, her reading public was limited as long as her works were available only in Norwegian, and so the Nobel Committee was hesitant to award her the prize. Her worldwide popularity meant that almost no one could object to Undset’s being selected.

In the presentation speech delivered on December 10, 1928, Per Hallström, chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, indicated that the award was made principally for Undset’s epic novels about medieval Norway. The effectiveness of those works, he suggested, derived from the fact that by moving from contemporary settings to the distant past, Undset had been able to create characters who were motivated by abstract principles such as honor and faith even though they had the same need for erotic expression as their distant descendants. Hallström spoke of the profound vision exhibited both in Kristin Lavransdatter and in the Olav Audunssøn stories and concluded by calling Undset a genius whose works reflected her own greatness of spirit.

At the Nobel banquet held that night at the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm, Sweden, Professor Gösta Forssell compared Undset to Homer, saying that the Norwegian writer also dramatized the values on which a long-standing culture was based. Undset responded with a graceful acknowledgment of the kinship between Norway and Sweden. She concluded by bringing regards from her own people to Sweden and commenting on the beauty of Stockholm. With her usual generosity, Undset gave most of her prize money to her favorite causes, which included the Norwegian Authors’ Union, aid for parents of mentally disabled children, and financial help for students at Catholic schools. In 1940, she donated her gold medal to aid the Finnish war effort.


Sigrid Undset’s selection as a Nobel laureate marked a change in literary taste from the sentimental romanticism of the nineteenth century to uncompromising realism. As the author herself commented, seen at a distance, a murder can appear interesting, even exciting, and so Undset chose to show violence close up, as the Icelandic sagas on which she modeled her own novels had done. Thus she did much to transform the genre of the historical novel. After Undset, such books were no longer mere masquerades, with cardboard characters posing in front of colorful settings, certain that they were in no real danger. Instead, books in the tradition Undset established were inhabited by real people, who sinned, agonized, dreamed, and were disappointed, fell into despair, and often died unpleasant deaths.

Undset also insisted on presenting realistic depictions of women. Some readers were shocked by her insistence on the strength of the female’s biological drive, but feminists could accept that idea. What enraged the very feminists who applauded a woman’s being chosen as a Nobel laureate was Undset’s stated belief that motherhood was a woman’s highest duty. In her emphasis on the tragic consequences that ensue when a human being denies moral responsibility, Undset was simply attempting to show life as she had experienced it. Later writers did not necessarily agree with all of Undset’s ideas, but they had to recognize her importance as a writer who remained faithful to her deepest conviction: that above all, a writer must tell the truth. Nobel Prize recipients;Sigrid Undset[Undset]
Literature;Nobel Prizes

Further Reading

  • Bayerschmidt, Carl. Sigrid Undset. New York: Twayne, 1970. A standard study of the life and works. Discusses Undset’s conversion at length.
  • Brunsdale, Mitzi. Sigrid Undset, Chronicler of Norway. Oxford, England: Berg, 1988. A volume in the Berg Women’s Series. Includes an outline of Norwegian history and literature and a useful chronology. Illustrated.
  • Dunn, Margaret, Sister. Paradigms and Paradoxes in the Life and Letters of Sigrid Undset. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. Relates the paradigms of St. Benedict, St. John of the Cross, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Undset’s paradoxical views.
  • Lytle, Andrew. Kristin: A Reading. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. An analysis of the saga by a highly respected author and critic.
  • Maman, Marie. Sigrid Undset in America: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000. Contains a useful chapter on autobiographical elements of Undset’s works.
  • Page, Tim, ed. The Unknown Sigrid Undset. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2001. Features a new translation of Jenny and English versions of important letters.
  • Whitehouse, J. C. Vertical Man: The Human Being in the Catholic Novels of Graham Greene, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos. London: Saint Austin Press, 1999. Shows how three major twentieth century Catholic novelists challenged prevailing attitudes.

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