Critical Context

Mysteries is in part a reaction against the work of older realist writers, such as Ibsen, who tend to represent people as basically rational, understandable beings whose social problems are presented for a reader’s edification. Hamsun is less interested in abstractions such as “society” and “social problems” and more interested in individual psychological analysis, particularly of exceptional people—eccentrics, outsiders, and wanderers such as Nagel. The so-called outcast from society is a type which appears in other early Hamsun novels, such as Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899) and Pan (1894; English translation, 1920). His preference for such protagonists seems to derive from his belief that unusual, iconoclastic types are more interesting and more important than ordinary, bourgeois people. Hamsun is no Democrat (a fact which became scandalously obvious with the revelation of his pro-Nazi views). As critics have noted, there is in much of his work a Nietzschean contempt for the average person and especially for what the average person regards as a truly great man. Hamsun confessed, “I am completely incapable of writing for the masses; novels with betrothals and dances and childbirth, overlaid with an external apparatus, are a bit too cheap for me and have no interest for me.... I address myself to an intellectual elite, and it is the appreciation of this elite that I value.” Clearly, Nagel’s scorn for what he calls “the carnivores,” the commonplace, the average, and for all merely received ideas (a telling phrase), accords well with his creator’s views. Still, it is important to acknowledge that later, in Markens grode (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920), Hamsun created strong, positive characters whose simplicity, commonness, and even primitiveness are their greatest virtues.

Mysteries prefigures much that became insistent in the twentieth century novel: the reaction against realism and naturalism, the turn toward the inner life and the resultant disintegration of an earlier, more stable and coherent sense of self, the preoccupation with the absurd and the irrational, the elevation of instinct over reason, and the search for “the secret power of the word.” All these features mark Mysteries as a significant, pioneering novel.