Burial Rites
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4.01 / 5

"Burial Rites" Summary

By Hannah Kent

historical fiction | 336 pages | Published in 2013

A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard. Riveting and rich with lyricism, Burial Rites evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

A woman convicted of murder in 19th century Iceland awaits her execution while placed in the custody of a local family.


"Burial Rites" is a historical fiction novel written by Hannah Kent, published in 2013. The story is set in Iceland in the early 19th century and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. The novel provides a gripping and emotional portrayal of Agnes's final days as she awaits her execution for her involvement in the brutal murder of two men. With lyrical prose and meticulous historical detail, Kent brings to life the harsh landscapes and societal norms of the time, weaving a haunting narrative of love, betrayal, and the struggle for redemption.

Brief Synopsis

The novel is set in northern Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant woman, has been found guilty of the murder of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Agnes is sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, where she is to await her execution. The family is initially apprehensive about having a convicted murderer in their midst, but as Agnes's story unfolds, they come to see her in a different light. As Agnes awaits her fate, she forms a bond with the family and the young assistant priest, Toti, who is appointed as her spiritual guardian. Through a series of flashbacks and revelations, Agnes's tragic past and the events leading to the murders are gradually unveiled, challenging the perceptions of those around her.

Plot Overview and Setting

The novel takes place in rural Iceland, a harsh and unforgiving landscape that mirrors the difficult and unforgiving circumstances faced by the characters. The story unfolds against the backdrop of a traditional agrarian society, where superstition, poverty, and harsh living conditions shape the lives of the characters. The setting plays a crucial role in the narrative, emphasizing the isolation and bleakness of Agnes's situation as she awaits her execution.

Main Characters

The novel features several key characters, each contributing to the intricate tapestry of Agnes's story.

Agnes MagnúsdóttirA complex and enigmatic woman convicted of murder, Agnes is the central figure of the novel.
Natan KetilssonA charismatic and enigmatic farmer, with whom Agnes had a complicated and intense relationship.
Margrét JónsdóttirThe mistress of the Jónsson family, initially wary of Agnes but later forms a deep connection with her.
TotiA young assistant priest appointed as Agnes's spiritual guardian, who becomes deeply involved in her story.
Jón JónssonThe District Officer who reluctantly hosts Agnes at his farm, struggling with his own feelings towards her.

Summary of Different Story Points over Chapters

Chapter 1-3

The novel opens with Agnes being transferred to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson, where she is to await her execution. The family is apprehensive about hosting a convicted murderer, and Agnes struggles with their mistrust.

Chapter 4-6

As Agnes settles into life on the farm, she forms connections with the family members and the young assistant priest, Toti. Flashbacks reveal Agnes's past, her tumultuous relationship with Natan, and the events leading to the murders.

Chapter 7-9

Agnes's interactions with Toti deepen, and she begins to confide in him, revealing the complexities of her past and the truth behind the murders. The Jónsson family grapples with their changing perceptions of Agnes.

Chapter 10-12

As Agnes's execution date approaches, tensions rise, and the emotional turmoil of the characters escalates. Agnes's revelations challenge the assumptions and beliefs of those around her, leading to a profound shift in their understanding of her.

Main Events

  • Agnes's arrival at the Jónsson farm and the initial apprehension of the family.
  • Flashbacks revealing Agnes's past, her relationship with Natan, and the events leading to the murders.
  • Agnes's growing bond with the Jónsson family and her deepening connection with Toti.
  • The revelations and emotional upheaval as the truth behind the murders comes to light.
  • The lead-up to Agnes's execution and the profound impact of her story on those around her.

Themes and Insights


  1. Isolation and Alienation: The novel delves into the profound loneliness and isolation experienced by Agnes as a convicted murderer, as well as the emotional isolation of the characters within their societal roles.
  2. Redemption and Forgiveness: The exploration of Agnes's past and her quest for redemption raises questions about the nature of forgiveness and the possibility of finding absolution in the face of grave wrongdoing.
  3. Power of Storytelling: The narrative emphasizes the transformative power of storytelling, as Agnes's revelations challenge preconceived notions and reshape the perceptions of those around her.
  4. Social Norms and Injustice: The novel critiques the societal norms and gender inequality of the time, highlighting the injustices faced by women like Agnes within a rigidly structured society.


  • Kent's evocative portrayal of the Icelandic landscape provides a vivid backdrop for the emotional and psychological drama of the characters.
  • The exploration of Agnes's inner turmoil and the complexities of her relationships offers a poignant reflection on the human capacity for both love and violence.
  • The novel intricately weaves together historical detail and psychological depth, inviting readers to contemplate the timeless themes of love, betrayal, and the search for understanding.

Reader's Takeaway

"Burial Rites" offers a haunting and immersive exploration of the human experience, drawing readers into the gripping emotional journey of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. Through its evocative prose and compelling characters, the novel invites readers to contemplate the complexities of love, betrayal, and the search for redemption. Kent's meticulous historical research and lyrical storytelling combine to create a deeply moving narrative that lingers in the reader's mind long after the final page.


In "Burial Rites," Hannah Kent masterfully brings to life the tragic story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, offering a poignant and gripping portrayal of love, betrayal, and the struggle for redemption. Set against the harsh landscapes of 19th-century Iceland, the novel weaves together historical detail and emotional depth, immersing readers in a haunting narrative that challenges perceptions and resonates with timeless themes. Kent's lyrical prose and meticulous storytelling make "Burial Rites" a compelling and unforgettable read, shining a light on the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Burial Rites FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'Burial Rites'?

    Burial Rites is a historical fiction novel.

  2. Is 'Burial Rites' based on a true story?

    Yes, 'Burial Rites' is based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland in 1830.

  3. Who is the author of 'Burial Rites'?

    Hannah Kent is the author of 'Burial Rites'.

  4. What is the setting of 'Burial Rites'?

    The novel is set in Iceland in the early 19th century.

  5. What is the main theme of 'Burial Rites'?

    Themes in 'Burial Rites' include isolation, injustice, and the complexity of human relationships.