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 come from a tenuous existence such as that led by the protagonist. The starving man lies, as the saying goes, even when it is not necessary. He has no regular habits and is at the mercy of his own strange whims. The incident when he persists in telling a strange woman on the street that she has lost her nonexistent book is a case in point. Time and again, even when facing starvation, he lies to save his pride. Hamsun explains that at the stage when the body is starving, the mind falters and mistakes inconsequential things for life’s necessities. Hamsun terrifyingly depicts the odd sort of seemingly lucid logic that is to an impartial observer nothing but nonsense.
While Hamsun is able to depict the workings of such a mind broken by the stress of hunger, he does not present a full picture of the book’s protagonist. Because of this omission, his study of psychological pressure is all the more vivid and effective. The reader does not know much about the young man in the novel, only that he is starving and periodically reduced to chewing on wood shavings or bits of cloth. Hamsun focuses the reader’s full attention on the issue of the mind, and he does so in a masterful fashion.
On yet another level, Hunger is a portrait of failure. The book is a collection of episodes divided into four sections and united only by underlying themes. Each section describes the thoughts and actions of the protagonist at different times. There is, strictly speaking, no beginning or end to the novel. At the end of each section there is a stroke of good luck. The protagonist sells a story or gets a loan. Then the novel immediately jumps to the next episode in his life when he is starving, and the cycle begins anew.
At the end of the book, the young writer joins the crew of a steamship bound for England. The effect of this conclusion is not, however, that of escape but that of pessimism. There is a flaw in this man’s character, one that Hamsun only hints at, that damns him to a continuing cycle of luck and hunger. It is a cycle that the reader at the end of the novel feels can lead eventually only to death.