Knut Hamsun Hunger Introduction

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(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,...

(The entire section is 1,157 words.)