Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is part of the late nineteenth century literary tradition of impressionistic realism and was conceived in the same philosophical and aesthetic environment that led to the works of Sigmund Freud. Hamsun delves into the subconscious of his protagonist and depicts madness seen from inside the mind of the madman. The fact that this madness derives from hunger is significant, because this story of a young journalist literally starving to death is autobiographical to some extent. When Hamsun first presented the manuscript of his work for publication, the editor was so struck by his emaciation that he paid Hamsun an advance on the work before he had even read the title.
On one level, this is a madman’s story of a madman, but on another, it is an account of life in a large city of the industrial age. The city where the action takes place, Kristiania, is like any city in which individuals try to sell their art, literature, or journalism and discover that there is no market for the best they can produce. Kristiania is presented as a city full of people seeking fame and fortune but forced instead to discover that they will not be able to reach their goals. Such people often become discouraged and are obliged to seek employment in a field far removed from their original ambition. The protagonist of Hunger finds himself in precisely this situation.
What lifts this novel from being merely a story about a poor boy doing poorly in the big city is Hamsun’s description of the internal workings of this particular mind. He demonstrates the foolish pride and motiveless behavior that...
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