Knut Hamsun the novelist can be viewed as an outsider who writes about outsiders. Originating in a family that by any standard must be considered poor, Hamsun was keenly aware of the difference between himself and those who possessed power and prestige in society. Power and its opposite, powerlessness, are therefore important themes in his work.
Several of Hamsun’s early novels, such as Hunger and Pan, are narrated in the first person, and their first-person protagonists have character traits and experiences that appear to have been modeled on Hamsun’s own. The later novels are without exception narrated in the third person, but that does not mean that the autobiographical content is less. In addition, one can always trust the narrators in the later works to represent Hamsun’s own views, while unreliability is a feature of some of the early narrators.
The author’s interest in the character of the outsider manifests itself in the careful attention paid to individual psychology in the early novels, as well as in Hamsun’s interest in the exceptional individual’s relation to society and social forces, especially those of social change, which is found in the later works. The early Hamsun hero, who is often an artist or an artistlike figure, attempts to overcome his powerlessness either through his ability to inspire love in a woman of higher social standing or through his art, or both. The typical hero of the later works is either the victim of social change or an embodiment of what is new in modern social and economic life. In the latter case, he is either somewhat of a charlatan, like Tobias Holmengraa in Segelfoss Town, or a dreamer and maker of a multitude of stillborn projects, like August of Vagabonds and the other two volumes of the August trilogy. Common to all of Hamsun’s protagonists is their essential difference from the average person. This difference can be positive or negative, but it always makes for a character whom readers will find interesting.
Hamsun’s earliest novel of significance, Hunger, has as its setting Kristiania, a city where Hamsun had many unhappy experiences. The greater number of his later novels are set in northern Norway, where the author had lived most of his childhood and youth and where he spent a significant part of his manhood. Most of the action in these novels also takes place in the period of Hamsun’s youth, the 1870’s and the early 1880’s. There is therefore good reason to regard his fiction as fundamentally autobiographical. Hamsun never tired of writing about the experiences of his youth, on which he reflected throughout his long career as a novelist.
Hunger, Hamsun’s first novel of any importance, was also the first modern psychological novel in Norwegian literature. It is the story of a young writer of exceptional sensibility who, stripped of all of his property and without any secure means of support, is about to succumb to starvation in Norway’s capital city of Kristiania. This first-person novel is highly autobiographical; Hamsun had experienced the same degree of destitution on several occasions, most notably in the winter of 1886. Such experiences were surely not unusual among artists at the time; the importance of Hunger lies not in its subject matter but rather in the manner in which the author deals with it.
The total narrated time of the novel is two months. The narration is, however, concentrated on four periods during which the narrator suffers greatly from hunger; the author does not appear to be interested in the three periods of time between them when the protagonist seems to live a relatively normal life. The narrator is clearly an individual who earlier was somewhat better off economically, but no reasons for the decline of his fortune are given. Only a few details concerning his identity are mentioned, and these details do not even include his name.
The novel also has but little action in the traditional sense. With the exception of the story of a few attempts made by the narrator to secure employment, as well as the tale of a brief encounter with a lady of the middle class, the text is almost exclusively made up of reports of the narrator’s mental life during periods of extreme hunger.
The stream-of-consciousness technique employed by Hamsun is effective in portraying the strange workings of the mind while in an altered state resulting from a lack of nourishment. The reader is given access both to the perceptions, moods, and strange ideas of the narrator and to his reflections on his own state of consciousness. The narrator perceives himself as an artist, and his chief concern is twofold: on one hand, to prevent his hunger from negatively affecting those sensibilities that make him capable of producing art and, on the other hand, to utilize his unpleasant experiences in his art. The narrator’s strong tendency toward self-observation can be viewed both as a means of making sure that the demands of his body do not conquer his mental or artistic needs and as part of his artistic project, the gathering of material for the novel presented to the reader.
Hamsun is interested not in the physical effects of starvation per se, but only in its consequences for the mind. This attitude stands in direct opposition to the prevailing trends in Scandinavian literature at the time. A case in point is Arne Garborg’s novel Bondestudentar (1883; students from the country), in which the protagonist, like the narrator in Hunger, suffers from starvation in the city of Kristiania. The difference is that, unlike Hamsun, Garborg portrays only the physical and social consequences of hunger. In contrast, the attitude of Hamsun’s narrator toward his hunger could indeed be termed one of experimentation.
It is a question, however, whether Hamsun the artist was as exclusively concerned with the mental side of life as he claimed to be in his 1891 lectures. The narrator’s attention to a mysterious young woman of the middle class does not seem to originate in any specific interest in art, but rather in a concern with the social position that can be won by a successful artist or by a young man who has success in any endeavor. The narrator-protagonist in Hunger, like his creator Hamsun, can also be regarded as a practical man for whom art is a means of social advancement at least as much as an end in itself.
In Hunger, Hamsun’s autobiographical tendencies manifest themselves both in his choice of subject matter and in the location of the action. In Pan, the story occurs at a fictional place in northern Norway called Sirilund, but the social milieu is the same as that Hamsun had known so well in his youth. In this novel, the theme of art is subservient to that of love, but the social function of love in Pan is similar to that of art in Hunger.
Unlike thenarrative situation of Hunger, that of Pan is quite complex. The novel consists of two parts, the main text and a brief epilogue titled “Glahn’s Death.” Both the text proper and the epilogue are narrated in the first person, but while the main part of the book is narrated by its protagonist, a lieutenant named Thomas Glahn, the epilogue is narrated by his hunting companion and killer, a man whose name is not given.
The main story takes place during the summer months of the year 1855. Lieutenant Glahn is an outsider who has obtained leave from his commission and who is now leading a rather primitive life as a hunter and fisherman in a cabin near the trading post Sirilund. Tired of urban life and incapable of getting along well according to the norms of cultured society, he has immersed himself in nature, attempting to live as part of it. His intermediary position between nature and culture is symbolized by the fact that his cabin is located where the forest meets the fields surrounding Sirilund. In narrating the story, Glahn tells both about the external events of his life in nature and about his reflections on his existence, and from his story, it would appear that he is entirely successful in his attempts to live as an integral part of the natural world. It is clear, however, that he is far too reflective to lay claim to a natural existence entirely unmediated by culture. This and other signs of unreliability are of great significance to any interpretation of the book.
During visits to the trading post at Sirilund, Glahn meets the young Edvarda, the daughter of the post’s owner, the trader Mack. Glahn falls in love with Edvarda, who—because of her father’s wealth—is his social superior. A love-hate relationship develops between the two, and each tortures the other in turn.
Glahn’s love for Edvarda is not an end in itself, however, but rather a means to social advancement. Glahn would simply like to inherit Mack’s position of wealth, power, and prestige by marrying his only daughter. Edvarda, on her part, sees in Glahn an opportunity to get away from Sirilund. Glahn’s true intentions are revealed by the fact that he has an affair with a young woman named Eva, the wife of a local blacksmith, as soon as he discovers that Mack uses her to satisfy his erotic needs. For Glahn, the affair is little more than a way symbolically to assume Mack’s social position, but when the trader discovers it, he punishes them by having Eva killed and by forcing Glahn to leave the place.
Glahn tells the story two years later. The outward reason for his telling the story at this time is that he has just received a message from Edvarda, who is now married to another man. That Glahn writes down the story...
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