Knut Hamsun Hunger Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.