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Synopsis: The Wild Orchid

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

Here is my synopsis of the first part of Undset's tale of Paul Selmer, a young man in early twentieth century Christiania [Oslo] who is raised a free-thinker but finds himself increasingly attracted to the Catholic Church. The Wild Orchid takes us to the eve of the Great War.

Dramatis Personæ

Christiania [Oslo]:

Paul Selmer: the protagonist

Julie Randall-Selmer: Paul’s mother

Tua: Paul’s younger sister

Hans: Paul’s younger brother

Sigmund: Paul’s youngest brother

Erik Selmer: Paul’s father

Lillian: Paul’s father’s second wife

Halstein Garnaas: Tua’s beloved, a parson

Uncle Abraham: Erik’s brother; a parson

Lucy Arneson: Paul’s first love

Randi Alme: Old school friend of Paul and now a Catholic

Harald Tangen: Catholic priest

Ole Jacobsen: Paul’s father-in-law


Bjørg Berge: Paul’s wife

Sunnie: Paul’s daughter

Henrik Alster: Paul’s friend and business partner

Berit: Henrik’s wife

Lillemor: Berit’s daughter

Frøken Raaen: clerk at the business

Nils: errand boy

Mortensen: engineer and friend of Paul

Else: Mortensen’s wife

St Olav's Church (now Cathedral) in Oslo, such as it would have been in Paul Selmer's time.


1. On the train to Christiania, Paul reflects that his family is odd and assumes this stems from his parents’ divorce. He feels controlled by his free-thinking and opinionated mother, Julie. Meeting his mother and siblings at the station and learning they are to visit his father the following Sunday, he excuses himself, citing coming examinations at school. After some study, he spends the afternoon with his mother in the garden. Julie speaks of the gymnadenias planted last year and Paul reflects on the beauty of the name, “as though it were something that awaited him at some point of his life”. When he finally sees them, he is disappointed at their underwhelming appearance.

2. Julie delights in having decorated her home contrary to the heaviness of current fashions – she is a pioneer of the Scandinavian style! “She had carried off her sons to fresh air and light and sunshine, she had taught them to dig the ground and to tend trees and flowers and animals, to do carpentry and painting.” As Paul and Garnaas banter about socialism and bourgeois society, Paul declares himself a socialist, albeit one who has no belief in anything at all. He realises that Tua is the freest thinker of them all, having broken from her mother to go her own way with Lutheran confirmation and involvement in the Christian students’ movement. Paul reminisces about the mysterious Lucy Arneson, whom he met on a trek through the countryside. "It would be pleasant if we could meet in town in the autumn", he had said. When Julie suggests that Paul – now a young man – should move into town, he is disappointed.

3. After trying several boarding houses – including one with his friend Henrik Alster where he happened to get mixed up with a certain Audhild who lives there, too – Paul inspects the lodgings available with the Gotaas family. That they are Catholics is obvious by the statues and images in the room that previously belonged to their deceased son, Vincent. Paul has a sense that this could be an interesting place to stay and at any rate, it will be conducive to study. He extricates himself from Audhild. He tells his mother that his new quarters are owned by Catholics. Julie replies: “What are they?” said his mother. “How funny!”

4. Paul settles in well with the Gotaases and begins to witness the strange ways of Catholics. “Paul had the impression that Catholics knew all about each other’s concerns and were on the whole a pretty cheerful race – not particularly religious, according to his ideas of religious people, anyhow.” One evening he chances across Lucy. She is very timid and rather on edge, and doubtfully agrees to go skiing with him at some indetermined day in the future. Paul gets her address: she lives above the florist shop where she works. Paul reconnects with Randi at the Gotaases’. A Catholic since the year before, she finds Paul’s disbelief at her conversion and his questions about what Catholics do very amusing. Paul convinces Lucy to come for an outing with him, one of the Gotaas girls and her fiancé, and Randi.

5. Julie invites Paul to return home and asks that he visit his father more often. She defends her divorce and Erik Selmer’s character, despite his having had a brief affair while they were married. They debate progressivism, and Paul scoffs that his mother’s generation misrepresents the goodness of the previous. They debate the woman’s movement and Paul makes the point that it was a bourgeois movement full of platitudes. As they part, he feels some sympathy for his father and Lillian and visits them the following day for some rather stilted conversation. Paul is received very kindly. After a night on the town, he meets Fr Gotaas on her way to Mass. For the first time, he attends and is struck by the silence and mystery of it all.

6. Norway declares the union with Sweden dissolved (June 7, 1905) and Paul celebrates with jubilation. He finishes the day with his father’s family, and taunts his uncle Abraham – a parson – when he jokes about becoming a Catholic. When he returns home, he opens one of Vincent’s prayer books and is moved by reading the Te Deum.

7. Paul has a conversation with his father about the value of ideas, independently of whether the majority espouse them or what the prognosis of their acceptance may be. At the Gotaases’ he briefly meets Fr Harald Tangen. Apart from his get up, there is nothing peculiar about him. He spends more time with Lucy, who remains as quiet and shy as ever. He is beginning to dream of a married life with her, and of children. If she seems rather uncultured and unintelligent, she is all the dearer to him. When finally, he makes a move, she is horrified. He professes his love for her and she softens but will hear nothing of marriage. He promises to himself to protect her and to be perfectly chivalrous towards here.

8. Further debate continues on self-determination. Paul criticises the platitudes of the day and relates to his mother Harald Tangen’s thoughts on the socialism that she believes has made war in Europe an impossibility. Norway votes to retain a monarch, and Paul and Lucy are amid the throng to welcome the new king from Denmark (Haakon VII). He and Lucy are in invited to the Selmers´ for a party. Lucy protests – as always – and Paul loses his temper. In the end they go and Lucy feels very much out of place in her tired dress, and unable to dance well. After things seem positive, with Paul’s family all charming to Lucy, she and Paul later overhear Lillian and others making fun of her. He escorts her home while trying to console her. She invites him up to her room, but he kisses her, dashes off and then pauses to see she is safely inside.

9. When Paul and Lucy take a skiing trip in the country, they are obliged to stay in the same room one night. Paul’s resolve to remain chivalrous is cracked when Lucy calls him to her. He realises that she is not without experience. Pauls is determined that this will change nothing. Lucy is fretful that Paul might be displeased. Afterwards, she finally tells her story. Her puritan evangelical father threw her out when he incorrectly suspected she was cavorting with a student minister. She allowed him to seduce her in revenge to her father. Later a factory co-worker took advantage of her. She delivers herself over to Paul’s judgement. Paul tries to console her and puts on a brave and cheerful face, but in spite of himself, he is wounded by this confession.

10. After Fru Gotaas surprises Paul and Lucy being amorous in his room, Paul promises to leave immediately. Fru Gotaas is kind, though, and suggests Lucy could be sent to the country to prepare for an honourable wedding. Lucy tells Paul she would rather stay in new lodgings in the city. Lucy finally meets Paul’s mother (and Sigmund), both of whom are very welcoming to her.

11. Paul moves from the Gotaas house to other lodgings. This is a place where Lucy can stay the night almost without fear of discovery. He reads the classic Asbjørnsen and Moe fairy – which she has never heard – and gives her great delight. Lucy is snubbed terribly by Martha, wife of Paul’s friend Aaser. Paul anticipates the chatter about their wedding but he is determined to see it through, even if Lucy seems resigned that the relationship is too good to be true and will end.

12. Everything seems well between Paul and Lucy, though every month she is fearful that she is pregnant. That she is not is more good luck than good management. Paul has debts and intends to work to pay them off. While deeply in love with Lucy, he will be glad for the opportunity to be around other men. Meanwhile, his mother discovers their irregular state, and while not judging his morality, is disappointed he has not been gentlemanly in this matter. Julie offers to pay Paul’s debts.

13. Paul embarks on his military service. He spends a weekend with Lucy near his camp, rows her on a lake and asks her to take her clothes off so he can “see her loveliness”. She is terribly uncomfortable and only complies for a short time. Paul says if it were not for the Fall, their nakedness would not be cause for embarrassment. He feels he has wronged her and their relationship seems to have permanently changed.

14. Paul is set to finish his studies and have a promising career as a geologist and lecturer, but Henrik Alster urges Paul to abandon his examinations and enter a partnership with him as a builder’s merchant in Trondheim. Paul has a long discussion on the nature of Christianity with Halstein. If it consists of men projecting their own dreams and desires through Jesus as a religious genius, Paul wants nothing to do with it. He then debates with his father the authority of state clergymen to preach what they believe according to their own private beliefs. Paul tells Erik of his thoughts to go into business with Alster, and Erik is not pleased. Paul decides to seek advice from the Harald Tangen. Fr Tangen receives Paul with kindness and the two discuss unchanging morality, cohabitation, marriage as a sacrament and celibacy. Tangen tells Paul that his current arrangement with Lucy is untenable and advises him to take the offer of partnership after concluding his studies, should his mother wish it – and to marry Lucy as soon as possible. When Paul – half in jest – says he wishes he were Catholic, Tangen only lends him a book and encourages Paul to pray often the Our Father for faith. Paul goes into the church and prays the Our Father. Upon seeing the tabernacle light, he is struck by the thought of the Jesus really present in the eucharist. Could it really be true? He returns home to find Lucy, and any good resolutions are abandoned for the night.

15. When Paul tells his mother of his plans, she is concerned about his abandoning the desires he had since childhood in order to marry Lucy – and that might turn out as well as he expects without the current excitement and risk. She eventually gives in and grows excited for her son and lends her support. Arrangements have been made when Paul informs Lucy but she is terribly sad at the prospect of a temporary separation while Paul prepares a home for her in Trondheim. Paul decides to go to the High Mass on his last Sunday, and while partly bewildered, he sees that this service is entirely different to any others he has attended. Again, the thought of the presence of Christ in the host captivates him. After Mass, he chats with Randi and complains to her that of all the Catholics he now knows, none have ever tried to convert him! Meanwhile, Lucy is overwrought at their pending separation and is beside herself with grief. Paul is irritated, loses his temper, but feels sorry for her. He firmly believes that once they are married and away from all interlopers their lives will be happy. Lucy startles Paul when she tells him she does not want children. When Paul finally leaves for Trondheim by rail, he sees Lucy: “silent, wide-eyed, pale and tragic”.

16. Paul is thrilled with Trondheim and his work there – he seems made for this business. Occasionally he thinks of the God question, and kneels down to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary, just in case there is someone listening. While he is diligent in writing to Lucy each week, he is glad to be away from the family in Christiania. The business is running beyond expectations. Paul is given much food for thought when he reads the Gospel of Luke one evening. Alster is engaged to a divorcée – an older lady who is a noted singer. Paul is taken by Solstua, a run-down house near Rannheim, not far from Trondheim and he writes to Lucy of the ideal home and the furniture he is collecting for their home. He returns to Christiania for Tua’s wedding with Halstein. Julie tells him that Lucy is not invited, as she has remained aloof from the family and not returned their calls. The service is splendid, but Paul misses the poor Catholic churches. The following day he visits Lucy and has a sense of foreboding about their relationship.

17. Paul’s visit to Christiania fell flat with Lucy. He wanted to have it out with Harald Tangen over God’s interest in individuals – if he could believe that, he could believe the rest and would have to become a Catholic. But Tangen is out. Paul is glad to return to Trondheim. A few months before his wedding date, he receives a letter from Lucy saying they are not suited to each other, and that for his sake she is breaking off the engagement. He immediately takes a train to Christiania but Lucy has left the city. He learns that she has gone with a man she had been seeing – Løvstø. He takes a train back to Trondheim, determined not to weep over the matter, but entirely bewildered by the whole affair.


1. Three years later and Paul is married to Bjørg and Henrik to Berit. Berit is a narcissist who has already tired of Henry and is flirtatious with every man she meets – even Paul, who secretly despises her. She has no friends of her own some has to fall back on his. Lillemor, her daughter from her first marriage, is spoilt and prefers Paul to Henrik.

2. While in the country, Paul had pushed a young lady with a baby out of the way of a charging horse and carriage while Hans was concussed. The girl was Bjørg and the child her niece. The lady of the house turned out to be a Catholic (whom Paul dislikes) and Bjørg was the daughter of her cousin. Paul thought Bjørg sweet and began to spend some time with her. He again came to her aid after another little accident, and kissed her gently. Bjørg wept, as she wanted to be able to tell a future husband that she had never kissed by anyone else. Paul did see the eighteen-year-old Bjørg as a sweet, innocent girl. She elicited a protestation of affection from Paul, who begins to realise he has got himself into a predicament. In fact, he had become unintentionally, though not unhappily, engaged.

3. Paul met Bjørg’s parents and liked her father but not particularly the mother who is loud and pathetically snobbish. When they were married, it all seemed like Paul was playing a part in a comedy. It had not felt real and Paul feels some guilt for the whole affair going so far. The honeymoon was lovely. While in Bergen, Paul dreamed Lucy – to his shame. As he and Bjørg were riding in a carriage the next day, he saw Lucy walking with a pram. She did not see him, and he put his arm around Bjorg: “We’re quite happy, aren’t we? Don’t you think so, darling – we’re quite happy, aren’t we?”

4. Paul loves Bjørg but realises she is still quite immature and her tastes are very different from his. They move to a new villa in a Trondheim suburb and Paul feels a rather stifled by the idea of having to live with another for the rest of his life. Still, they continue to grow in love for each other and Bjørg falls pregnant. She is now twenty-one. Her parents come for Christmas and on Christmas evening, Paul and Ole Jacobsen head for the country. Away from their wives they become best friends! To give his father-in-law a break, he takes one for the team and invites his mother-in law to stay until the birth. Bjørg successfully gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Paul is shocked that he feels rather unmoved by it all – until the fuss dies down. When Fru Jacobsen finally leaves, he has the time to hold his daughter unobserved – and finds that he loves her Paul. When she smiles at him for a brief moment, he has a sense of the seriousness of life. After initial protests, Paul acquiesces to Bjørg’s wish to call their daughter “Sunlife” – “Synne” [Sunnie], for short.

5. In the spring of 1914, Paul and Bjørg go to Paris and have a lovely time there, even if Bjørg is rather critical of everything French. They meet Sigmund who is living there, and Ruth (Paul’s cousin). One day Paul chances across Randi who is researching in Paris for a doctorate on Rousseau. To Paul’s shock and dismay, she reveals her intention to enter the convent while Paul proposes every reason he can think of why this beautiful, lively and intelligent young lady should not become a nun. She laughing explains that she has gone over all these reasons herself. She takes Paul to the Carmes, site of the 1792 massacre of almost two hundred priests who refused to take the oath required by the French republic. They discuss the Protestant distortion of Catholic history and the chasm between the two denominations’ understanding of the Church militant. Finally, they discuss the possibility of a great war and its ramifications for society, Europe and Norway in particular. Later, Bjørg is dismayed when she sees the rosary Randi had given Paul and says how terrible it would be if he ever became a Catholic. Paul slips out to see Randi as she leaves for the convent and then reflects on his indifference to faith over the last years. He remembers the feeling of having felt as a prodigal son when he went to Mass in Christiania. When all was well with Lucy, he was open to God. When that chapter closed, he walked away. He had taken life too lightly and slipped into believing that conforming to social morality was sufficient. Having a child has changed much in Paul’s mindset. Paul enters a little church, dark but illuminated with candles. He prays for the gift of faith and lights a candle as a symbol of his prayer. On the way back to Norway, news breaks of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

6. There is a family gathering in Christiania when Paul and Bjørg return. Both Selmers and Jacobsens are present. Having looked forward to his reunion with Sunnie, he is disappointed that Bjørg plans to stay behind for some week with her mother. Paul is concerned for his father’s health and goes to Hans’ apartment where he finds him in the arms of a beautiful young lady. Paul feels somewhat envious of the sensuousness that he espies. Hans confirms their father’s declining health and his stubbornness in avoiding specialists.

7. The prospect of war approaches and the nation is filled with excitement, confusion and panic. Paul attempts to sure up his business arrangements and Bjørg has written to him asking him to stock up on ridiculous amounts of household supplies. She returns unexpectedly and they have their first fight. Paul is repulsed by his wife’s petty concerns while elsewhere in the world, families are facing death and devastation. Until now their marriage might have been called ideal, without an angry word between them.

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Eva Van Strijp
Eva Van Strijp
Sep 06, 2022

I'm halfway through The Burning Bush and find myself wondering why most (all??) of Undset's female protagonists have varying degrees of mental illness...

Sep 09, 2022
Replying to

Interesting point. Randi seems to be the one who had it most together, but she became a nun! Doesn't Sigrid say somewhere that the saints are the sanest of people?

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