Knut Hamsun Hunger Essay - Critical Essays

Hunger, Knut Hamsun


Hunger Knut Hamsun

Sult (1890; Hunger) is Hamsun's breakthrough novel about a young writer struggling to maintain his dignity while trying to survive in a desolate and lonely world.

Published in 1890, Hunger was a literary breakthrough for Hamsun, establishing him as one of the most important writers of his time. Written from the perspective of a struggling writer living in the city of Christiania, near Oslo, Norway, the story is somewhat autobiographical, reflecting Hamsun's own struggle as he worked to establish his literary reputation. Today, the work is acknowledged as a work of powerful originality, infused with Hamsun's unique writing style, and a premier example of the psychological novel. Following the publication of Hunger, Hamsun went on to write several other novels, including Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Growth of the Soil (1917). The last earned Hamsun a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, thus paving the way for his work to be translated into other languages, and becoming accessible to larger audiences.

Hamsun was born in 1859 in Lom, Gudbrandsdal. His parents, Peder and Tora Pederson, were forced to move the family to the town of Hamaroey for financial reasons. There, a wealthy uncle had acquired a farm called Hamsund, which they were to farm. Hamsun was separated from his family at the age of nine to go and work for his uncle, who also owned and ran the town post office. The young Hamsun was ill-treated by his uncle, who often starved and beat him. Years later, Hamsun would continue to refer to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle, which he believed, was responsible for many of his chronic nervous illnesses. In 1874, Hamsun managed to escape from Hamaroey. He lived itinerantly for the next few years, working various petty jobs. Simultaneously, he also published several books, even presenting literary lectures for interested audiences. However, he was unable to interest a major publisher in his work. Disappointed with the failure, Hamsun moved to the United States in 1882. Once again, Hamsun was faced with a life of labor, with little literary success. He returned to Norway in 1884, publishing an article on Mark Twain under the name of Knut Pederson Hamsund. Hamsund returned to the United States in 1886, moving back to Norway permanently in 1888. It is believed that his harsh experiences in America influenced his political views deeply and were partly responsible for his reactionary politics later in life. Hamsun continued to write and lecture, publishing the first few chapters on Hunger anonymously. When the novel was published in its entirety, it finally brought with it the literary success Hamsun had been seeking for many years.

Plot and Major Characters

Hunger is a monologue related by a struggling artist and is considered one of Hamsun's most autobiographical works. Regarded as one of the first examples of psychological literature and the stream-of-consciousness technique later developed by writers such as James Joyce, the novel is largely devoid of plot and character development. Instead, the narrative focuses on the thoughts and actions of the first-person narrator, a struggling artist, who lives in Christiania, Oslo, hoping to strike success. Divided into four parts that are very similar in form, content, and style, the book follows an unnamed narrator as he attempts to find food, lodging, and work while dreaming of making it as a writer. Instead, he finds himself alone, with nowhere to live, and nothing to eat. Alone in the big city, the protagonist reaches catastrophe in each section of the book, saved at the last minute by random events, such as the sale of an article, help from an old friend, and eventually at the end of the book, a job on a ship that takes him away from the desolation of the city.

Major Themes

Many critics consider Hunger an illustration of the literary views Hamsun had expressed in his other early works. Although Hunger is very autobiographical, drawing deeply on Hamsun's years of suffering, loneliness, and struggle both as a child and later, as an artist, it is also a literary experiment. As such, it describes an artist-hero struggling to survive while trying to maintain the purity of his artistic thoughts and inspiration: “Nothing escaped my eyes. I was sharp and my brain was very much alive, everything poured in toward me with a staggering distinctness.” The novel is very different from Hamsun's other works, in that it focuses its attention solely on a single character—characterized by many critics as a Dostoievskian hero, sick in body, suffering from physical depravity that forces him to have hallucinations and paranormal ideas. The entire narrative, thus, focuses on the effects of an intense physical condition—hunger—on the psyche of one man. In addition to a study of the psychological effects of hunger, Hamsun's novel is also a work of protest. His focus on the protagonist is also interpreted as an act of resistance on the part of Hamsun, who reacted strongly to the realistic, socially-focused novels of nineteenth-century Scandinavian literature, especially the works of such writers as Henrik Ibsen. In fact, Hamsun's literary lectures shortly before the publication of Hunger focused often on his opposition to a theory and practice of literature that advocated the highlighting of social problems. Thus, the action and focus of this book is particularly significant in the way it focuses entirely on the protagonist and his thoughts, with no concern for any issues of social injustice or politics.

Critical Reception

Hunger was published to great critical success in Norway in 1890, and Hamsun was hailed as one of the most significant Norwegian writers by many. International recognition followed later, once he received the Nobel Prize in 1920. Although much attention is paid to Hamsun's controversial political and social views, he also is acknowledged as one of the most significant precursors of stream-of-consciousness literature, and writing focused on the subjective, mostly due to his work on Hunger. In many ways, this novel exemplifies the contrasts that characterized Hamsun himself, notes Edwin Björkman in his introduction to George Egerton's translation of that work. Lauding him as “the foremost creative writer of the Scandinavian countries” after Ibsen and Strindberg, Björkman writes that Hunger is a novel about an unusual theme, told in a strikingly different format, heralding the neo-romantic movement in Scandinavia. In his biography of Hamsun, Robert Ferguson notes that the writer himself considered Hunger a work representative of his own perspective on the role of the writer. According to Ferguson, the novel remains largely undated except for a few minor details because of Hamsun's complete focus on the inner workings of an individual mind—for the first time in literature, writes Ferguson, consciousness itself is a hero. According to Paul Auster's analysis of Hunger, the radically subjective viewpoint expressed in the work immediately eliminates any connection with traditional narratives. Instead, writes Auster, Hunger is a work of existential art, a story in which a human being looks into the face of death, with no hope of salvation.

Principal Works

Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv [On the Cultural Life of Modern America] (essays) 1888

Sult [Hunger] (novel) 1890

Mysterier [Mysteries] (novel) 1892

Pan, af Løitnant Thomas Glahns papirer [Pan] (novel) 1894

Victoria: En kaerligheds historie [Victoria] (novel) 1898

Rosa: Af student Parelius' papirer [Rosa] (novel) 1908

Livet ivold [In the Grip of Life] (novel) 1910

Markens Grøde [Growth of the Soil] (novel) 1917

Konerne ved Vandposten [The Women at the Pump] (novel) 1920

Siste kapitel [Chapter the Last] (novel) 1923

Landstrykere [Vagabonds] (novel) 1927

August (novel) 1930

Men livet lever [The Road Leads On] (novel) 1933

Ringen sluttet [The Ring is Closed] (novel) 1936

Paa gjengrodde stier [On Overgrown Paths] (memoirs) 1949


Hunter T. Stagg (review date 15 February 1921)

SOURCE: Stagg, Hunter T. Review of Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. Reviewer 1, no. 1 (15 February, 1921): 23-4.

[In the following review of Hunger, Stagg lauds Hamsun's powerful and vivid writing style.]

It seems inevitable that the conspicuous success in this country of a foreign writer hitherto unknown to us should be followed by an influx of other translations from distant and little exploited pastures of literary endeavor. Upon the heels of Blasco Ibanez's financially triumphant introduction to the American public came other Spanish authors, whose bids for favor proved less ingratiating. Then Latin America was raked—is still being raked—for material...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Robert Coles (essay date 23 September 1967)

SOURCE: Coles, Robert. “Knut Hamsun: The Beginning and the End.” New Republic 157, no. 13 (23 September 1967): 21-4.

[In the following essay, Coles summarizes the major action and themes in Hunger, concluding with a short history of Hamsun's literary career and political struggles.]

On February 19, 1952 a man of 93 died near Grimstad, Norway. He was a writer, indeed one who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. He was also at the time of his death an officially recognized traitor, allowed by his nation to live out his last years at home only because of the “permanently impaired faculties” that advanced age was supposed to have caused. Now,...

(The entire section is 8311 words.)

Robert Ferguson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Ferguson, Robert. “1888-1890: The Breakthrough: Hunger.” In Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, pp. 99-121. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

[In the following essay, Ferguson creates an outline of events in Hamsun's life immediately preceding the publication of Hunger, including several anecdotes about Hamsun's relationships with other writers during this time.]

The question of anonymity, and Hamsun's lifelong violent ambivalence towards the concept and consequences of personal fame, brings us at once up against one of the central paradoxes of this strange man. So far, we have met a Hamsun who was a tireless promoter of himself as personality and...

(The entire section is 10227 words.)

Donald C. Riechel (essay date May 1989)

SOURCE: Riechel, Donald C. “Knut Hamsun's ‘Imp of the Perverse’: Calculation and Contradiction in Sult and Mysterier.” Scandinavica: An International Journal of Scandinavian Studies 28, no. 1 (May 1989): 29-53.

[In the following essay, Riechel studies two of Hamsun's early novels, noting that the narrative effects in both Hunger and Mysteries are achieved from a combination of ambiguity, irony, and self-contradiction.]

Nietzsche once wrote that becoming accustomed to irony and sarcasm spoils one's character: in the end one resembles a snapping dog that besides knowing how to bite has learned how to laugh1. Perhaps such...

(The entire section is 11958 words.)

Paul Auster (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Auster, Paul. “The Art of Hunger.” In The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook, pp. 9-20. New York: Penguin, 1992.

[In the following essay, Auster offers a thematic analysis of Hunger, characterizing the work as a pioneering text about artistic achievement.]

What is important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger.

—Antonin Artaud

A young man comes to a city. He has no...

(The entire section is 3722 words.)

Mark B. Sandberg (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Sandberg, Mark B. “Writing on the Wall: The Language of Advertising in Knut Hamsun's Sult.” Scandinavian Studies 71, no. 3 (fall 1999): 265-96.

[In the following essay, Sandberg proposes that although Hunger is often regarded as a subjective novel of private literary expression, it is equally valid as a text that links itself, via its language, to the public world of news, economics, and advertising.]

Here is an opening scene: the unnamed main character of Sult [Hunger] awakens in his rented room. He hears the bells outside ringing six o'clock and people beginning to walk up and down the stairs. The walls of his room, papered...

(The entire section is 10676 words.)

Mark Axelrod (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Axelrod, Mark. “The Poetics of Peripatetics and Peripety in Hamsun's Hunger.” In The Poetics of Novels: Fiction and Its Execution, pp. 140-70. London: Macmillan, 1999.

[In the following essay, Axelrod examines the use of space, travel, movement, and change in Hunger.]

Published in 1890, Hunger is probably Hamsun's best known and, arguably, his best written novel. Sizeably autobiographical, it deals with the time Hamsun existed in Kristiania (Oslo) and is extraordinary in terms of psychological depth and poetic temperament. But one cannot easily dismiss the effect starvation had on Hamsun and to that extent one cannot discount...

(The entire section is 11100 words.)

Further Reading


Blythe, Ronald. “Starving Differently.” Listener 91, no. 2344 (28 February 1974): 281.

Brief, positive review of Robert Bly's translation of Hunger.

Cahill, Edgar H. “Purity in the Sixth Printing.” Nation 113, no. 2928 (1921): 181.

Reviews the sixth printing of Hunger by Alfred A. Knopf, faulting the publisher for censoring the work.

Gustafson, Alrik. “Man and the Soil, Knut Hamsun.” In Six Scandinavian Novelists: Lie, Jacobsen, Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf, Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, pp. 226-85. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940....

(The entire section is 206 words.)