*Kristiania (Christiana). Norway’s capital city (now Oslo) is the destination for many young writers who wish to capitalize on their supposed talent and become rich and famous. The young narrator of Hunger is one of those who struggles to make ends meet in the big and unfeeling city. He rarely has enough to eat, and his consequent hunger leads to erratic behavior. The room he lives in does not protect him from the elements. When he cannot find work, he is forced to sell his belongings at a pawnshop, borrow money from friends, or beg on the street. A pawnbroker is amused when the young writer attempts to sell the buttons from his coat.
The city is made up of many different types of people, including beggars, beautiful girls, policemen, pawnbrokers, editors, and managers. Struggling to get his writing projects sold, the narrator is worn down by the city’s indifference to him and his needs. He seems doomed to failure in this urban environment and must try to earn a living doing other work that he is not trained to do. The industrial city does not need artists. The narrator is not suited for city life. His own worst enemy, he is incapable of playing by the rules, of putting his life in order.
Hamsun based a good deal of the novel on his own desperate experiences living in Kristiania during the early 1880’s, as well as the time he spent in Chicago, Illinois, during the mid-1880’s. The isolation that Hamsun so poignantly writes about in the novel is largely a retelling of what he went through in large cities himself.
Attic room. Room that the narrator rents in a house in Kristiania. Its walls are plastered with old newspapers from which the narrator reads advertisements. The room is empty except for a bed and a red rocking chair. The room has no stove and no lock on its door. The narrator thinks of the room as a poorly constructed “coffin.” From his attic window, he can look out onto a clothesline, an open field, and debris. Street noises tempt him to leave his room. Because the narrator is always struggling to come up with enough money to pay his rent, his landlady finally rents the room to a sailor. The young writer is allowed to sleep on the sofa downstairs, but this is only temporary. Toward the end of the novel, he is forced out of the house and must decide what he can do to change his situation.
Copégoro. Ship flying a Russian flag that catches the narrator’s eye at Kristiania’s wharf. There, he persuades the captain to take him on as an extra member of the crew. The ship is heading for England. Once the ship sets sail, the narrator looks back at Kristiania and notices that the “windows of the homes shone with such brightness.” Not only is he escaping from the city that has left a mark on him, he is also admitting that he has failed to make his way on the streets of Kristiania.
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...
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a complex and resourceful reading ofHunger, 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.