Wandering the streets with grandiose ambitions to write an opus on Philosophical Consciousness, the indigent narrator impetuously pawns his waistcoat to assist a beggar. He follows a strange woman whom he privately calls “Ylayali.” He moves out of his boarding house and ends up sleeping in the woods. Though he sabotages his own attempt to get a job in a grocery, the first section concludes triumphantly, with payment of 10 kroner for a newspaper article.
Part 2 reverts to a mood of desperation and to the narrator’s introverted fantasies. Registering as a vagrant with the police, he spends a bizarre night in jail. After his release, he is disappointed in his appeals to a clergyman and to friends. The section concludes with an acquaintance pawning a watch for him.
When the narrator tries to beg a candle, the clerk mistakenly thinks he has already paid for it and even gives him change. Later, he proudly returns the money. “Ylayali” pursues him, but he spurns her affection.
While trying to write a blasphemous play, the narrator observes cruelty within the ostensibly respectable family that runs his latest boardinghouse. After being evicted, he takes a job on a ship and prepares to depart for England. It is not clear whether the ending is auspicious or ominous, liberation or flight.
The novel’s ambiguity is compounded by filtering everything through the febrile consciousness of a manic-depressive whose unreliability is manifest but who is also capable of great charm. His deliberately cultivated hunger, which marks him as an artist, sharpens his sensitivity and further alienates him from a complacent society of hypocritical thieves.
Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. An excellent biography of Hamsun. Presents a balanced and detailed overview of Hamsun’s life and places Hunger in the context of the author’s life and works.
Kittang, Atle. “Knut Hamsun’s Sult: Psychological Deep Structures and Metapoetic Plot.” In Facets of European Modernism: Essays in Honour of James McFarlane, edited by Janet Garton. Norwich, England: University of East Anglia, 1985. In a complex and resourceful reading of Hunger, Kittang stresses the development of consciousness and its relationship to language.
McFarlane, J. W. “The Whisper of the Blood: A Study of Knut Hamsun’s Early Novels.” PMLA 71, no. 4 (September, 1956): 563-594. In this immensely influential discussion of Hamsun’s early novels, McFarlane devotes considerable attention to Hunger. Shows that Hamsun’s interest in the unconscious life of the mind was actually a tool for reaching a higher degree of verisimilitude.
Næss, Harald. Knut Hamsun. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A general survey of Hamsun’s works. Includes a section devoted to Hunger, as well as additional references throughout the text. Næss discusses the narrator-protagonist’s experiments with his own mind as a focus of narration.
Næss, Harald. “Who Was Hamsun’s Hero?” In The Hero in Scandinavian Literature: From Peer Gynt to the Present. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Discusses the protagonist in Hunger in the context of the heroes of other Hamsun novels. Næss stresses the sadomasochistic aspects of the Hunger narrator’s behavior.