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Hunger, which was based on Hamsun’s many unhappy experiences in Norway’s capital city of Christiania, was one of the first modern psychological novels in world literature. Told in the first person, it is the story of a young writer of exceptional sensibility, who, stripped of all of his property and without any reliable means of support, is about to perish from extreme hunger. The book contains little action in the traditional sense. With the exception of the story of a few attempts to secure employment and the account of a brief encounter with a lady of the middle class, the text consists almost exclusively of reports of the narrator’s mental life during periods of starvation.

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The experience of hunger was surely not uncommon among artists at the time and the social consequences of hunger figure prominently in the naturalistic literature of the Scandinavian countries. The importance of Hunger lies not in its subject matter but rather in the manner in which the author deals with it, for his focus is on a portrayal of the strange workings of the mind while in an altered state resulting from the lack of nourishment. To this end, Hamsun uses a stream-of-consciousness technique through which the reader is given access both to the perceptions, moods, and strange ideas of the narrator and to his reflections on his own state of mind.

The narrator views himself as a completely committed artist, and his concern is both to prevent his hunger from negatively affecting the sensibilities that make him capable of producing art and to use his unpleasant experiences in his art. The narrator’s tendency toward self-observation can be viewed both as a part of his artistic project, the gathering of material for a novel that he wants to write, and as a means of making certain that the needs of his body do not overcome his mental or artistic needs.

Little is learned about the narrator’s past throughout the book, and only a few details concerning his identity are provided. These details do not even include the mention of his name, but it is clear that he is an individual who, in the past, has been somewhat better off economically; it is possible to deduce that he, like Hamsun himself, worked in other occupations before devoting his life entirely to writing. The novel shows, however, that he is not exclusively concerned with examining his own mind for the purpose of his art.

A mysterious young middle-class woman named Ylajali, to whom he is attracted, appears to have little artistic significance to him; his interest in her seems to originate in a concern for social position. The narrator’s pursuit of Ylajali can be read as an alternative means to the kind of success that, so far, he has not been able to achieve through his art. That makes the narrator-protagonist of Hunger appear to be a practical man, who, perhaps like his creator Hamsun, views art as a means of social advancement at least as much as an end in itself.

Summary

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The narrator lives in Kristiania, the capital city of Norway, where he suffers greatly from hunger. When he awakens in the morning, he looks around his spartan, drafty room for something to eat but as usual finds nothing. He knows that his condition is becoming desperate. He has looked in vain for work, and he took most of his belongings to the pawnshop. His only other source of income is the occasional sale of a story or article to one of the local newspapers.

After getting out of bed, the narrator starts walking the streets of the city. He feels bad because old friends seem to shun him, thinking that he is going to ask them for money. He is embarrassed because he is unable to give even the smallest coin to a beggar. His sense of shame leads him to take his vest to a pawnshop that he did not visit before, after which he gives most of the money from the vest to the beggar.

While thinking about his writing...

(The entire section contains 1467 words.)

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